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Orange wines: white wines with a red soul

31/03/2020 Winemaking

These wines are certainly not orange, but that is the first thing that comes to mind when you see the phrase ‘orange wine’, which is why the name leads to so much confusion.

At Decántalo, we are launching our selection of orange wines, on our website. As well as selecting for you the most representative wines in this range, we want to tell you a bit about them so that, if you were not familiar with them, you would be keen to try them. Let’s start!

orange wine

What are orange wines?

Before explaining what they are, let’s start at the beginning: How is wine made?

To make white wines, the grapes are harvested and taken to the winery to be destemmed, leaving the berries clean and separated from the stalks. They are then pressed and the resulting must is fermented to create a young white wine.

With red wines, the grapes are destemmed in the winery, just as they are for whites. The clean berries then go through a crushing machine that does what people used to do with their feet: the traditional treading, with the aim of breaking the skin of the grapes and extracting much of the must but in a fairly gentle way. Then alcoholic fermentation begins.

Must for red wines, ALWAYS ferments in contact with the grape skins, because it is the skin that gives reds their characteristic colour. The particular colour will depend which varieties are used, because some skins give more colour than others. The colour is also affected by the maceration time where the must stays in contact with the skins. This is where the difference between red and white wines lies as well as some of the “mystery” in the production of orange wines.

We could say that orange wines are white wines made as if they were a red, by which we mean that their main characteristic is that the must always macerates in contact with the grape skins. 

As we have said, the grape skins, among other things, provide colour, which is why they are called “orange wines”, because the longer the skins are in contact with the must, which would have a very pale green or yellow colour characteristic of young white wines, the more the colour gains an amber or orange tint.

Orange wines: innovation or back to the beginning?

Although orange wines have risen in popularity perhaps thanks to the revolution brought about by the natural wines movement across the world, their production is an ancient practice dating back about 6,000 years, and was very common in the Caucasus. It was associated with the use of amphoras, a type of container that is back in fashion in the winemaking world today.

In Georgia, which is where what we now know as orange wines came from, they have been using clay jars called Kvevri or Qvevri ever since. They are usually buried under the surface, because that keeps the emerging wines at a constant humidity and temperature, a system that many of today’s winemakers are rediscovering.

However, an orange wine can be made in any other kind of container, as long as the must is kept in contact with the skins for the duration set by the producer, which can be days or even months.

This leads us to take a look at the potential relationship between orange wines and natural wines. When this wine was originally made 6,000 years ago, preserving food was a huge challenge, and this method of keeping the must with the grape skins during winemaking provided a natural quantity of sulphites that allowed better preservation when there were no chemical additives to do this.

If there is one thing natural winemakers can boast about, it is their respect for the environment, minimal intervention and no added sulphites or any other chemicals, either in the vineyard or in the winery. So with orange wines, they have found an opportunity to make wines without any dressing up, with a very characteristic personality and with a naturally increased longevity and conservation through the benefits of skin contact maceration.

What does orange wine taste like?

Some say that they are “whites with a red soul”. Due to the must and grape skin contact during winemaking, red wines, as well as colour, acquire texture through the tannins and other natural compounds provided by the skins. This contact also adds organoleptic qualities that give personality both in aroma and flavour.

Orange wines do have tannins, but they are more subtle than in red wines. They are perhaps more rustic than a conventionally produced white, so to speak, but they do have good body and complex flavours and aromas with mineral and lightly salty notes as well as hints of nuts, dried fruit and spices.

Its intensity and complexity will vary depending on the grapes used and the amount of time the must macerates in contact with the skins.

These wines won’t be for everyone, but they do have a significant gastronomic potential that has already been spotted by many restaurants and bars around the world.

How do you identify an orange wine?

You will not see the words “orange wine” anywhere on today’s wine labels. The clue is in the maker’s file, where you should look for the phrase “skin contact maceration” or “maceration in contact with skins”.

We want to make it easier for you and that is why we have created this category on our website so that you can find an orange wine without too much effort. Why not try them?

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