What Your Madre Never Told You About Orange Wines

#ItalianFWT group uncovers skin-fermented, or orange, wines from Italy.

When I was a kid, what they’d call a tween now-a-days, I overheard some older kids talking about the finer points of teenage dating. It was in the cafeteria, from the end of a long line of students waiting on lunch. Most of what was being said was likely rubbish, but I still had a few questions after that…

I’m sure I talked to my friends about it, and they probably talked to other friends about it. In the end, all that could be called real and true was that we still had no idea how to be teenagers in love. And that’s as it should have been.

I get that same sort of confused, who-do-I-ask impression for certain wine world occurrences. This orange wine thing, friends, is a bit like teenage dating. The ones who are doing it know what it feels like, but maybe not how to explain it. Those of us that are left in the cafeteria line (hurry up, Jill, your steam-burger is getting cold!) might act as if we don’t give a hoot, but we might like to know a thing or two before embarrassment and mistakes set in.

I’ll take one for the team, admit ignorance on the subject, gather facts and report back at the sleepover this weekend.

Wait, you weren’t invited to the sleepover?

And you’re wondering what-in-God’s-name is a steam-burger?

And worse that than that, I lost you at orange wine?

Well play along here, get with it…I’m about to tell you a few things your madre never told you about orange wines. Orange wines from Italy to be exact. Yes, the Italians are would be a good place to start…they seem to have a knack for these things.

Wine, silly. A knack for wine, not the other thing.

What Are Orange Wines?
orange wine

Wine Folly gets credit for the graphic.

Orange wines do have a orange color. Fair enough, the name makes sense. But why? The color comes when white wine juice keeps contact with grape skins.

Let’s step back. For those new to wine it might be surprising to learn that white wine can come from red grapes. For example, a purple-looking grape can still end up making a white-looking wine, happens all the time. The reason the wine is white is because the juice utilized to make the wine hasn’t had contact with the skin. Open up a grape and see that the flesh, the inside, really isn’t purple or red, but a clear-ish color known in the wine world as “white”.

Red wines come from purple or red grapes and they get to spend some time with the skin, sometimes substantial amounts of time. The light colored flesh is impacted by the characteristics of the skins.

Most rosé wines are born when juice has some contact with the red wine skins, a limited amount of time which the winemaker controls.

It’s all about skin contact

I will add here that there are distinct variations to just about everything I’ve said above (particularly in the area of rosé, which I discuss more in other places on L’occasion, but don’t want to confuse this already colorful subject with rosé techniques) but this conceptually captures the essence of how a wine gains coloration. From this, we can easily learn what makes a wine orange:

White wines = red or white grapes with no skin contact

Red wines = red grapes with skin contact

Rosé wines = red grapes with limited skin contact

Orange wines = white grapes with skin contact

It’s the skin contact! So that’s what the girl in the cafeteria was talking about…skin contact!

Yes, Virginia, it is about the skin contact. The skin contact imparts color, aromatics, tannins and other critical components into the wine. This not only makes it orange, it also delivers what are traditionally red wine flavor characteristics into the wine. Savory flavors, bodily structure and tannin bite are often taste experiences with orange wines, though the minerality of the white wine experience may be preserved as well in an orange wine.

Is everybody doing it?

No. But is everybody doing anything? And if everybody jumped off a cliff would you? Here’s the thing, in my opinion: It’s another option… and it’s actually nothing new. The reason, if there is a single reason, why orange wine is more abundant in recent years is because winemakers (in particular a person named Gravner from Friuli, Italy) wanted to revive some of the old ways of the craft. Imagine the refined clarity of today’s white wines. Then imagine the ancients, making wine in clay pots. You bet some orange color got into the old wines, just by the simple lack of tools and foresight to perfectly separate the juice from the skin.


Anyway, everything old becomes new again and when your sommelier takes a long look back at the way wine is made and contemplates that there weren’t optical sorting tables back in the day, she or he might wonder how the old folks did it. Winemakers think these things too. In fact, winemakers in certain places still play a bit with the skin contact for white wine grapes, not taking things to the chromatic scope of orange, but adding richness and shade to their white wines.

What About the Italians?

Friuli-Venezia Giulia is a prime regional source for orange wines. Not only were the ancient methods once predominate, they are being revived here and have been since the early 1990s (see Gravner, above). This area shares borders with Austria, Slovenia and the Adriatic so cultures blend in this space that features Dolomite Mountains as well as coastal sweeps.

A note about Gravner. Though I haven’t been able to taste his wines, I wanted to become familiar with the way they do things at his estate. Upon visiting his website, the first thing one sees is a display of the phases of the moon. Users have a choice to learn about, in this order, the following subjects: the moon, the man, the houses, the land, the water, the harvests, the cellars and…lastly…the wine. In that order.


All photos credit of Gravner

Example Italian Orange Wine Producers (according to Wine Folly):
  • Bressan “Carat” (Friuli-Venezia Giulia)
  • Antonio Caggiano “Béchar” (Campania)
  • Donati Camillo “Malvasia dell’Emilia” (Emilia Romagna)
  • Frank Cornelissen “Munjebel” (Sicily)
  • Cos (Sicily)
  • Gravner (Friuli-Venezia Giulia)
  • Edi Kante (Friuli-Venezia Giulia)
  • Angiolino Maule “Sassaia” (Gambellara, Veneto)
  • Radikon (Friuli-Venezia Giulia)
  • Rinaldini (Emilia Romagna)
  • Franco Terpin (Friuli-Venezia Giulia)
  • I Vigneri by Salvo Foti (Sicily)
How to Serve Orange Wines

As for temperature, the folks at Decanter suggest “For a heavier, more tannic orange wine, such as one made by Radikon or Gravner, serve it close to room temperature to bring out all the flavour and complexity. Taste it at 12°C-14°C, and then warm it up a bit more if it doesn’t seem expressive. Lighter orange wines made with only a few days skin contact can be drunk cooler – 10°C-12°C perhaps”

As for pairings, it seems the nature of the orange wine would make it difficult to pair…as if root-canal precision would be necessary on the menu. But actually, this is a wine that pairs well with rich flavors. Why not get creative with duck or smoked trout? I’m thinking a dish that employs contrasting and various flavors would be the perfect partner to the complexity of orange wines.

#Italian FWT: It matters who you ask

Don’t worry about a thing. You’ve been invited to the sleepover. Steam-burgers are nothing more than steamed ground beef on a bun and now you know what orange wine is. You shouldn’t have any more questions til prom night.

Our Italian Food, Wine and Travel group has recently completed a geographic tour of Italy, focused on various regions and the culture of food and wine found in each. Now we are on another round, this time expanding into new creative challenges. Here’s what we’ve discovered about orange wines. We’d love to have you as our guest!

Join us this Saturday, July 2 at 10am CDT on Twitter at #ItalianFWT to chat about skin-fermented white wines from Italy. Here is a preview of what’s to come from our Italian blogging group:

15 thoughts on “What Your Madre Never Told You About Orange Wines

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