The Only Orange Wine Primer You’ll Ever Need

Like the wine it’s celebrating, the annual Orange Wine Festival in the calm northern Adriatic Slovenian seaside city of Izola, which a few Fridays ago marked its seventh edition, has finally come of age. It would appear so at least on the surface, judging from the crowds that converged on the 15th century Manzioli Palace in the heart of this attractive Venetian-style town, the elbow-to-elbow lines in several of the tasting rooms, and the rock star-like receptions that welcomed some of the style’s best known producers.

Given the geography, that shouldn’t be a surprise. The extended maceration style, in some circles referred to as Orange Wine and even the so-called fourth wine, is very much at home in this corner of Europe. Just to the north of Trieste –which is just 25km north of Izola– lies the cross-border region of Veneto’s Collio and Slovenia’s Goriška Brda, whose forward-thinking producers have led the style’s rise –and as we’ll get to in a minute, its rebirth– and stamping themselves even more firmly on the international wine map. An orange wine category on wine lists in Slovenia, northern Croatia and northeast Italy is now commonplace. In Ljubljana, orange wines have taken on a central role in shop’s promo efforts, making the word a common feature in the urban landscape of the Slovenian capital.

Elsewhere, that’s not quite the picture. That was made dramatically clear to me during a visit to the US last December when I learned that some friends with long histories in the wine trade knew next to nothing about the style, which in the US, as elsewhere, is largely limited to trendy wine bars and hipster shops.

Even among those “in the know” –winemakers, merchants and consumers alike– the style has hardly won universal acceptance. Indeed, it can be exceedingly polarizing. Those debates are a topic in and of themselves, so I’ll stop this here and get to the question several of you are probably asking.

So, what is orange wine?

Simply speaking, wine made from white varietals that are naturally transformed into various shades of orange by the time they reach your glass, color derived from extended maceration, or, long skin contact.

“Traditionally” –we’ll get back to why that’s in quotes in a minute– whites are macerated for a very short period, just a handful of hours usually, before the skins, seeds and stems are separated and the wine left to ferment on its own. In orange style wines, maceration and fermentation on the skins can last from a few days to several months, thus allowing those deep orange, amber or even rust shades to develop. Think a white made like a red.

Movia Lunar at the 2018 Orange Wine Festival
Movia Lunar

They’re often considered “natural wines”, too –a definition of which is admittedly hardly standardized– with little or no additives used. Indeed, many winemakers who have orange wines in their portfolios are organic or biodynamic producers, either in part or in full, or on the way there. (That’s hardly a bad thing.) Moreover, they’re often made by producers who prefer the minimal-intervention route.

That all conspires to mean that a long skin contact Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay or Pinot Grigio will be wildly different from what you’re used to: heavier in body, very dry, with (sometime very firm) tannins and deeper unconventional aromas and flavors. Your first will likely blow you away –maybe in a good way, maybe not– and you’re quite likely to find them more interesting than good. If that’s the case, keep exploring. You’ll love what you discover.

Now, that “traditional” part. Because this isn’t really anything all that new.

While the orange wine style trend began only about two decades ago, the tradition of long skin contact goes back very far — probably some 8000 years to the first wine vintages ever produced. Those came from the small country of Georgia, squeezed between Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia, in the foothills of Caucasus, where red and white wines were largely made in much the same way. It was very much a utilitarian approach, with the skins and other pieces and parts helping to protect fermenting juice from oxidation, and then later preserving and aging the wines which were stored in large buried clay vessels called qvevri. Those are still used today, with amphorae use on the increase.

So, yeah, orange is the color, silly, not the fruit.

Given their relative newness to the scene, they are, not surprisingly, becoming hip. Considered cutting edge. Raw even. (Though not as raw as some.) Some have already attracted cult followings. Some are sensational in every respect, age-worthy, seductive.

But like teenagers and Trump supporters, some are more difficult than others. Others still are also duds made by winemakers trying to hop on the orange wine gravy train a few stops too soon. I’m glad they’re trying, though, setting aside vineyards and oftentimes cluttered and even premium cellar space, and taking risks.

All of the above –and then some– were among some 180 wines poured by 64 producers over the course of seven glorious early northern Adriatic spring hours in late April. Most were from Slovenia’s Primorska region (Goriška Brda, Vipava, Kras and Slovenska Istra districts), but several from eastern Italy’s Friuli Venezia Giulia, Slovenia’s Stajerska (Styria), Croatia’s Istra, Austria’s Burgenland and Styria, a few from Serbia, along with a handful of selections from Georgia.

Winemaker Matjaz Kramar, an artist and a gentleman who is obviously well-read.

As mentioned above, most aficionados will agree that many of the best are from the border area shared by Slovenia’s Gorška Brda and Friuli’s Collio, where Ribolla Gialla/Rebula and Sauvignon Vert/Friulano/Sauvignonasse, two grapes that make exceptional orange styles, are at their best. Pinot Grigio/Sivi Pinot from that area stands out as well, and can result in phenomenal skin contact wines.

I took notes on about 30; the more detailed 15 of those are below – consider it a brief orange wine tour that one day I’ll get around to organizing. (Or better yet, this guy will.)  There were many that I wanted to get to but for a variety of reasons couldn’t. I guess that means that I’ll just have to take up some of those invitations — and do some exploratory legwork for that tour.


Dario Prinčič Bianco Trebež 2013
Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Italy

Dario Prinčič - 2018 Orange Wine Festival

I’ve written about Dario Prinčič before, a name that isn’t a new one in the ‘natural’ or orang wine landscape. He’s been producing wine since 1988, and farming bio-dynamically and walking the low-intervention path well before both of those hyphenated terms became trendy buzzwords. And he’s been making extended maceration whites since the late 1990s, making him by default an early leader in the modern movement of skin-fermented ‘orange’ whites.

