Wine of the Week: Orange Wine (Yes, Orange)

White wine, rosé wine, red wine, orange wine... Orange wine? Qu'est-ce que c'est?

No, it's not a wine concocted by Longhorn fans. (They call UT the orange tide? Call me Deacon Blue Nun).

Orange wine is a loosely codified category of winemaking and winemakers who macerate the juice obtained from white grapes with their skins. In conventional winemaking, only red grapes are macerated (i.e., steeped) with the skins. Some refer to wines made in this style as "skin contact whites."

The color of wine is determined by the pigments contained in the skins and the amount of time the winemaker macerates the juice with the skin. In the case of certain rosé wines, for example, the winemaker limits the amount of time the juice macerates with its skins, often drawing off wine from a vat destined to become red wine. By using the so-called saignée (literally, bled) method, the winemaker concentrates the color of the red wine and obtains a lightly colored rosé wine to be bottled and sold separately.

Using juice from red grapes, the winemaker can even create a white wine. The juice of red grapes is white: If the winemaker does not allow any skin contact at all, the resulting wine will be white. The best example of this is Champagne. One of the primary grapes in many expressions of Champagne is Pinot Noir, a red grape.

By macerating the juice of the white grapes with its skins, the winemaker gives the wine tannic content, unusual in wines made from white grapes. As a result, the wines tend to have richer savory character than conventional white wine and they have greater aging potential. And the tannic content also helps to prevent oxidation, thus allowing the winemaker to use a smaller amount of S02 at bottling.

And, of course, the pigment in the skins also impart an orange color to the wine.

Most agree that the unofficial orange wine movement began to take hold in Friuli (in Northeastern Italy) and neighboring Slovenia in the 1990s, although some would point to the Loire Valley in France as one of the early epicenters. Today, orange wines are made throughout Italy, Slovenia, and France, and increasingly in California. (Recently, the orange wines produced by the Scholium Project in Northern California have been the subject of inspired debate and conversation among Houston sommeliers.)

Journalist and wine blogger Thor Iverson was among the first to attempt an overarching view of the category when he wrote about a now historic "orange wine dinner" organized by top sommelier Levi Dalton a few years ago in New York City.

But New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov put it best when wine blogger Samantha Dugan asked him, "Orange wines, fad or here to stay?" Eric's answer: "A fad since 1500 B.C."

As Eric notes (and as many wine historians concur), orange winemaking was common practice in antiquity when winemakers did not enjoy the enological tools of modernity.

In Houston, you'll find orange wines by winemakers like Movia (Slovenia), Joly (France), Bea (Italy) and Scholium Project (California).

In coming months, I'll post on some of our favorite orange wines and so I thought it would be useful to write this brief backgrounder on the category for future reference.

Orange wines? Not just for wine geeks anymore!

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