What’s in a name?
First, some nomenclature: The term “Orange wines” is a crude descriptor, however it’s concise and evocative, which is why people like it. “White wines made with skin contact”, or “skin contact wines” is more complete and accurate. Josko Gravner prefers to talk about “amber wines”, as more representative of the liveliness of the wine than “a dead fruit”. Amber can certainly be a more accurate description of their colour.
Orange wines have inspired a love hate relationship with wine professionals. Following a seemingly seismic rise in popularity (at least with sommeliers and wine enthusiasts, if not the general public) over the last 5 years, reaction and anti-reaction has been robust.
The argument goes that as a style, it’s a micro-niche that only interests wine geeks, has no commercial potential and no future in retail terms. Some go further, arguing orange wines are generally disgusting (tannins in a white wine, eugh!) and merely an “emperor’s new clothes” hipster phenomenon.
Many of the Adriatic’s finest winemakers might find that assertion a little surprising.
Using days or even weeks of skin contact to make white wines both more stable, and more intense, is a tradition that goes back hundreds of years in Friuli, Brda (Slovenia), and Istria (Croatia), to mention just a few important regions. In Northern Italy in general, the orange/rosé-like Pinot Grigio Ramato style was commonplace, before Grigio entered its current regrettable phase as a ubiquitous, neutral liquid. In Georgia, the tradition of extended skin contact goes even further back – about 8,000 years, to be imprecise.
The style virtually died out in the 1950s, when the wine world discovered technology. Stainless steel fermentation vessels, filtering, fining and reliable cultured yeasts meant that for the first time young, fresh white wines could be reliably produced by even the most mediocre winemakers.
By the 1990s, the world was flooded with clean, fresh yet utterly dull white wines. Innovators like Josko Gravner rediscovered and reinvented the long skin-contact technique as part of a “back to basics” drive in wine.
Gravner’s influence was pivotal, first via a tight-knit group including Valter Mlečnik, Edi Kante, Stanko Radikon, Giorgio and Nicolò Bensa (La Castellada). Later, that group dispersed and spread the ideas of making wine in a more natural way – and using extended skin contact as a viable way to make fine wine.
Every member of this group has gone on to make thrilling wines.
It’s hard to avoid bundling the discussion around “natural” with this subject. Orange wines don’t have to be “natural”, but in most cases producers who make wines in this traditional style tend also to be fans of low or minimal intervention.
Why is this style significant?
No-one’s pretending that orange wine sales figures are going to take the world by storm – these wines will always be small production, and by their very nature expensive.
But there are many other more or less obscure corners of the wine world that are celebrated as examples of age-old traditions. Take sherry or Madeira for example. Deliberately oxidising wine? No commercial potential? Just a fad? I’ll let you decide.
What about The Jura’s Vin Jaune? No-one talks about that as if it were this year’s fashion. Yes, it’s niche, but as a tradition it will probably never die out.
Orange, or skin contact wines are no different – a venerable style that evolved for good reasons (aiding longevity and stability in white wines), and has been modernised and utilised to create wines that are delicious, fascinating and refreshingly different.
To be honest, I’d rather drink a favourite orange wine, such as Sandi Skerk’s Ograde or Giorgio Clai’s Sveti Jacov, than even the best Vin Jaune. “Chacun à son goût” I guess.
Why would people want to drink it or buy it?
Orange wines, with their frequently full-bodied rich palates, are perfect and versatile food wines. New York sommelier Levi Dalton refers to them as a “get out of jail free card” when trying to match wines to a table full of guests who’ve all chosen different dishes.
These are the ideal wines for people who say “I don’t like white wine” – which usually means they want something with more body, or structure, or just plain balls.
Younger wine consumers want something different, thrills, adventure. Nothing ticks that box better. It might be a marmite wine (love/hate) – but so are many of the finer things in life. Oysters and steak tartare spring to mind.
Where to start
All the producers mentioned in this article are masters of their craft. If orange wines are new for you, start with something user friendly (ie: less skin contact) from La Castellada or Claus Preisinger. Then move on to any of the wines in this list. Finally, if you can afford it, try Gravner’s Breg or Ribolla Gialla. For me, an absolute pinnacle of this or any other wine category.