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From grape to orange: Understanding skin-contact wines and its growing popularity

June 3, 2021

Up until recently, the modern wine scene has consisted of three major colour categories: red, white, and rosé. However, side-by-side with the natural winemaking revolution, we are seeing a climbing category of wines that are different variations of orange hues, with some being labelled “Orange Wine”.

This low-intervention (and often natural) style of wine has been around for thousands of years, starting in Georgia, and was even popular up until the 1950s and ‘60s in Italy, until the demand for fresh white wines took over. Orange wine has become new again in the past decade, especially in North America.

Read Also: Pet-Nat: An ancient wine method becomes new again

Orange wine is NOT made with oranges, but white grapes that are left in contact with the skins from anywhere from a few days to several months. It is not always labelled as orange wine, but can be known as ‘Skin Contact’, ‘Skin Fermented White’, or ‘Amber’, and sometimes has no reference on the label at all!

As with all wine, different countries around the globe have different definitions of exactly what orange wine is and how it is to be labelled. Canada, for example, has VQA regulations in place in Ontario that state orange wine must be labelled Skin Fermented White, but on the other side of the country in British Columbia, regulations have not yet defined the term orange wine, so it is allowed on the label whether winemakers use skin fermentation or just skin contact alone.

Ann Sperling, a winemaker in Ontario and BC, has been mastering this winemaking style, and leading the charge for the Canadian orange wine uprising at her two wineries: Southbrook Organic Vineyards, in Ontario, and Sperling Vineyards in British Columbia. The Southbrook 2019 Orange Vidal “Skin Fermented White”, and latest vintage, Southbrook 2020 Triomphe Orange, are both made with Ontario’s winter hardy hybrid grape, vidal. However, the 2020 is a blend of chardonnay musqué and vidal together and stylistically quite different than its predecessor, showing the diverse range of this wine style. Both vintages are not only organic, vegan, and natural, (ticking all the boxes of trending wine consumer demand), but both are of exceptional quality.

orange wine

Orange wine is trending for its complex, refreshing nature and ability to pair well with food.

Although several different grape varieties are currently being used to make orange wine in BC, many are made with the province’s most planted white grape: pinot gris. There are some incredible expressions of this varietal being produced here recently and Sperling Vineyards’ 2020 Natural Amber Pinot Gris is a testament to that. Having one of orange wine’s most noted aromas of baked apple, this expression has masterfully included baking spices of nutmeg and cinnamon aromas to produce an intense and delicious apple pie nose. Other signature notes of this style that pop up with this Amber Pinot Gris are tea, peach, dried herbs, and grippy tannins. Overall, just a flavourful and textural joy on the palate.

Leaning Post in Niagara has also made an exceptional quality example of skin fermented white wine using sauvignon blanc for their 2020 vintage of Clockwork. The Leaning Post portfolio thrives with out-of-box winemaking techniques, so it seems only fitting they started producing orange wine as well. Clockwork has aromas that are reminiscent of walking through a forest in the summertime. It doesn’t have the typical sourness you would expect from an orange wine, but instead has vibrant, balanced acidity and velvety tannins. A prime example of how orange wine showcases the beauty of experimental winemaking and doesn’t really have to follow any suit at all.

Overall, orange wine can sometimes taste more like a gruit style of beer than a wine with its high acidity and sourness. But what also adds to a long resumé of appeal is that it possesses an incredible ability to be significantly food friendly with a diverse assortment of dishes. Most of these wines would pair well with Korean food, Chinese food, pub-style foods, salads and even desserts. Chances are, if you are having difficulty pairing any meal, orange wine is your best bet!

From its complex, refreshing nature, to food pairing, professionals in the wine industry and consumers alike are loving this booming wine style. It’s an experience that is a must-try, but if you are a newbie to the world of orange wine, be sure to brace yourself for a whole new level of flavour!

 


Leah SpoonerLeah Spooner has a diploma in Tourism Management that includes Wine Appreciation. She headed straight into the wine industry that she’s now been a part of for 16 years. Leah obtained certification from the Wine Council of Ontario (now Ontario Craft Wineries), and after achieving her Sommelier L1, she made her way to WSET3. Along the way, she has added a South African Wine certification, Canadian Wine Scholar, and is currently working on her French Wine Scholar certification. She currently manages a wine review page on Instagram – @leahspooner_wine, and is one half of the Canadian wine critic page @the_winepress