From a distance, what divides white wines from reds seems pretty clear. Yes, the color is obvious, but it’s also the methods of production.
To make red wine, the producer begins by macerating the juice of the grapes with the pigment-bearing skins. This adds not only color to the juice but also tannins, which contribute texture and structure to the darkening wine. When the fermentation is complete and the winemaker is satisfied, the wine is drawn off the skins to begin the aging process.
Conventional white wines are made differently. A winemaker might allow the juice to soak for a few hours, or a day, with the skins, which are pale but not entirely without pigment. The juice is whisked away far more quickly than it would be with reds, to begin its fermentation with minimal color and undetectable tannins.
What if the producer switched things up? Let’s say you had red grapes, but processed them using the techniques for making white wine. A lot of winemakers do just that, leaving the juice in contact with the skins for only a short while, just long enough to gain a pink tinge. Millions of bottles of these wines are sold each summer — “Waiter, bring me rosé!”
By contrast, imagine that you had white grapes and wanted to make wine using the method for reds, keeping the juice in prolonged contact with the pale skins. This yields something altogether different, a wine seen far less often than rosé. People are still grappling with what to call these sorts of wines.
Some use the phrase amber wine, which describes the color of at least a few examples. They can otherwise range from pale pink to rosy copper, russet or a dark, almost ruby-shaded brown.
Others prefer the phrase skin-contact whites or even skin-macerated whites, which, while technically correct, lacks any sort of evocative power.
Most, though, have settled on orange wine, a term that has piqued the imagination of a generous percentage of the wine-buying public. It’s not literally accurate, of course, but for that matter, neither are white wines white nor reds red.
Orange wines may seem trendy, like a hipster fashion that bewitches bargoers from London to Tokyo. That view would not be unreasonable, given the 20-year trajectory of modern orange wines.
But wines made like this are the oldest form of whites, stretching back centuries if not millenniums. In some parts of the world, like the Republic of Georgia, white wine never stopped being made this way, despite formidable political and cultural pressure during the years of Soviet domination to adopt more conventional methods of mass production.
The twin forces of history and fashion combine to create a remarkable tension around orange wines. They have been celebrated in places where they have a long history, like Georgia and Slovenia, as emblems of cultural identity, while simultaneously being dismissed elsewhere for their vapid trendiness.
They have been hailed as innovative expressions, and damned as flawed, oxidized, repetitive and dull.
Both the praise and the criticism have been well earned.
Some orange wines are in fact insipid. People tire of them quickly when the novelty disappears. But why would it be surprising to find bad examples of any type of wine?
Others are thought to be flawed only because their unfiltered haziness and tannins are so strange among white wines.
The best orange wines succeed not because they are orange but because they express nuances of beauty and culture in profound and distinctive ways.
Wines like those from Josko Gravner and Radikon — who both work in the Collio region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia, where northeast Italy touches Slovenia — were among the earliest and most influential in the renaissance of these wines. They resonate not just because they are so good qualitatively, but also because, in their reckoning with centuries of history and conflict, they speak powerfully, both emotionally and intellectually.
Mr. Gravner was a successful conventional winemaker in the 1980s and ’90s before rejecting modern trappings. His quest for something more satisfying took him to Georgia, where he was inspired by the local technique, stretching back thousands of years, of fermenting wine in qvevri, or amphorae, buried in the earth to stay cool.
He brought qvevri and the techniques of skin-maceration back to his winery, where, since 2001, his production has set a standard for orange wines.
Stanko Radikon never adopted amphorae. But he made his own experiments and developed techniques that radically reimagined how his ancestors might have made wine. His son, Sasa, has continued the tradition since Mr. Radikon’s death in 2016.
The Gravner and Radikon wines share some qualities. They are both textured with lightly raspy tannins. They are energetic, with aromas and flavors that, like many orange wines, tend toward pressed flowers and dried fruits rather than fresh ones. But they are different as well.
