Words We're Watching: 'Orange Wine'
For an ancient and well-established beverage like wine, new categories don’t come along very often. But there is something new on the menu and on the shelves in the world of wine: orange wine.
It has nothing to do with citrus.
Orange wine is the term for white wine made without first removing the skins of the grapes while fermenting. Some people prefer “skin-contact wine” as a way of identifying these wines—it’s a good description that explains why this type of wine has a distinctive cloudy yellow-orange color in the glass.
During the winemaking process, known as vinification, the grapes are crushed so that the juice comes into contact with the skins, seeds, and sometimes stems. If the juice is then soaked together with the skins in what is known as maceration, the liquid becomes tinged with the color of the skins.
Orange wine is not a technical term; it’s just a catchy descriptive name that is sometimes used to identify a category now seen on labels and wine lists. This method is associated with organic wine, the natural wine movement, and an ancient tradition of the kind of winemaking still practiced in the Republic of Georgia, where the wine is aged in terracotta casks called qvevri that are buried up to their openings in the ground.
Most white wine is made without the skin and seeds of the grapes, which accounts for the relatively clear, light color of white wines. Skin contact with the juice is in fact the way that red wine is made. The dark red color and some characteristics of red wines, like tannins that contribute astringency to the taste and a drying sensation in the mouth (tannins are also present in black tea), come from the contact of the fermenting liquid with the dark skins.
As a side note, the most famous of sparkling wines, champagne, is classically a blend of the white grape chardonnay and the red grape pinot noir, but, because the skins are removed before fermentation, champagne has a color resembling most white wines.
Another popular category of wine is made with a short period of skin contact as fermentation begins: rosé. The French word for “pink” is rose, so rosé might be literally translated as “pinked wine.” Nevertheless, it’s interesting that “pink wine” hasn’t caught on as a category name in the way that we see with “orange wine.”
Red wine and white wine are also terms that encompass many styles and types of wine. Perhaps orange wine will join them as standard oenological nomenclature, but, even if it’s a new label on an ancient practice, only time will tell.