Orange wine: A primer on the ancient style that's making a comeback this summer
From Georgian antiquity to today's top wine bars, sip on some now
In the olden days, wine was red or white. As time passed, a scruffy, sweet runt bobbed her way into our consciousness. She was pink, proud and wearing a power suit. Once for drinkers who liked piña coladas and melted popsicles with soda water (sweet! maybe a bit bubbly! not good!), rosé is now a firmly cemented dry wine category with complex, place-driven expressions (aka terroir) that are well represented in top restaurants, good wine shops and rap lyrics (always a good popular culture litmus test).
Just when society has finally (almost) stopped typecasting rosé as a mere flirty drink and only for the girls - thank God - there is a new-old kid in town. It rejects your gender norms, is wearing a bold cape (of flavour!) and doesn't care what you think of it. After all, it has been around for over 5000 years - first made in modern day Georgia in underground clay pots known as Qvervi. After a few hundred years outside of popular culture, it is now taking over top wine programs and wine lovers heart strings.
Say hello to orange wine.
"It's so cool that wine is opening up to fruit other than grapes!", my smart, worldly lawyer friend remarked after a trip to New York's top wine bars a few weeks ago. "I just love orange wine. Who knew - oranges!?" I am extremely sad to report that orange wine is not made from oranges, but white grapes soaked on their skins. A primer for open-minded wine tasting below because, #2017.
What it is
Typically, white wine is made from crushing white grapes and removing the pressed juice from the skins immediately. This - along with some filtration techniques - creates a clear white wine after fermentation. Orange wine is made from these same white grapes using the process of red wine production. In red wine, after pressing, the grape skins are kept with the juice to soak (macerate!) creating more colour, tannin and flavour in the final product from the skins and seeds.
By using this same process, winemakers extract the colour of these lighter grapes turning the wine anywhere from amber to light orange depending on the hues in the grape variety; white grape skins run the gamut from light yellow to dusty pink. This skin contact gives the wine colour, but also fuller, more savoury texture and even some tannins, all things you'd typically find in a red wine. Top producers swear that this method allows these grapes to reach their full potential, showcasing the large range of flavours lost by typical white wine production. Often orange wine is made by small producers with little intervention - meaning little to no additives, little to no filtration and very expressive, characterful wines that can be a little cloudy. Do not be afraid of the cloud! Sediment is good for you and where the flavour lives.
Where it's made
Orange wine is the Benjamin Button of wine styles, actually very old, but fresh as a puppy to most drinkers around the world. A wise baby, new to you, but with stories stretching back over 5000 years, aka The Bronze Age when humans needed refreshment after learning to smelt copper. Beyond its early history in Georgia, it also has firmly planted roots in north-east Italy and Slovenia. These historical regions remain the centre of top orange wine producers. Look for Friuli-Venezia Giulia for some of Italy's top producers.
More and more orange wine is not contained to its historical European homeland, with dynamic producers emerging in California, Australia, France and even Canada. Common grapes with a bit of colour perfect for orange wine production include Pinot Grigio (not your mother's Pinot Grigio!), native Italian grapes Friulano and Ribolla Gialla and increasingly Sauvignon Blanc (classic grassy New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc this is not!).
What it tastes like
At first, orange wine can be an explosion of deliciously, confusing flavours. There are lots of fruit and floral characteristics common with white wine, but instead of being crisp and fresh these are stewed and rustically perfumed, think over-ripe tropical fruit in the woods on a hot day... with a mouthful of hazelnuts. The palate is not crisp and fresh like a typical white nor is it rich and full like a red. Firmly in-between, orange wine has dry, expansive flavours, a full-bodied, almost oily mouthfeel that dries your mouth like a mesmerizing root tea from a celebrity-hearer (LIKE CONFUSING AT FIRST BUT GREAT). If you like interesting charcuterie, regional cheeses, adventurous flavours and bold, but nuanced delicacies orange wine is for you. Just like in red wine, colour is related to tannins and boldness. Typically the more colour (the more orange) the more bold the flavours, the less orange, the more delicate.
What you should pair it with
Orange wines are full of interesting character, lush flavours and serious structure. Like big, red wines, these are best drunk with some age and if young, put in a decanter for a few hours; this decanter needn't be fancy! #aflowervaseisfine
Pair an orange with anything you'd pair with a full-bodied white or a light red: many sommeliers swear by orange with pork or other lighter tasting meat. Eating Thai, Indian or other foods with spice are a great reasons to pull out an orange, offering enough structure to stand up to these flavours without overwhelming them. Orange can also be great with hard to pair savoury foods like asparagus, artichokes and olives.
The changing, complex nature of orange wines also lends itself perfectly to an after dinner drink matched with cheese or nuts. Relax, and watch these wines transform with more grace than your colleague you definitely should not have invited to this summer BBQ.
Maybe try this!
Although made from a different process, vin jaune from the Jura in north-east France offers many similar, nutty, full-bodied flavours found in orange wine. If you love cooking with different wines, steal this classic recipe substituting vin jaune for orange wine with your next chicken dinner for not-the-average-all-american meal.
Although still hard to find in many wine shops, head to your favourite wine bar and tell them you are ready to explore. You will be rewarded. Tell us everything.
Nicole Campbell has a WSET diploma, runs La Petite, a boutique wine agency from Lifford, as well as a witchy wine party the first Monday of every month at Superpoint in Toronto. She is usually wearing cool pants and screaming about something she loves; she tells us it's charming! Follow her on Instagram at @grapewitches or on her website grapewitches.com