Orange wines, a new class of wine?

Azienda Agricola Zidarich

When we talk about alcohol beverages, we divide them into beer, wine and spirits. Then we split wines into still, sparkling, sweet and fortified. Then we can classify wines by their color (white and red) and we can classify them in terms of elaboration and vinification method (rosé).

Attending to color in still wines we have red wines, which are those coming from the must of red grapes. Normally this must has no color; therefore, we need to include a period of maceration with the skins for acquiring color, tannins, structure, etc. This timespan may go up to four weeks (sometimes even more). This is, of course, in general terms as we can find exceptions across the globe. White wines, on the other hand, are wines coming from white grape varieties and in cases from red varieties that are processed as white ones. The grapes are harvested, destemmed, pressed, fermented, aged (or not), and then bottled.

Let’s talk now about elaboration and vinification methods. Rosé wines are those made with red grapes whose must goes under a short period of maceration with the skins to pick up some color. This period can be as less as only a few hours, and we have seen cases in which this maceration time is only eleven minutes. Thus, we call rosé when a must coming from red grapes has its color changed because of this short period of contact with the skins. We do not call it pale red or light red because in fact its color is rosé. Moreover, we don’t call it dark white, because it is not white at all. We can conclude, then, that red wines or white wines are usually byproducts of grapes of the same color, whereas rosé wines are a byproduct of the vinification method.

What happens when we apply this same red or rosé vinification method to the must coming from white grapes? In this case, the white wine acquires all the tannins and color living in the skins. The skins are, in fact, the carriers of some nutrients and substances that along with acidity help wine to live longer. The color of the must will also change, turning from clear white to dark gold to amber to orange, depending on the variety and the maceration time. Some varieties are adept to a few days of skin contact; some others can take as long as six, nine or even twelve months. In the end, due to the vinification process, it will be a wine that resembles more a red wine rather than a white wine. Keeping this in mind, is it not confusing we still call this style of wine a white wine?

This way of making wine is not something new. It was the method white wine was produced in the Caucasus area few millennia ago. Wine was stored and preserved with the use of the skins in the same way Port and Madeira wines were fortified to endure the trip by sea to England. Back then, they did not call them white wines but rather they were known as amber wines, a name that later changed to orange wines, though both names are still in use nowadays. Yet we include the orange wines under the name of white wines. Let’s imagine this situation: You go to your favorite restaurant, you ask for a white wine and they serve you an orange wine. How would you feel about it? Would you think they are deceiving you? It will not be the typical white wine you can find in the supermarket or when you go around for tapas. It is a wine with a very different profile. Should not it be called by another name? Now imagine the opposite: you read the wine list looking for an orange wine and you only see red, white and rosé headers. You ask the sommelier about it and he says you can find them at the bottom of the white wines. Is it not misleading? The same situation occurs when we go to a wine shop and we have to ask where the orange wines are, since they are acknowledged as white wines and are buried in the back of the white wines shelf, past the red wines, past the rosé wines and before the sparkling wines.

Rosé wines are not a subcategory of red wines, as it seems logical should it be the case, being wine made using the must of red grapes going under a short maceration period. They are a class on its own. Shouldn’t it be the same case for orange wines? Is it not a wine class with the right to have its own name? Is it not about time to refer to them by their rightful name, and not white-wines-elaborated-with-a-maceration-time-on-the-skins?

There is an ongoing discussion about the skin maceration period we need to consider for saying certain wine is an orange wine. Some say it should be four days, but if a rosé wine is already classified as rosé after only eleven minutes of maceration on the skins, why should you wait longer for an orange wine? And even if we say it takes one or more days, I think it’s about time we start calling orange wines by their name. It is already clear to me that far from being a passing fashion as some people say, this style of vinification is here to stay. There is an increasing number of producers doing orange wines, not only in Georgia where this style was born, but also in Greece, Croatia, Slovenia, Italy, Austria, France, United States, Canada, Peru, Argentina, Portugal and Spain, among other countries.

In view of the current situation of the wine market, where diversity grows every day in terms of winemaking, elaboration methods and technology use, a time has come in which the classification of the three traditional types of wine, white, rosé and red, do not cover all this ample diversity. The time for orange wines to have their own space in a wine shop or a wine list is here. It doesn’t seem right to still include them at the bottom of a white wines list. They have come to form an entity on its own. We should acknowledge that.