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Take a trip down the wine aisle of any outpost worth its salt these days and you might notice a few curious amber-hued bottles nestled among the requisite whites and roses. Orange wine—so named for its unique, often vibrant tint produced by prolonged skin contact—is a multifaceted and broad-ranging category with flavor notes ranging from dry, herbaceous, and mineral-forward to tropical fruit, zesty citrus, and layers of intense, yeasty funk. And much like its closely-related pale yellow- and pink-toned siblings, it makes an excellent warm weather companion.
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“Orange wine is really white wine made in a similar style to red,” explains New York City-based consulting food and beverage director and 15-year hospitality vet Chris Lauber. “The white grapes are pressed and the juice is extracted, but the juice is instead macerated with the grape skins. This process can range from hours to weeks, until the wine picks up the color and tannin of the skins.”
And while it’s bid for summertime sipping dominance has only recently emerged stateside, orange wine has been enjoyed in coastal Europe and other similarly-composed regions for eons. The maceration process allowed the white wine grapes to ferment naturally, so very little technology was needed for production.
“Many think it's a modern phenomenon, but in reality it's been around for thousands of years,” says Richard Hanauer, wine director for Chicago’s lauded RPM Restaurants. “People have been drinking orange wine for much longer than white wine since it's only been fairly recently that white wines have been able to be made in a reductive, non-oxygen-exposed, style.”
“Orange wine is one of the oldest styles in the world,” adds Holly Berrigan, co-owner of natural wine subscription and online retailer MYSA Natural Wine. “Starting around 6,000 BCE, Georgians were using pointy bottomed qvevri, or clay amphorae, buried in the ground for temperature control to make wine in their home. Today, most but not all of the people making orange wine follow natural practices. In fact, skin contact is one of the ways you can naturally stabilize a wine instead of adding sulfur and other additives.”
As Berrigan mentions, not all orange wine falls into the natural wine family—that is, wines fermented on airborne yeast and created without technological or chemical intervention. However, lovers of these unpredictable, palate-tingling liquids will be pleased to find many inherent similarities between the classifications, both in terms of taste and ethos.
"There’s a huge range of colors, flavors, textures, and styles of orange wine out there,” notes natural wine sommelier Doreen Winkler. A longtime orange wine aficionado, Winkler is the founding force behind New York’s Orange Glou, an innovative wine subscription service focused chiefly on skin-contact selections. “There’s a certain wildness that comes when you let the grapes do the work on their own rather than flooding the juice with chemicals, and orange wine takes this a step further. Depending on the type of grape, how long the skin and seeds are left on, if it’s developed into a pet nat or left still, the growing season, and the whims of the winemaker, all of these factors can lead to drastically different wines. Orange wines are for explorers at heart.”
Whether you’re in the mood for something sharp, bright, and effervescent, bursting with juicy pineapple and waxy white blossoms, or sultry, dank, and laced with intriguing spice, the best part about orange wine is its sheer diversity.
“Orange wines will often exhibit tropical fruit notes which appeal to most white wine drinkers but will also have higher tannins and a fuller body that attracts red wine drinkers,” says Kevin Bratt, beverage director and sommelier at Joe's Seafood, Prime Steak & Stone Crab in Chicago, Las Vegas, and Washington D.C. “I love their versatility for food pairings or consuming on their own.”
“One of the most fun things about orange wine is that it can be anything from delicate to austere,” Berrigan concurs. “I love light orange wines that come from more aromatic varietals like Sylvaner, Riesling, and Muscat. My partner Niclas [Jansson, co-founder of MYSA Natural Wine] on the other hand, really likes more medicinal and heavier orange wines. There is likely one out there for everyone!"
Ready to start exploring? Kick your summer off in style by cracking open a bottle (or two, or three) of these expert-recommended orange wines.
Monastero Suore Cistercensi Coenobium, 2018
“We lean towards more classic producers,” says RPM Restaurants wine director Hanauer, describing his team’s approach to choosing orange wines. “My favorite, which is very approachable, comes from outside Rome. A monastery of Trappist nuns makes a wine there called "Coenobium" based on a field blend of central Italian varietals. The sisterhood takes winemaking advice from the great Giampero Bea of Paolo Bea, and the wine has such incredible textures and aromatics for a region that's more known for its simplistic whites.”
Venissa Bianco, 2015
Swathed in a visually stunning iridescent gold leaf label, this 100% Dorona pick is technically classified as a white but happily tricks the palate with its orange wine-like structure and depth of flavor. A sunny, deep yellow appearance gives way to a markedly silky body swirling with notes of ripe yellow peaches, honey, and nose-tickling spice. A dry, savory finish lingers pleasantly long after the liquid vanishes.
Aphros Phaunus Loureiro, 2018
Vinho Verde, Portugal
This Portuguese addition comes from beverage consultant Chris Lauber. “It’s made from 100% Loureiro and spontaneously fermented with the skins in beeswax-lined clay amphorae,” explains the decorated wine professional. “It’s then aged sur-lie [on the yeast] for seven months before bottling. It’s also important to note that this is a biodynamic wine, produced entirely without electricity. Because of the granite soils and use of amphorae, this wine is light, mineral, and dry. You’ll definitely note some honey, flowers, and even stone fruit on the palate.”
