Orange, amber or skin contact; whatever you want to call it, it can be absolutely joyful but it can also be a bit challenging sometimes. First of all, the prevailing nomenclature - orange wine - is probably the driving factor to the confusion as to what the hell this beverage is. It is wine, it's made from grapes, and it's been made like this for thousands of years. The easiest way to put it is that it's a white wine made like a red (or rose) - in that usually (but not always) for a white, the producer wants to promote crisp fresh and straightforward wine, meaning when they crush and press the grapes they get the juice away from the skins as soon as they can. Lots of flavours, tannin (that causes the drying effect from a red wine) and colour comes from the skins, so in a red wine you usually see some skin contact or 'maceration' to give that colour and tannin. Orange wine is exactly that, but with white grapes; when you get some skin contact it gives off an orangey tint - hence the name - but also promotes a load of interesting, delicious but often esoteric flavours. Think of apricot and peach SKIN rather than fruit, wild fresh herbs rather than lemony citrus, and usually a bit more texture on the palate. A lot of them tend to be more 'natural' and experimental so could even have less fruity flavours, with things like hay and straw popping up, but all of this culminates to a very interesting bottle of wine that's gonna make you think as well as smile.
There's hard and fast way of categorising the styles, but generally speaking the longer the time sits on the skins, the more intense those fruit skin and herbal aromas, as well as the amount of tannin there will be. Most wines will see between 3-10 days on the skins, but there's lots of very punchy bottles out there that can see 3-6 months and beyond.
Grape variety also makes a big difference with different species having thinner or thicker skins, just like in a red wine for example a Cabernet Sauvignon is generally going to be more powerful than a Pinot Noir which is a much thinner skinned grape. In this vain, lighter oranges are often made with what we call aromatic grapes, those with lighter amounts of tannin but generally more delicate and floral aromas that translate to blossom like wines from grapes such as Muscat / Moscatel, Sauvignon Blanc and Muller Thurgau.
There's also a rough style between individual countries examples of amber wine. Spain does a great line in the more fruity and sun soaked styles, places like Penedes in the north makes salty yet fruity wines like Disbarats by La Salada, and the more intense Blan 5-7 from Jordi Llorens, or our go to introductory orange wine, Tragolargo from Alicante further south. Eastern Europe is very well known for its skin contacts, and has been making them for generations. In fact, the first ever evidence of winemaking in history was a probable orange wine near Tibilisi, Georgia from 5,980 BC! Georgian oranges tend to hit quite hard, with big extraction and big big tannin to stand up to their hearty cuisine, while those made in the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Slovakia and Austria tend to be a little more accessible in general. Forks and Knives from Milan Nestarec in Moravia is a tiny production bottling that combines grapefruit like floarility with a more feral animal-y type edge, while Jakub Novak produces a wine in the same style but with a slightly softer mouthfeel and a definite riesling twang. Slovakia is represented by female led winery Slobodne who make an unreal range of oranges, with Vronski being an interesting choice with loads of asian like spice and umami. If you're loving the skins and want to drop a bit of cash, you can do much worse than the wine from Radovan Suman who uses botrytised (dried from a fungus, noble rot, which gives an opulence) grapes and oak as well as skin contact for this enigmatic bottling.
Amber wine can be tough to get on terms with, but it gives back so much more than it takes. The flavours aren't what you expect if you're used to drinking more conventional white wines, but once you get your head around it, it opens you up to a world of tastes and aromas you never knew existed. Peach skin, coriander seeds and wet fur? You're never going to get that in a New Zealand Sauvvy B hey? They work with food amazingly (Middle Eastern food is my fave) because of the often high acid and presence of tannin, yet they're crazy interesting so they're also fantastic to sip on their own. I'm a huge fan of skin contact here, and I hope you will be too! You can check out the whole Amber selection HERE.