Orange Wine

A different kind of juice…

Yume Shan'tell Semillon

In the past few years, we’ve been hearing a lot about the health benefits of red wine consumption, with the antioxidant resveratrol highly espoused. But what about white wine?
Oftentimes, the weather or the food we’re eating calls for something a touch more refreshing. Or, if you’re like me, you prefer white wine in general, even in winter.
Well, guess what - you can drink white wine and still enjoy a range of health benefits. Cue orange wine, also known as amber, white wine made in accordance with the age-old Georgian tradition of leaving it on its skins.

What is orange wine?

I would guess that most people who like to dine out, especially in hip, inner-city establishments, would probably have encountered the term orange wine. But for those still in the dark, here’s a quick explanation.

This is not wine made from oranges, as many people have confusingly thought. Nor is it a new style of wine that’s set to be hip and trendy for a moment and then disappear- this is, in fact, a return to an 8 000 year-old tradition. Wine has been made in this way in places like Georgia, which is where winemaking is thought to originate, since the very beginning. I think that it will continue to made in this way for a long time to come.

The component of red wine that gives it colour are the phenols and their aggregates, polyphenols. Orange wine is white wine made like red wine, with extended skin contact. White wine is normally pressed off from the skins and seeds once picked; skin contact or maceration extracts the flavour and colour components that we find in red wines. When you apply this technique to making white wine, you end up with similar properties, although the spectrum of colours and flavours is quite different.

Think about a red table grape, one that you would eat. If you cut it in half, the flesh will be translucent. Wine grapes are the same- the flesh has no colour, all of the colour is in the skins- unless it’s a rare teinturier grape, which does indeed have red flesh.

A short maceration will produce rose; extended maceration on skins, anywhere from a couple of days to a couple of months, creates red wine. Some wines even spend as long as a year on skins, with more and more flavour and colour gradually steeping out of the skins into the juice.

Orange wine is made in the same way and, like red wine, there a range of different hues and flavours that come from this process, depending on variables like varietal, length of maceration, vineyard characteristics, and season.

Orange wine can be light and refreshing, yet bold and tannic. It’s incredibly versatile with food, more so than white perhaps, and comes with its’ own health benefits, some of which are outlined below.


Phenols are important not only for the hue that they impart to the wine, but also for their antioxidant capacity. The antioxidant concentration in the skins and especially the seeds is far higher than that in the juice. These include gallic acid, catechin & epicatchin in the seeds, and ellagic acid, myricetin, quercetin, kaempferol, and trans-resveratrol in the skins. Each of these has been associated with improved health outcomes. For example, quercetin has been found to have anti-inflammation & anti-aging properties, myricetin is an anti-viral compound, and catechin has been found to help with weight loss via fat metabolism. These are just the main phenolic compounds found in orange wine. There are many more, all with their own specific health benefits. While there is still some speculation over how bioavailable these are, fermentation has been shown in general to increase the bioavailability of a range of compounds in food, - making it likely that these are more bioavailable in the fermented grape juice that we know and love, than in the fruit itself.

Lower sulphur

Around 1% of the population has a sensitivity to sulphur dioxide (SO2), although there are suggestions that this figure could be higher. Symptoms include coughing and wheezing, and eczema. In around 5% of asthma sufferers, the symptoms are worse.

It also plays a significant role in determining whether or not you suffer from a hangover. SO2 depletes glutathione, a co-enzyme that our body produces naturally, which is thought of as the body’s powerhouse antioxidant. It performs a range of functions, including helping the liver to remove alcohol once it has been broken down into acetaldehyde. Acetaldehyde is a  far more potent toxin than alcohol, and can enter our bloodstream if not quickly removed from the liver, causing hangover symptoms.

SO2, which is an antioxidant in and of itself, is used as a preservative to protect wine from oxygen spoilage. When ingested, it depletes glutathione. The body can make more glutathione, but it takes time, so if depleted by SO2 consumed in wine, it is unable to fulfil its role in removing acetaldehyde, which then enters the bloodstream. When it reaches the brain, we experience the symptoms of a hangover.

In white wine production, some of wine’s naturally occurring antioxidants are not present or occur in lower concentrations than in red or orange wine, since they are contained predominantly in the skins and seeds, so less of them are extracted with less skin contact or pressure. It's kind of like when you make a tea - the longer you leave the bag in, the more flavour it will have. If you squeeze it, you'll get even more flavour still. Think of white wine like a tea made with the bag in for only a few moments - it will be more delicate and watery simply because fewer of the flavour compounds have been released from the leaves. The lower concentration of flavour compounds makes the addition of SO2 a greater necessity- the wines do not have their own inherent preservation system, so need extra protection. This is why people with SO2 sensitives often have a stronger reaction to white wines, because the winemaker has added more to preserve them.

Orange wine, with the phenols imparted from skin and seed maceration, is generally more stable than white wine, with its own built-in antioxidant system, so in general requires lower SO2 to protect it.

Natural wines are generally produced with far less sulphur (if any at all) compared to conventionally-produced wines. It tends to be more of a ‘dose as needed approach’ than the more typical ‘blanket approach’. Since orange wine is mostly produced by natural wine producers, you could expect low levels of additions as it is a part of the philosophical approach taken by natural wine producers. However, orange wine and natural are not mutually exclusive characters- you would do well to vet a producer before purchasing their wine to ensure that they really do adhere to natural principles.

Lower Glycaemic Response

It’s no secret these days that carbohydrates are not the angels of the food world that we once thought, due to their ability to affect a glycaemic response which in turn induces an undesirable hormonal response which has been linked metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome is the mechanism responsible for a wide range of diseases including Type 2 Diabetes, heart disease, cardiovascular disease, obesity, various forms of cancer, anxiety and depression, to name just a few. Look it up on google - the literature on this topic is absolutely astounding.

 There is now growing evidence in the scientific literature of the potential of polyphenols to mitigate the effects of carbohydrate intake by the

“inhibition of carbohydrate digestion and glucose absorption in the intestine, stimulation of insulin secretion from the pancreatic β–cells, modulation of glucose release from liver, activation of insulin receptors and glucose uptake in the insulin-sensitive tissues, and modulation of hepatic glucose output.”

                                                                                     (Hanhineva, et al., 2010)

In a nutshell, this means that polyphenols have the ability to prevent a spike in blood sugar, which can have severe health implications over extended periods, ultimately leading to insulin resistance and increasing the myriad of chronic diseases that are now known to stem from it.

Red wine is often recommended preferentially over white for those looking to prevent a glycaemic response to wine drinking, as it generally contains far more polyphenols than white wine due to skin maceration. Well, now you can have your orange wine and drink it too- polyphenol-rich orange wine has the capacity to modulate glucose response in the same way.

This finding has implications not only for how our bodies response to the wine itself as it can also modulate the glycaemic response of foods consumed with the wine. So if you’re planning on having a bowl of pasta or rice, try a glass of orange wine with it. Not only will it taste delicious, it will help curb the blood sugar spike that usually comes with it.

In Conclusion

No matter what sort of natural wine you choose to drink, you’ll get a lot of the benefits of more phenols and polyphenols as natural wine isn’t fined, rarely filtered and the farming practices adopted by natural wine producers ensure higher concentrations in the grapes themselves. But if you’re a stubbornly white wine drinker like me, I’d recommend giving orange wine a go.

If you want to read a little bit more about orange or amber wines, here’s a little piece that Broadsheet interviewed me for a while ago. 

Lou ChalmerComment