orange wine poured into wine glass

Photo courtesy of Orange Glou

Enter any share-plate wine bar or candlelit dinner party filled with twentysomethings, and you’re likely to find orange wine on the table. For the past few years, it’s been the funky alternative to the white-red-rosé holy trinity and the irreverently labeled bottle that carries as much cachet as it does taste.

Whether we’re aware of it or not, there’s a reason orange wine is resonating with us, and it goes beyond the “it” factor. The drink is rooted in history, inspired by ancient winemaking techniques in Georgia. And those techniques, which often rely on minimal intervention, get you as close to “wine” as can be.

Also known as skin-contact or amber wine, orange wine is made from white wine grapes. Typically, when you make white wine, you separate the skins from the grape juice before the fermentation process and end up with a somewhat transparent hue. But with orange wine, you leave the skins in to macerate, welcoming the color pigments and tannins that come along with them. It’s an approach similar to that of red winemaking, wherein the red skins of the grapes give red wine its color. All that to say, these coral-hued quaffs vary widely in taste and in style.

“People are excited about the texture and all the amazing flavors skin maceration brings out,” says Doreen Winkler, the founder of Orange Glou, the world’s first wine subscription and wine store dedicated solely to orange wines. Winkler’s shop offers five methods of sparkling orange wine and a broad array of light- to medium- to full-bodied still, skin contact wines, “showcasing floral to tropical to umami notes,” she says.

Although orange wine continues to gain popularity in the U.S., the tradition began thousands of years ago in Georgia, a country that believes itself to be the birthplace of wine. Some traditional Georgian winemakers make their wine in qvevri, which are oval-shaped, clay vessels that can hold more than 1,000 liters of liquid. While not all qvevri wines are amber-hued, the vessels can be used to create what contemporary U.S. drinkers call “orange” wines. “The first qvevri the country found during archaeological excavations dates back to 5,000 years,” says Vladimer Kublashvili, chief winemaker at Georgia’s Khareba Winery. “As for the seeds, we found that they date back to around 8,000 years.”

In the U.S., orange wines are often associated with the natural wine movement, as some orange wines are produced with only native yeasts and little to no additives. This natural approach is endemic to traditional qvevri winemaking in Georgia. “When I make wines the traditional Georgian way, I don’t use cultured yeast, unless I’m having some difficulties with alcoholic fermentation due to factors like cold temperature,” Kublashvili says.

In Georgia, some winemakers use native white grapes, such as Rkatisiteli, Kisi and Mtsvane, to create amber wines in qvevri, which are buried underground to stabilize temperatures during the fermentation and aging of both the juices and skins. Depending on the type of grape used, the length of time spent in skin fermentation, and the method of aging, the wines will take on orange-tinged hues that can range from golden to deep amber to copper.

khareba winery qvevri
The qvevri wine cellar at Khareba Winery. | Photo courtesy of Khareba Winery

“There is a myth that the longer the wine spends on the skins, the darker the wine will be,” Winkler says. “This is not always the case because the color depends more on the anatomy of the grape than the duration of skin contact. Is the skin of the grape lighter or darker, thicker or thinner, yellow, golden, green, pink?”

“The family of orange wine is very large,” says Kublashvili. For example, the Italians have their own version of orange wine called ramato, a product of the historic winemaking style of Friuli Italy, made exclusively with Pinot Grigio grapes. “But we want to stand out by promoting all Georgian, qvevri wines as ‘amber’ wines.” It’s a nod to tradition, a distinguishing feature that calls on consumers to become aware of Georgia’s winemaking history.

When the country was under Soviet rule, from 1922 to 1991, it was not fully able to assert its identity, Kublashvili says. “On the one hand, the society of Georgia had the opportunity to learn about winemaking and vineyards, theoretically. At that time, institutes dedicated to viticulture and winemaking were opening up. But on the other hand, Georgian winemakers used very few Georgian indigenous grape varieties. They instead chose varieties that were resistant to illness and that could offer them high productivity. So we kind of lost those rare, Georgian grapes.”

The industry experienced a revival in the ’90s and early 2000s, when wineries began to reembrace indigenous varieties. When Kublashvili joined Khareba in 2007, for example, he promoted the almost-forgotten Krakuna grape. “Nowadays, if you have the opportunity to come to Georgia, you will see that there are many different, indigenous grape varieties on the market,” he says.

These varieties are increasingly global, too.

“We stock the best wines from Georgia when they are available,” Winkler says. “What’s special about these wines is that only native grapes are used, they are still foot stomped, and, of course, they are made in qvevri.”

Khareba Winery, established in 1995, first found its home within Georgia’s most popular wine-growing area, the Kakheti region. Today, the company has three acting wineries, with 1,500 hectares of vineyards spread out over different parts of the country. The original location in Kakheti is famous for its wine tunnel, a 7.7 kilometer cave built on the edge of the Alazani Valley that was initially built to provide shelter in the Cold War era. Today the cave, with its cool temperatures, provides an ideal environment for storage and aging.

Different regions lend themselves to different processes. In Kakheti, many winemakers use 100 percent of the skins, resulting in a wine that’s dark amber in color and rich in tannins, while wines from the Imereti region, which tend to be made in smaller, clay jars, might use just 20 to 30 percent of the skins. The results are lighter in both color and tannins.

“Wine lovers and ordinary wine consumers are looking for something new constantly—something that will stand out from well-known wine styles,” Kublashvili says of amber wines’ appeal. “And I do believe that qvervi wines are distinguished, especially white qvervi wines, which, if consumed blindly, can be drank as red wines.”

Pairing opportunities abound. Kublashvil believes that the 30 percent skin contact wines can accompany salads and white meats, while the 100 percent wines are best enjoyed with salads rich in nuts, as well as certain fishes.

Winkler agrees. “In general, there’s a lot of depth to Georgian amber wines and they’re very food-friendly, pairing well with everything from fish to meat to cheeses.”

Embracing orange wine can be “a great learning process,” Winkler says, “because you can see how skin maceration impacts the wine.” The great thing about a trend so deeply tied to the past is that there’s so much ground to re-explore.

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Jessica Sulima is a staff writer on the Food & Drink team at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram