White Wine, Red Wine, Rosé. And... Amber (Orange) Wine?
We’re all pretty familiar with three of the four main categories of still wine: white, red, and rosé. And by familiar, I mean most of us have imbibed in a glass (or several) so we know what they’re about. Well, there is a fourth lesser known category of wine, and it so happens to be the original one: amber wine – also known as orange wine. In an overabundance of caution, amber wine/orange wine is, indeed, made from grapes, not oranges. Its namesake is not the fruit from which it’s fermented, rather it’s appearance in the bowl of a wine glass: amber/orange/copper. Like any wine, it’s actual color and color saturation will vary from varietal to varietal, vintage to vintage, region to region, etc., but the color will always be markedly different from white, red, and rosé. Naturally, this begs the question: what makes orange wine orange?
It’s a result of fermenting the must (read: grape juice) of a white wine grape along with the skins and seeds (i.e. skin-contact). To understand what this means or why it’s significant requires some context.
Skin-contact assyrtiko from crete
An amber/orange/skin-contact wine from the assyrtiko grape native to Greece.
Wine grapes, by and large, fall into one of two categories, either white or red. By white, we mean anything from pale yellow to green to gray. And by red, we mean red/purple/black. The majority of white wine grapes are vinified into white wine by fermenting the must (again, read: grape juice) of those grapes without any contact with the skins, seeds or stems. The majority of red wine grapes are vinified, unsurprisingly, into red wine. If you’ve ever peeled the skin off of a red table grape (i.e. grapes you eat from Whole Foods), you’ll notice that the flesh of the fruit is actually a pale green-ish, white-ish, yellow-ish color. The must of red wine grapes is actually quite similar in color to that of white wine grapes. The difference-maker is the skins. In the skins are two important compounds that define red wine: anthocyanins and tannins. Anthocyanins are the pigment that give red wine its color, and tannins are the compound that makes red wine bitter and drying. By drying, I mean it makes your mouth go dry.
Rosé is simply a “red” wine where the skins are left to macerate and ferment with the must for only a matter of hours instead of days. All of us who are unfortunate enough to have spilled red wine on a white shirt, white dress, or white table cloth know how staining red wine is (thanks, anthocyanins!). It doesn’t take long for the red skins to dye the fermenting must a lovely rose gold color that’s perfect for pool-side sipping.
Because most white wines are fermented without skin-contact, we now perceive it to be weird when our white wine has skin-contact. “Weird” is simply a matter of perspective though. Bell-bottom jeans are weird today. But, they certainly weren’t weird 40 years ago, and they may not be weird 40 years from now. Unrelated and not really that similar, ~8,000 years ago, in modern-day Republic of Georgia, we’ve found evidence of some of the earliest winemaking. Wine was made in Qvevri (large clay amphora) where white grapes, skins, seeds, would all be left to ferment into a copper-hued white wine. It wasn’t weird, it was just wine. It tasted good (I think?), and it got you drunk (I know).
That’s amber/orange/skin-contact wine for you. It’s actually starting move from “weird” to “cool.” Kind of like wearing ripped jeans and listening to vinyl, except 10 years ago when being hipster wasn’t quite cool yet.