Every time I roll my eyes and think, “Oh please, not another ‘orange’ wine,” someone offers me one that is really delicious. Recently, I’ve had several that have impressed me, perhaps for a reason that fans of this genre might not approve: Winemakers seem to be bringing this ancient technique into the modern age of wine.
Orange wines are identified with the country of Georgia, in the Caucasus Mountains, and are probably as old as wine itself. Georgia lays claim to being wine’s birthplace, with recent archaeological evidence dating back 8,000 years.
These wines have been popular over the past decade or so, because the reemergence of Georgia as a major wine producer following independence from Soviet rule. The natural wine movement, in particular, has embraced these wines. But they are controversial, because they can be, well, really odd to our modern palates. That gives them a love ’em or hate ’em quality.
What are orange wines, exactly? There’s no precise definition. Even the name is subject to debate. Georgian winemakers prefer to call them amber wines, which refers more precisely to their color. Apparently, some consumers thought orange wines were made from oranges rather than grapes.
Whether you call them orange or amber, they are white wines fermented and aged on the grape skins, the way most red wines are made. The white wines most of us learned to love were made by removing the juice from the skins immediately after pressing and before fermentation. That modern technique preserves bright fruit aromas and freshness. Fermenting on the skins extracts body and tannins, which gives the wines heft that can match heavier dishes we might normally pair with red wines.
Once a winemaker decides to ferment a white on its skins, there are plenty of options. The traditional Georgian method is to ferment and age the wines for several months in qvevri, large clay vessels buried underground, removing them for bottling or further aging in the springtime. Some winemakers elsewhere have adopted the qvevri, but stainless-steel vats and oak vessels can be, and are, used — as well as the favorite toy of many winemakers: the concrete egg.
With the choices of grape variety, fermentation vessel and the amount of time to leave the juice on the skins, there is good array among the styles of amber/orange wines. At Virginia’s King Family Vineyards, winemaker Matthieu Finot makes a skin-fermented Viognier as part of his Small Batch Series of experimental wines. He ferments the wine in oak puncheons (500-liter barrels, about twice the size of the typical barrels you see at most wineries), pressing the juice off the skins after just three weeks, then aging the wine in used barrels. The short time on the skins means the wine does not take on too much color, but it does impart noticeable tannin that gives the wine unusual structure for a Viognier. Served just cooler than room temperature, it is delicious, and the 2016 vintage won a gold medal in this year’s Governor’s Cup competition (where I was a judge).
Other skin-fermented wines I’ve enjoyed recently include a 2016 grenache blanc from California’s Donkey and Goat winery (pressed off the skins after one week) and a sauvignon blanc by Villa Melnik in Bulgaria (pressed after two weeks). I’ve also been impressed with a chardonnay from the Finger Lakes that was a blend, with one-third of the wine fermented on the skins.
And of course, there’s Georgia. Two amber wines I’ve found impressive are the Baia’s Wine 2016, made from an indigenous grape variety called tsolikouri. Kept on the skins for three months, this has more heft than most of the others and is delicious, with flavors of orchard fruits such as quince and pear. And Orgo winery’s Dila-O white, a blend of rkatsiteli and mtsvane grapes fermented and aged on the skins for one month, tastes like a delightful melon salad.
If by now you’re noticing that I prefer these wines with less skin contact, well, you’re right. They make a delicious bridge between modern-style wines and the ancient traditions, ideal introductions to this style. For some, of course, the wines reach deeper into a national and cultural tradition.
“Georgia is a place with an uninterrupted tradition of making and storing wines in these clay vessels for 8,000 years, using hundreds of unique native grape varietals,” says Mamuka Tsereteli, a native of Georgia’s Imereti region. Now based in Washington, Tsereteli lectures on Caucasian politics at American University and Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. He also imports Georgian wines through his company, Georgian Wine House, and is president of the America-Georgia Business Council.
Tsereteli says amber wines help digestion, giving them a prominent role in Georgia’s reputation for hospitality. “With the tradition of long dinners led by a tamada, or toastmaster, white skin-contact wines are best suited for large consumption,” he says.