This month Katie Gardner of Birmingham Wine School looks at the growing popularity of orange wines – which despite the name have nothing to do with oranges
In recent years, the wine world has witnessed a remarkable shift in preferences, with a surge in popularity of orange wines and a broader embrace of the natural wine movement. This shift represents a departure from conventional, often heavily processed, wines to a more ancient and holistic approach to winemaking that emphasises minimal intervention, a return to traditional techniques, and a celebration of authenticity.
Orange wines, also known as skin-contact wines or amber wines, are not wines made from oranges but are essentially white wines made like red wines. What sets them apart is the extended contact between the grape skins and the juice during fermentation. The duration of skin contact varies but can range from a few days to several months, depending on the winemaker’s preferences. This process not only adds colour but also imparts flavours and aromas that are absent in conventionally made white wines. Expect notes of dried fruits, tea leaves, and exotic spices, along with a pleasantly grippy texture from the tannins found in the skins.
The practice of making orange wines harks back to ancient winemaking traditions. In fact, before the advent of modern winemaking techniques, this was the standard approach. Before the arrival of temperature-controlled stainless-steel vats, fermenting white grapes with their skins was common practice in regions like Georgia and Armenia, where the wine was buried in clay vessels called ‘qvevri’ for extended periods. This process allowed the wine to develop a tannic structure and an amber hue.
Orange wines form part of a larger movement towards natural winemaking, which essentially means intervening with the winemaking process as little as possible. One of the defining characteristics of natural wines, including some orange wines, is their minimal use of sulphites. Sulphur dioxide (SO2) is a common additive in winemaking, used as a preservative to prevent oxidation and microbial spoilage.
However, many natural winemakers choose to minimise or eliminate its use. This decision aligns with the desire to create wines that are more authentic and less manipulated. While low sulphite levels can make natural wines more approachable for those sensitive to sulphur, they also mean that these wines should be consumed relatively quickly.
Another distinctive feature of natural wines is their lack of filtration. Conventionally produced wines are often subjected to heavy filtration to achieve clarity and stability. Natural wines, however, embrace a certain cloudiness or haze, which is a result of not filtering out the tiny particles and sediment. This minimal intervention approach preserves more of the wine’s character and can even enhance the overall drinking experience, but it is certainly an acquired taste!
Natural wines are often closely linked to biodynamics. This is a holistic approach to wine which follows the teachings of an agriculturalist called Rudolph Steiner. Biodynamic winemakers believe in pruning and harvesting their grapes by the phases of the moon and burying cow horns filled with manure to use as fertiliser!
So how about some food pairings? Orange wine is certainly an unusual tasting experience, but the flavours and textures can work brilliantly when paired with food. Try with autumnal root vegetables like roasted butternut squash, pumpkin or parsnips to complement the earthy flavours of an orange wine. It can also work well with Mediterranean and Middle Eastern-inspired dishes such as moussaka, tagine, houmous and falafel. For cheeses, try with a creamy Brie as a contrast or a strong blue, as orange wines tend to have good acidity to balance out the saltiness.
KATIE’S 4 ORANGE/NATURAL WINES TO TRY
Forza della Natura Orange Wine, Sicily, Italy – Waitrose, £9.99
A great entry into both orange wine and natural wine with this skin contact, unfiltered wine from Sicily. It’s made from organic Cataratto grapes which are native to the region and has flavours of melon, peach and nectarine.
Tbilvino Qvevris Rkatsitelli, Georgia – Majestic, £13.99 or £11.99 on mix six
Want a taste of history? This wine takes us back to the ancient way of fermenting in clay pots. The grape variety Rkatsiteli is one of the oldest in the world. It’s an amber style wine with notes of apricot and pear.
Heinrich Naked Red, Burgenland, Austria – The Sourcing Table, £17
The best types of natural red wines in my opinion are fruity and easy drinking. This biodynamic wine is a blend of three local grapes, Zweigelt, Blaufränkisch and St Laurent and is bright, light and juicy!
Macerao Naranjo Orange Wine, Chile – Waitrose, £8.99
Want to dip your toe in first? This is a “not-too-funky” skin-contact wine made from Moscato grapes. It has a lovely bit of texture and a hint of honey without being too complicated or heavy.