Let’s Talk About Orange Wine

A friend posted about orange wine on Instagram saying she hates to do so because the term leads many to ask her if it’s made from oranges. Sure, it’s not your garden variety wine but it’s been made for thousands of years. Perhaps we need to talk about orange wine?

I remember when I had my first orange wine from Washington. Gah! It was not for me. You know how when you make a cup of tea and accidentally let it steep too long and the aromatics are like *kapow*? Then, each sip leaves you with kitty cat tongue. Yeah, that’s what it was like. Subsequently, I tried one from another producer. Hmmm, better I thought. Then, I had the good fortune to travel to Slovenia and experience orange wine the way it was meant to be. There it is typically crafted from the Rebula grape, often spending months in large vessels. It was just right! Food friendly, too.

As winemakers here in the United States gain more experience crafting orange wines, I’m finding more to my taste. Here are some recent highlights from Washington state and beyond.

What Is Orange Wine?

To be clear, orange wine is not made from oranges. Rather, it refers to the color of the wine much in the same way rosé does. To confuse things more, however, there is also “Vin Gris” sometimes referred to as “Ramato” which comes from Pinot Gris, a grape with pink tinged skin. The term amber wine also comes into play sometimes. To simplify things, think of orange wine as a style.

Simply put, orange wine is made by leaving wine grapes on their skins before pressing. The contact from the skins imparts color and tannin to the wine. So, a better term might be “skin contact wine.”

Domaine Pouillon

2021 Ramato
Days on skins:  20

The Pouillons have created a charming tasting oasis amidst their certified organic vineyard in the Columbia Gorge. The relaxed tasting room is complemented with outdoor seating and plush blankets to offer comfort from the region’s wind. Delectable bites of food were on offer the day of our visit.

Alexis Pouillon has quite a background. His mother opened the first organic restaurant in the United States. At the beginning of his wine career he interned at acclaimed Chateau de Beaucastel in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. When I asked Alexis why he started making a Ramato wine he joked that he hired a hipster assistant winemaker so it was obligatory!

A blend of 75% Pinot Gris and 25% Verdelho all from the Columbia Gorge, fruit spent 20 days on skins and almost 24 months in neutral barrels resulting in a food friendly wine with moderate tannins, cherry, citrus, and vanilla.

Hard Row to Hoe Vineyards

After Noon Delight® 2022
Days on skins:  8

Don and Judy Phelps founded their family winery in 2004. It has become well known for its tongue in cheek marketing based on a story about a local brothel back in the day. Hence, the name of the wine! Don’t let their sense of humor fool you, though, they are seriously committed to sustainable farming practices at their estate on the picturesque north shore of Lake Chelan. In fact, they’re listed in the Slow Wine Guide USA.

This 100% orange muscat is wildly expressive and transported the hubby back to Hawaii with its guava and tropical fruit notes. Winemaker Julian Shaver fermented this Delight in true orange wine style using an amphora he calls the Drunk Turtle.

Isenhower Cellars

2021 Vin Gris
Days on skins:  5

On a recent trip to Walla Walla the hubby and I spotted Isenhower Cellars and, on a whim, stopped for a tasting. As we sat outside under the shade of a patio umbrella, a hummingbird flitted from flower to flower in the garden. A sign of good things to come. When the Vin Gris was poured for us, I was elated to see Otis Vineyard cited on the label. I have fond memories of touring the Yakima Valley site years ago with Sean Tudor whose family owns and farms the vineyard. Planted in 1957 it is a mere stone’s throw from Boushey Vineyard in the Yakima Valley. The Pinot Gris grapes for this pretty salmon colored wine were hand harvested.

What’s more, artwork by Squire Broel graces the label of the Vin Gris. I met Squire way back when I started my wine career as a buyer for a shop and he was working with Foundry Vineyards.

During this weekday stop, owner Denise Isenhower walked us through our tasting. She was so charming I wondered why we hadn’t visited sooner? I didn’t take tasting notes, as our time here was intended to enjoy the moment. However, I purchased this wine to bring home as a way to recall the experience and reflect on the connections that wine forges.

Lushington Wines

2021 Skin Contact Riesling
Days on skins: 12

Teddi Fuller has a full plate. In addition to being the previously mentioned hipster assistant winemaker at Domaine Pouillon, she makes wine for her own label. Plus cares for the vineyard, does the marketing, sales, web design, and even the label art. ALL the things! Yet, she is grateful as it enables her to operate with as much integrity as possible.

Planted in 1978, the Hi Hill Vineyard she’s working with sits at an elevation of 1,888 feet in the Columbia River Gorge. The cooler temperatures here make it conducive to growing Riesling (there’s some established Pinot Noir, too, and Pinot Meunier in the works). Teddi transforms the grapes into wildly fun skin contact and sparkling wines.

For the skin contact Riesling, fruit spends twelve days on skins. Neutral oak creates a nice balance between acidity, weight, and tannin. The wine fills the mouth with palate coating textures and flavors of apricot, peach, and butterscotch.

Pet Project

2022 Orange Cuvée Pét Nat
Days on skins:  7

Double your cool factor and drink an orange wine that’s also fizzy! Jay Anderson, a Walla Walla native, started this sister winery to Foundry Vineyards when he wanted to make sparkling wines but find an easier way to do so than the traditional method. Each vintage he experiments with different techniques and explores diverse varieties. What’s more, since 2018 Jay has been sourcing all organic fruit earning the Walla Walla, Washington winery a spot in the Slow Wine Guide USA.

This surprising blend is composed of 29% Muscat Ottonel, 31.5% Pinot Gris, 17% Riesling, 22.5% Gewürztraminer and at just 10.5% alcohol it’s the perfect brunch wine. It’s a light bodied flirty blend that says, “come on, you know you want another sip,” with its faint ginger mingling with tangerine notes and a dry finish.

The Vice

2022 Orange of Gewurztraminer

A beautiful sample bottle of Orange Gewurztraminer from the Vice Wine turned out to be a fantastic sunny day sipper.

This Cali wine is also the perfect partner for one of my favorite appetizer recipes from chef Joanne Weir:  Almond, Anchovy and Fennel Toasts. Now before you lose it over the anchovies, just take a breath! Everyone I’ve prepared this recipe for loves it and doesn’t call out the little fishies. What happens is that mint, orange juice and zest take front and center with a lovely lift that play off the salty umami of the anchovies. Those flavors play nicely with the summery flavors of the wine.

Bonus: the grapes are from organic vineyards!

Grosgrain Cellars

Another notable producer of skin contact wines in Washington state includes Grosgrain Cellars. Matt Austin, winemaker and proprietor of the Walla Walla winery, is on the forefront of crafting some of the most groundbreaking wines in Washington from varieties off the beaten bath and with lower alcohol to boot. Sadly, I am out of my supply of the Grosgrain skin contact semillon.

Drinking Orange Wine

Chill orange wines just as you would white wines (45-50﮿F). However, you may want to serve those that are fuller bodied a little warmer (55﮿F). If you have Pinot Noir glasses, use those for consuming orange wines. I’ve been told that they best showcase the wines’ qualities.

So, enough talk about Orange wine, let’s taste! Which will you seek out?