Simply put, it's wine made with white grapes that are in contact with their skins. Grape skins are what give wine it's color. But let's back up and explain this for a minute...
Wtf is skin-contact?
It's pretty self-explanatory isn't it? But what you may not know is that white wines are made WITHOUT skin-contact. Rose wines are made with a little skin-contact. And reds are made with a lot of skin-contact. Orange wine? It can be made with all sorts of levels of skin-contact. The longer the skin-contact, the darker the color of the wine.
You ever notice how some rose's are so dark they look like a red wine, and some red wines are so light they could borderline be rose? This is a result of maceration (fancy word for skin-contact).
What is maceration?
When you steep a tea bag in hot water you are macerating it. What happens when you steep it too long? It gets darker, bolder and more robust. What happens when you do not steep it long enough? It's lighter, weaker, and more elegant rather than powerful. Think of the skins as the tea bag and the grape juice/wine as the water. As you macerate the skins, the wine becomes bigger, bolder, more tannic, and fuller-bodied over time.
More skin-contact = darker wine.
Think about a rose of Pinot Noir compared to a typical red Pinot Noir. Both are single varietal wines made from the same red grape. The main difference is... HOW LONG THE SKINS HAVE BEEN IN CONTACT WITH THE WINE. Again, the longer the skins have been in contact, the darker the wine will be. The maceration can range from hours to months.
So what's this got to do with Orange Wine?
Well it's the same concept but instead of red grapes, we're using white grapes. Obviously, they're not all the exact same shade of "white" which is why "orange wine" isn't the only term used; you'll also see it referred to as "amber wine," "macerated wine," and "skin-contact white wine."
What does this maceration/skin-contact do to the wine?
- Adds tannin. (This is why the fuller-bodied orange wines benefit from decanting. The oxygen mellows out the harsh grippy tannins.)
- Adds complexity to the aromas. Often giving off pronounced aromas of tropical and stone fruits that tend to jump out of the glass
- Adds intensity to the flavors
- Adds more "weight" to the mouth feel
How should I serve orange wine?
- The lighter rose-like orange wines can be served cold, just like a rose.
- The darker the color the less cold the wine needs to be. So you don't want the darker stuff too cold. About the same temperature as a chilled red. ~20-30 minutes in the fridge.
- Often times decanted. The longer the maceration period, the more the wine will benefit from decanting. So typically the darker the wine's color, the more likely it will benefit from decanting.
- Paired with bold and exotic foods. Bold wine needs bold food. The expressive flavors and aromas of orange wine go great with fragrant cuisines like Indian, Ethiopian, Moroccan, Korean, etc.
Orange Wine History:
Orange Wine dates back thousands of years to the modern day country of Georgia, Slovenia, and obscure pockets of North Eastern Italy (near Slovenia). These wine regions, particularly Georgia, are known for fermenting and aging "orange wine" underground in "Qvevri," which is a clay vessel (aka amphora) that they used to line with beeswax. Talk about natural! Notice how these low-intervention techniques date back so far? 6000 BC to be precise. Minimal-intervention wine was the only option back before we had any types of machinery or technology to intervene with the purity of the product. Why temperature control your fermentation with refrigeration when you can just bury that bad larry underground to keep it cool, wait a while, and voile! Grape juice spontaneously fermented and turned into wine.