I still recall the first time I saw an orange wine—or at least paid attention to one. It was 2016 and I had caught a glimpse of it across a crowded restaurant. The brown-hued wine was flowing at a restaurant in Norway—a place where the cheese is also brown, but that’s another story—and I watched as the sommelier excitedly described it to a table of diners. Later, I caught the somm’s attention and asked about the unusual-looking wine. He offered me a taste, and explained it somewhat like this:
Orange wine, also known as skin contact wine, is essentially white wine that is made like a red wine. White grapes are allowed to ferment on their skins as red grapes would, which means the wines often have the fruit of a white wine, with the body, texture and tannins—as well as some of the colour—of a red.
Back in 2016, orange wine was already on the rise as part of the growing penchant for natural and low-intervention wines. And this wasn’t just in Europe.
La Cabane, a wine bar and bistro, cellar and wine delivery platform in Hong Kong, for example, has focused on natural wines since it was established in 2010, though recent years have seen the greatest increase in interest.
“We have seen a real change in knowledge, interest and passion in the last few years. Consumers, in general, have come to realise that they want to drink wines that are made along the same lines of what they want to eat: well sourced, small production and low yield, as well as organically farmed wines,” says La Cabane co-founder Cristobal Huneeus.
The same is true in Singapore, where Cynthia Chua, founder and chairman, Spa Esprit Group, established Drunken Farmer, a wine bar and online retailer offering natural wines, at the start of 2019, in part due to the uptrend in these wines, but also because of her own interest in the area. “I can taste the life, energy and the terroir. I love the fact that natural wines are made with minimal human and chemical intervention, allowed to naturally and slowly ferment. The interesting techniques in crafting them, the artisans behind each label and their respect for the ground and nature are what I adore.”
Among the vast array of natural wines, orange wine has become a popular choice, though it’s certainly nothing new. In fact, skin contact wines date back as far as 8,000 years and are considered one of the oldest types of wine in the world. Their origins can be traced to Caucasus (modern-day Georgia), where such wines, today often referred to in Georgia as amber wines, were made in qvevri, large egg-shaped earthenware vessels, examples of which have been discovered in archaeological digs. Buried underground, the qvevri were filled with mashed white grapes and left to ferment—often for months—along with their skins, seeds and stems in a tradition that some winemakers continue to uphold today.
The wines that result from skin-contact fermentation are bold, with distinctive texture and flavours. They are often slightly sour in taste, with a nutty, fruity nose, and some tannins, though the profiles of these wines depend on the grapes used and the duration of maceration.