The transition from summer to autumn calls for a good review of which bottles to open. Pale rosés give way to their fuller-bodied counterparts, reds come back into their own and richer whites claim a place at the table. Or you might prefer to switch things up with some cocktails perfect for autumn evenings.
Fittingly-coloured orange wines are also excellent choices, at once refreshing and generous, for these moody days when sun and rain might be out within the same hour. And as the season’s produce starts to fill market stalls these amber-hued wines will give you perfect and versatile food pairing options.
Scroll down for tasting notes and scores of 12 orange wines to try this autumn
What is orange wine?
An orange wine is a made by fermenting white grapes in contact with the skins, hence why they are also called skin-contact wines.
Most commercially available white wine, on the other hand, is produced by separating the juice from the skins immediately or shortly after the grapes arrive at the cellar, thus preventing the extraction of colour.
As with some rosé wine production, the length of maceration (where skins are left in contact with the juice before, during and after fermentation) determines the colour intensity of the final wine. Temperature plus the vessel used for fermentation and/or ageing also have a role to play.
In addition to colour, maceration extracts tannins and flavours compounds, which is why orange wines tend to have a distinct textural character and great food pairing appeal.
It would be tempting to say that orange wines are made by applying red winemaking techniques to white varieties.
The fact is that these techniques were originally used for all grapes, red and white, namely because these were often grown and fermented together. The concept of single-varietal wine and mono-varietal planting is somewhat recent in the history of wine.
And even when varieties started being planted and vinified separately, wines were rarely light and clear in the glass. Lightly hued white wines are a modern invention, only made possible by modern winemaking techniques such as cold settling, sterile filtration, temperature control and routine use of sulphites. Wines used to have a slight hue due to a degree of oxidation.
From lost tradition to millennial trend
Perceived as less sophisticated, orange wines lost territory to modern styles. They survived in regions where the wine sector struggled to establish itself as an industry, such as the Balkans, and at the hands of mavericks such as Josko Gravner and Stanko Radikon.
Orange wines were largely rediscovered at the beginning of the 21st century and adopted by the ‘natural wine movement’ as its flagship style – skin-contact was propelled to the international stage as a beacon of resistance to a number of commercially-made wines.
Countries like Georgia and Slovenia, where the style had remained firmly in production throughout the 20th century, found a new enthusiastic audience and attracted new producers.
Winemakers in Portugal, Spain and Italy started researching their own regions’ historical iterations of orange wine, while adventurous ‘new world’ winemakers also embraced orange styles.
The result was a fresh understanding of the history of many wine regions, of the expressive potential of white varieties, and of how wine styles need to be seen in a spectrum rather than classified as ‘black (or rather) or white’.
As Simon Woolf discussed in his orange wine overview, it’s important not to confuse orange and natural wine: the latter is a style while the former is a technique. It follows that not orange wine is necessarily natural, and vice versa – i.e. skin-contact wine is not necessarily ‘funky’ or low intervention.
While texture and complexity are attributes of all (good) amber-hued wines, they can be extremely refined. You will find a range of expressions, and both adventurous and classical wine lovers will surely find an orange wine they love. This style is not as divisive as one might think.
Tannins, flavour, texture
What makes orange wines special? It’s their aromatic complexity and structural and textural character, at the crossroads of a red and white wine, playfully stimulating and challenging the senses.
Imagine the freshness and taught acidity of a white wine entwined with the tannic grip and suppleness a red. What could possibly be better to pair with food?
Many orange wines are perfect companions for cheese platters, smoked fish, root vegetable-based dishes and roasted meat. They usually have a herbal, savoury edge that brings the meal’s flavours to life, supported by gentle tannins and firm acidity.
Best enjoyed slightly chilled, skin-contact wines have a fresh vibrancy but also a sense of textural warmth, perfect to ease yourself into autumn’s mood.