Silwervis Smiley Chenin Blanc V2
Western Cape, South Africa
“When I think of a normal Chenin Blanc, this isn’t it,” asserts Lauber. “It’s made from a multi-vintage solera, just like sherry, and is all natural—literally nothing is added. Fermentation is in both seasoned oak barrels and stainless steel. The aroma has notes of lemon, orange, and even some raw almond. The flavor and texture are both full and vibrant, while also being zesty. There are delicious mineral notes to it, balanced by pineapple and lemon. I can’t recommend this wine enough.”
Channing Daughters Ramato, 2018
New York, USA
Producers of some of the most popular and accessible American orange wines, Long Island’s Channing Daughters has been preaching the merits of orange wine years before many other stateside wineries caught on. This 2018 vintage is made with 100% pinot grigio grapes, hand-picked and fermented on the skins with wild yeast in small batches for 15 days. It’s then aged in spent French and Slovenian oak barrels for an additional eight months before bottling. The result is a luminous, pristinely-balanced and easy-drinking porch pounder tinged with stone fruit, earthy honey, and faint yet persistent baking spices.
Yetti & the Kokonut, Fruit Basket Block
Eden Valley, Australia
“This is made by two young best friends and the wine is named after their nicknames,” says Orange Glou’s Winkler about this Australian labor of love. “It’s a field blend of at least 13 different varieties—Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains, Muscat Rose à Petits Grains, Muscat of Alexandria, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, Black Muscat, Grenache, Shiraz, and Cabernet Sauvignon—all planted together in the same vineyard. The white grapes are macerated on the skins while the reds’ skins are removed right away and macerated as a white wine. The grapes are othen co-fermented in an open tank, aged for 6 months in the tank, and then bottled as is. It tastes like summer: tangerine, pineapple, grapefruit, orange blossom. Super refreshing.”
This Slovenian stalwart serves as one of Winkler’s go-to bubblies. “This is a late harvest, handpicked wine, macerated for only 1 day with a short steel tank fermentation, followed by 4 years in barrique barrels,” she says. “It’s a Ribolla Gialla and Chardonnay blend. So powerful, so many bubbles! Medium to full bodied with notes of brioche, baked apple, and red pear. One of my all-time favorite sparkling orange wines.”
King Family Vineyards Small Batch Series Viognier, 2017
This limited production Monticello original is fermented on the skins in an open-top oak puncheon for three weeks then aged in neutral oak barrels in a process inspired by Georgian tradition. The 100% Viognier composition exhibits a beautiful tannic structure, bold black tea on the nose, and waves of juicy orange, yellow blooms, and pear notes carried forth by a sharp, mouth-watering acidity.
Valentina Passalacqua Pet Garg Orange, 2018
“This one checks a ton of boxes for me,” raves MYSA Natural Wine co-founder Niclas Jansson. “It’s a less-common grape variety, Falanghina, with four days maceration on the skins. Fermentation was finished in the bottle, and it has lots of citrusy aromatics that people love. Medium palate with a little tangy saltiness and fine bubbles.”
Swick Wines Sauvignon Blanc, 2019
“I’ve recently been recommending this one to loads of people new to orange wine,” continues Jansson, pointing to this Willamette Valley-born charmer. “Sauvignon Blanc is an aromatic white that most wine drinkers are already aware of, but it’s not super common to see an expression of Sauv Blanc like this one, with 30 days of skin contact and whole-cluster fermentation using native yeast. It’s grippy, acidic and fresh while retaining those tropical and stone fruit Sauvignon Blanc qualities.”
Gravner Ribolla Gialla
Friuli Venezia Giulia, Italy
This widely-respected Italian number is one of Joe's Seafood, Prime Steak & Stone Crab beverage director Bratt’s favorite examples of the style. Hailing a fertile wine growing region abutting Austria and Slovenia, the lively yellow-orange liquid is made from 100% locally-grown Ribolla grapes and fermented underground in traditional Georgian clay pots. The wild yeast, lengthy six-year aging time in oak, and lack of filtration contribute to the wine’s brilliant coloring, tannic complexity, luscious fruit notes, and lightly spiced finish.
The Hermit Ram 2019 Skin Fermented Sauvignon Blanc
North Canterbury, New Zealand
“When I heard this year’s vintage of Theo Coles’ The Hermit Ram skin-macerated Sauvignon Blanc Pet Nat was landing in the US, I had to get my hands on it,” gushes John Avelluto, owner and sommelier of The Owl’s Head wine bar in Brooklyn, New York. “I was excited by the almost hedonistic bouquet it offered—lemongrass, clover honey, mandarin pith and ripe grapefruit echo on the palate. The textural contrast between the unfermented juice and unfiltered yeast create a light sparkle with the perfect limestone edge. My favorite wine I have tasted this year so far!”
Valentina Passalacqua Calcarius Orange Puglia, 2019
“As the son of a staunch Pugliese, I take any opportunity to taste wines from Italy’s heel,” Avelluto proclaims. “Valentina Passalacqua’s Calcarius line turned my notion that high-alcohol wines lack the acid structure so commonly found in Puglia upside down. This 100% Falanghina offers up a nose of elderflower and finishes with ripe cantaloupe and white tea while dialing up the minerality. ‘Fresh’ and ‘finesse’ are keywords here—it’s no mistake Valentina put them in 1-liter bottles.”