The Gravner wines are vibrant yet intense. They are deeply philosophical, yet not without joy. The Radikons are equally complex, but seem a little more lighthearted and sunny.
Both are beautiful, and both are made to exacting standards by artisans who work the edge, taking risks that they manage with scrupulous attention to details.
Few orange wines are as uncompromising as these. But I’ve had plenty of excellent examples. Just to name a few that I’ve enjoyed recently, La Stoppa, Elena Pantaleoni’s wonderful estate in Emilia-Romagna, makes Ageno, a dark, spicy, herbal wine that is made mostly of malvasia. It’s a lovely, full-on example.
Farther south, in Umbria, Paolo Bea produces Arboreus, a waxy, bright and juicy wine made of trebbiano spoletino. In the Tyrnavos region of Greece, south of Thessaloniki, Papras makes Pleiades, a hazy amber, floral wine, made of the roditis grape, with flavors reminiscent of orange.
From Portugal, the Aphros Phaunus, made of the loureiro grape, was fermented in amphorae. It’s bright, lively and balanced.
And from Georgia, I had a wonderful wine that could have been mistaken for a light red. It was the 2017 Zurab Topuridze from the Guria region. Made of the chkhaveri grape, it had wild flavors of dried flowers, dried fruits and spices, and it went beautifully with grilled flank steak.
From closer to home, I recently had two skin-fermented pinot gris. One was from Two Shepherds in Sonoma Valley, the other from Donkey and Goat, which buys the grapes from the Anderson Valley in Mendocino. Pinot gris, like the Greek roditis, is a white grape with a distinct pink cast, which gives the wines a coppery hue when made with skin-contact techniques.
The Two Shepherds was savory, with a lightly musky quality, while the Donkey & Goat seemed fresher and more zesty, with bright floral aromas.
Far more wonderful examples exist, particularly in Georgia, Slovenia and the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region. For more suggestions, Simon J. Woolf’s book “Amber Revolution” is an excellent source.
The best places to buy orange wines tend to be shops that also have selections of natural wines.
Sometimes orange wines turn up where you least expect to find them. I recently came upon a 2017 Akatcha, a skin-macerated white from Simon Bize et Fils, one of my favorite Burgundy producers. It was made of pinot beurot, the Burgundian name for pinot gris, which is legally permitted in Burgundy but rarely seen. It was spicy, energetic and herbal, with long, lingering flavors.
I was surprised to see it, and contacted Chisa Bize, the proprietor, to learn more about it. She said by email that Bize’s small plot of pinot beurot ordinarily went into its Bourgogne Blanc, but that occasionally a varietal pinot beurot had been released.
She had been curious about both making an orange wine, she said, and about working without sulfur dioxide, an almost universally used antioxidant and stabilizer. After experimentation, the 2017 was its first release. She plans on doing it again.
Aside from questions of terroir, grape and intention, what distinguishes bottles within the orange wine genre is often how long the juice has been macerated with the skins. On the extreme end, Gravner and Radikon macerate for many months, depending on the vintage. The Topuridze wine from Georgia saw six months of maceration, and the Ageno around four months.
On the tamer side, the two California examples both were macerated for about five days, and the Bize for three to four days.
As with all types of wine, good and bad versions abound. Flaws that used to be common in wine, like oxidation or too much volatile acidity, have largely been vanquished in conventional wines. But they can still appear in wines, like many in the orange genre, that avoid technological solutions to these sorts of problems.
That may sound as if I’m placing orange wines in the natural-wine category. Many would qualify, but not nearly all. Natural wines must satisfy a much greater set of imperatives, including how the grapes are farmed, while orange wines must simply be skin-macerated.
While faults may seem starkly obvious in orange and natural wines, it’s important to understand that the faults of dullness, sameness and bland sterility are accepted without comment in conventional wines because they are so common.
That does not excuse either set of faults. But it helps in understanding them.