Cover Skin contact wine at La Cabane (Photo: La Cabane)

This amber nectar, known as skin-contact or orange wine, offers depth, flavour, texture, versatility and is a perfect pairing with food

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.

“I find orange wine very interesting both in texture and flavours,” says Chua. “It can sometimes be perceived as quite a challenging drink if you are new to it. That said, there is a wide spectrum of orange wines, from approachable to aggressive. But once you have a few, you will fall in love with how interesting each label can be and start to appreciate the unique mouthfeel and nose.”

The profiles of orange wines are subject to how long the grapes are left to ferment with their skins. This can range from a few days to a few weeks, or even several months, and not only affects their appearance but also the complexity of the flavours and aromas as well as the body and texture of the wine.

“An entry level skin contact wine would be a wine with maybe a week or ten days of skin contact, or a wine made with floral grapes, like an Italian varietal, which makes them approachable, fun and delicious,” says Huneeus. “With time and experience, you want a new dimension, with crazier wines such as Brutal—extreme skin contact with no addition of any additives.”

These Brutal wines are part of a little-known movement where winemakers commit to a ‘zero/zero’ or ‘nothing added, nothing removed’ approach. The production must be limited, with wine made in just one barrel, and in the case of orange wines, skin maceration is taken to the extremes. Those adhering to these strictures can use a distinctive label produced by the Brutal Wine Corporation, which renders ‘Brutal!!!’ in yellow on a black background with splatters of red. La Cabane carries Le Brutal de Jean-Marc, an orange wine produced in Alsace, France where gewurztraminer, pinot gris and riesling, spend 18 days macerating on their skins to produce an “exotic” wine with “grippy texture”.

Generally speaking, orange wines are striking, whether taken to the extremes or not, and as such, they often work well with a wide variety of dishes and cuisines.

“I love the versatility of orange wines,” says Alvin Gho, co-founder of gastro wine bar RVLT in Singapore. “There is a wide ranging spectrum to the styles of orange wine, from light, bright and fresh to big, bold and austere. They are usually great food wines.”

“For me, orange wine is all about texture and aromatics. A single wine has the best qualities of white and red wines: the aromatics from the white, and the texture/tannins from the red,” says Ian Lim, fellow co-founder of RVLT. “Orange wines do very well with oily food. So, if you are in the mood for food with natural marbling and fat like wagyu beef or Kurobuta pork, don’t be shy to enjoy an orange wine with it.”

“I especially love it with fried foods, as it cuts through the richness and yet is strong enough to stand up to the robust flavours. My perfect pairing is Si Rose [a French orange wine made from gewurztraminer and pinot gris] with Drunker Farmer’s sourdough chicken karaage and kimchi dip,” says Chua. “I find that it also tends to work well with Asian cuisine.”

Orange wine can be made anywhere and many retailers and wine bars stock examples from across the world. However, RVLT’s Gho recommends Kakheti, Georgia, from where his favourite Pheasant’s Tears hails, as the place to look to, particularly as it is the original home of the style. “The Georgians have been producing white wines this way for thousands of years,” he says.

Huneeus rates some of the amber wines coming out of Australia. “It has a very versatile and fun orange wine landscape,” he says. “Having hundreds of grapes available in one country, many small wineries are experiencing and playing with maceration wines.” Some of La Cabane’s examples of these include The Other Right’s Counting Stars, which is described as both “textural” and “refreshing”,  Momento Mori’s Fistful of Flowers, reportedly “a party in your mouth”, and Lucy Margaux’s Vino Arancione, with its “clean fresh salty ocean air mixed with tropical fruits”.

But from wherever you choose to source your orange wine, from South Africa to Slovenia, Chile to the Czech Republic, and whatever the length of maceration you can handle, why not thinking about putting the reds, whites and rosés to one side and gambling on amber next time you sit down to dinner?

See also: Wine Crush: What Is Pét-Nat And Why Should You Be Drinking It?

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