What mostly gives wine its color is the skin of the grape. We say “mostly” because there are some exceptions of grapes with pulp that has a dark hue, but usually the juice of almost all grapes is relatively clear with various shades of yellow and green. Hence, a red wine is red because when the wine is vinified, the reddish skins are purposely included in the process of fermenting and sometimes left to soak even further to both impart a deeper color to the juice as well as unique flavors, tannins being one of the more prominent examples. For white wine, being naturally lighter due to their light skins, many winemakers made it a practice to take full advantage of this lightness and press the grapes to squeeze out only the juice to be fermented and aged. Fun fact: most red grapes, if pressed for just the juice produce the same color juice as white grapes, and, in fact, Amaro Spirits & Wine has some “white” wines in the store made from red grapes. And, ok, since we’re here, we might as well point out that rosé wine is simply wine made with red grapes that are allowed just a little bit of skin contact for a lighter bodied, pink wine.
But we digress—back to the white wine that turns orange. Although many white wines are made by pressing and fermenting only the juice, winemakers just as often purposely leave the skins of the white grapes in contact with the juice for hours or a few days to give the wine more body, and to pick up desired flavors that come from the skin; in other words, the winemaker is doing the same thing that can be done for a red wine to make a rosé albeit for the opposite purpose of seeking more body, not less. Now this is where the definition of an “orange wine” gets unscientific because there is no clear designation of how long a white wine must be in contact with the skins to be determined an orange wine and not just a skin-contact white. To be on the safer side of the definition, think of an orange wine as a white wine that has been vinified like a red wine, i.e., with ample skin contact to extract as much pigment and flavors from the skins as possible, which usually also translates to higher alcohol by volume (ABV) as the skins contain more starch/sugar to be converted to alcohol.
Although orange wines have become wildly trendy in recent years, making white wine in this manner is as old as winemaking itself. And, in fact, two of the wines that we are including in the July Wine Club, the amber blend of Georgia, and the “ramato” style of Italy, reflect “orange wines” that predate Williamsburg hipsters by at least a few millennia. On this latter note, people who have become well versed with the orange wine trend may expect to taste wines that have “funky”, “barnyardy” or “natty” (cute abbreviation for the word ‘natural’) flavors. However, this is NOT a staple of orange wine. The natty flavor profile is a product of “natural wine,” which is broadly defined as wine that is made with as little intervention as possible, e.g., fermenting with wild yeast, using no additives to control chemical imbalances, little to no fining or filtering, and often including the skins in the maceration and fermentation process. The natural wine movement is yet undefined in a technical sense, so there are different degrees and combinations of minimal intervention, and because of the skin-contact factor, lots of natural white wines also fit the technical description of orange wine. Essentially, the less intervention in winemaking, the more variability in the final product in the form of Brett (Brettanomyces) yeast, for example, which imparts a strange odor and taste that most winemakers try to avoid, but which have become in vogue for adventurous winemakers and wine drinkers of minimal intervention natural wine.
The wines we have chosen for the July Wine Club are all natural wines, but none to the degree of producing “nattiness” on the nose or palate. But for those who like nattiness, do not despair – we have them in the shop. For this selection, we concentrate more on the making-white-wine-like-red-wine aspect of orange wine.