Trebež is always a joy to cross paths with; a blend of 40% Chardonnay (macerated for 27 days), 40% Sauvignon Blanc (also 27 days) and 20% Pinot Grigio (one week) that’s aged in oak for 42 months, the 2013 is as earthy and and citrusy as when I last tasted in February but the tannins were slightly lighter, more integrated than I recall. Fabulous.

Dario Prinčič Pinot Grigio 2014
Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Italy

Macerated for seven days then aged 30 months in French oak. Candied orange on the nose, tropical fruit on the palace. Great length on the finish.

Dario Prinčič Jakot 2014
Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Italy

100% Friulano –Jakot is Tokaj, the grapes former name in Slovenian, spelled backwards– from 60-year-old vines. Macerated 20 days, then aged in oak for 30 months and another three in stainless steel vats prior to bottling. Herbaceous, citrus, ginger on the nose and palate. Long perky finish. Fantastic.

Bruale Rkatsiteli-Mtsvane 2016
Bruale Rkatsiteli-Mtsvane 2016

Bruale Rkatsiteli-Mtsvane 2016
Kakheti, Georgia

A blend of 85% Rkatsiteli and 15% Mtsvane, macerated for six months in a buried amphora. Beautiful amber color, nutty, some smokiness, and incredibly full. Some nutty qualities on the finish. Made to age. Loved this one, too.

Radikon Pinot Grigio 2016
Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Italy

100% Pinot Grigio, macerated in oak for eight days, fermented in oak casks a further 18 months. Auburn in color, nice fruit citrus and berry notes on nose and palate. Elegantly formed tannins. Like most recent vintages from Radikon, this one’s just getting started.

Radikon Rebula 2011
Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Italy

100% Ribolla/Rebula, macerated for three months, then spent four years in barrel and a further two-and-a-half in bottle before release. Beautifully intense orange in color, complex layered aromas of apricot, tropical fruit and spice. On the palate it’s like a medium-bodied red with great balance, with a persistent citrus, honey and nut finish.

Radikon Oslavje 2011
Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Italy

A blend of 40% Chardonnay, 40% Sauvignon Blanc and 20% Sauvignon Blanc, macerated for three months, another 40 months in oak and a further two-and-a-half in bottle before release. Amber with intoxicating coppery edges. A nutty melange of apple, peach, apricot on the nose, spicy on the palate with lightish tannins. Another hallmark wine by this hallmark producer.

Kabaj Ravan 2014
Goriška Brda, Primorska, Slovenia

Kabaj at the Orange Wine Festival

100% Sauvignonasse (Friulano, former Tokaj). Macerated for on eweek, aged two years in French oak. Lush golden yellow in color, with honeyed, dried apricot aromas. Crisp and bouncy on the palate, medium bodied with a playful and long finish. Looking forward to see what this develops into over the next four or five years. If I can wait that long.

Rojac (Macerated) Malvazija 2013
Slovenska Istra, Primorska, Slovenia

100% Malvazia Istrska, macerated three months, aged in oak for 30 months. Dried apricot on the nose, a little woody, nutty. Nice tannins, one of the ‘bigger’ Malvazijas of the day.

Erzetič Amfora Bela (White) 2013
Goriška Brda, Primorska, Slovenia

80% Ribolla/Rebula, 20% Pinot Blanc/Beli Pinot; macerated for six months

Six months maceration. Floral, fruity aromas, some fig, butterscotch, and cherry notes on the palate. Tannins melding nicely into the background. Barrel sample, likely to be released in autumn 2018.

Korenika & Moškon Sulne 2010
Slovenska Istra, Primorska, Slovenia

Blend of 60% Istrska Malvazija, 30% Chardonnay and 10% Pinot Grigio, macerated for 15 days then spent six years in oak, bottled in August 2017. Biodynamic. Piney and herbaceous on the nose, apples. Hints of tropical fruit on the palate, medium-bodied, medium-long finish.

Lovely smiles from Korenika & Moškon
Lovely smiles from Korenika & Moškon

Montemoro Malvasia aMorus 2011
Slovenska Istra, Primorska, Slovenia

100% Malvasia, macerated 30 days, then aged two years in used French and Slovenian oak. A mash-up of citrus and peach on the nose and palate, delicate, refined. Still filling out. Very nice.

Mansus Dimenzija Klarnica 2016
Vipava Valley, Primorska, Slovenia

Klarnica is rare local varietal; Mansus is of just one of three producers in Slovenia that bottles it. Macerated for 20 days; full-flavoured, aromatic. Delicious. If you can find it, buy it.

Mansus Dimenzija Rebula 2015
Vipava Valley, Primorska, Slovenia

Macerated for seven days; fruity and floral nose, with slight nuttiness and hint of sour cherry.

Ražman Malvazija Antiqua 2015
Slovenska Istra, Primorska, Slovenia

Macerated seven days, aged in oak for two years. Floral aromas, ripe dry fruit on the palate, fig, hints of nut. A beautiful wine. For a point of comparison, the Malvazija Antiqua 2012 was available as well, but it’s a rare treat. They’re down to the their last five (six-bottle) cases. The floral characters were still there; still drinking very nicely.

And if you cross paths, check out:

Fruška Gora, Serbia

2014 was their first orange-style vintage. They were pouring three; the 2015 Chardonnay, macerated for 15 days and oak-aged for a year, was my favorite. Also of interest is their 2015 skin contact Riesling, a blend of Welschriesling (Laski) and Renski Riesling.


For further orange wine exploration:

  • The Morning Claret – an excellent resource by Simon Woolf (and friends) who’s written the book on Orange Wine


And finally, from our friends at Vinoo (featuring a cameo by yours truly).




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