My first orange wine confused me. I was new to skin-contact wine, so when the bottle arrived, I threw it in the fridge before pouring a sample. It appeared light amber-ish gold in the glass and came out of the fridge chilled like a white wine. But each sip tasted bitter and dead on the palate. The tannins were tacky and sticky, and my tongue seemed papered to the roof of my mouth.
I’ve since learned from my mistakes. Back then, skin-contact wines were still a bit of a novelty in the U.S., but today they are mainstays on lists in New York and West Coast cities, as well as smaller markets. So why are so many places still serving them wrong?
By wrong, I mean serving them like I once had: ice cold.
Orange wines can sometimes look like a white wine, because it’s made from white grapes and retains much of their coloring. As a result, the instinct is often to serve a glass of orange wine in the white wine range of 45 to 55°F, rather than like a red at slightly cooler than room temperature, around 58 to 68°F.
But orange wines are made with techniques used for red wine, which allows grapes extended contact with their skins before vintners press off the juice.
“I think of orange much more in the camp of light-bodied red than I do white, and I think that people need to untrain their brains to think that a white grape equals treatment as a white wine,” says Brianne Day, former Wine Enthusiast 40 under 40 Tastemaker and owner of Day Wines. She makes three orange wines—Tears of Vulcan, Vin de Days l’Orange and Zibibbo.
“That kind of grittiness that you get sometimes from skin contact, with some kinds of grapes, can be off-putting in some circumstances and temperatures,” says Day. “Coldness can exacerbate that.”
Day believes barrel-aged whites, most reds and many orange wines are best in that cool cellar temperature range of 55 to 58°F, though if a wine is low in astringency and tannins, she says it’s suited to be chilled cooler. But take her Tears of Vulcan, which is typically around 40% Pinot Gris. It’s better served at a warmer temperature.
“Pinot Gris, when it’s on skins, oftentimes we get quite a lot of tannin and the particular site that I work with is pretty tannic. So, I wouldn’t go as cold with that one because all you’re going to notice when you drink it is the tannins and the astringency,” says Day. “It’s kind of like … if you got a Nebbiolo that has a lot of tannin to it and you were to chill it down, you wouldn’t even really be able to taste the wine because it would just be sucking all the moisture out of your mouth. I kind of treat the orange wine similar to that.”
Kate Lasky and Tomasz Skowronski, owners of Pittsburgh’s Apteka restaurant, also argue for serving skin-contact wines at just cooler than room temperature. They’ve had natural wines and orange wines on the list since Apteka opened in 2016.
“Whether it’s light-bodied reds or oranges, typically we’ve pushed the envelope,” says Skowronski. He prefers to serve orange wines at the upper end of the optimal temperature window, closer to 65°F. “That’s especially true for bigger oranges, where those tannins are a little bit more aggressive as it gets colder, and then you don’t have the levity of the nose to kind of lift it up.”
Lasky and Skowronski say they’ve especially noticed that when it comes to Georgian and certain Austrian wines, aromatics are really only accessible above a certain temperature threshold. Lasky reflects back several years to a bottle of Grauburgunder from a favorite producer—a wine she estimates spent a week to 10 days on the skins.
“It looks beautiful; it’s this really nice, pink hue,” she reminisces. “We threw it in the fridge and drank it cold and it tasted really bitter and horrible… bitter and boring. And then, you know, two hours later it’s like this bright [wine]. It was still not a super aromatic wine, but before it was like, you had nothing.”
Georgia, with its 8,000 years of winemaking history, arguably has a better handle on the issue of service temperature for orange wines than other wine-drinking cultures. That’s because many of its wines, including its qvevris—wines fermented and aged below ground in traditional enormous clay vessels known as qvevri—come with recommended cellar and service temperatures written on the back label. That’s especially true for qvevri amber wines, the preferred Georgian term for “orange” wines.
While a qvevri does benefit from a little bit of chilling, it shouldn’t be served at temperatures as low as 40 to 45°F, says Noel Brockett, president of importer Georgian Wine House. Instead, it should be somewhere between 55 and 63°F.
“If it is a qvevri wine, if it is an amber wine—it needs to be treated like a red wine,” says Brockett. “Its complexity of bouquet, the progression of phenolic and tannins in the glass, are helped by a warmer temperature.” If one serves a qvevri or amber wine five or 10°F cooler than cellar temperature, the consumer’s experience of the wine is closed off.
“Basically, what happens when you chill a wine is that the aromatic qualities, the volatile molecules, are not as warmed up. Even if you swirl the glass, those things are not being released at that temperature,” he explains.
With amber wines, it’s essential to get the aromatics up front. “Those are the kind of sweet-ish tea aromas, [which are a] little bit rustic—you need to get those aromas, to get your nose aligned,” says Brockett. “The wines actually kind of play this little trick on you where you feel like you’re going to get something sweet and then, when it gets onto the palate, it has this dry, tannic finish. Do it at the wrong temperature and you get no aromatics; it kind of smells flat. And then, all you’ve experienced is dry tannin, and that is just not what amber wines are meant to be.”
Going forward, these restaurateurs, importers and winemakers hope more people will serve skin-contact whites closer to cellar temperature—more in line with, say, a Pinot Noir than a Pinot Gris. After all, if the customer’s first, second or even fifth introduction to an orange wine is a bitter, tacky experience that leaves their tongue stuck to the roof of their mouth without a hint or hope of flowers or herbs, why would they come back for a second glass?
For more details on the optimal serving temperatures for different wines, check out our cheat sheet for serving wine.