Tastier than it sounds
A guide to the best of the winemaking style that offers new flavours, as well as colours
Orange wines? If you’ve not come across them before, you could be forgiven for thinking I’ve made them up. It sounds like something an ambitious but clueless marketing person would come up with having sized up wine’s annoyingly limited colour palette and convinced their bosses what Generation Y really want is a brand new colour of drink.
In fact, if you listen to orange wine’s (many) detractors, the artisanal producers of this niche but, in sommelier circles, very on‑trend style of extreme white are more cynical than any corporate producer. Orange wines, those critics say, are an emperor’s new drink, a way of passing off faulty, cloudy, dirty brews as an authentic, avant-garde and, of course, expensive way for credulous enthusiasts to express their individuality.
I sympathise with the critics, but only up to a point. There can be something offputting about being served an orange wine if you’re expecting a conventional white. It’s not just the colour, which can be amber or a brick-like pink. It’s the challenge they present to our idea of what white wine should look like.
But for fans of the style – and I’d now count myself among them – the colour and appearance are the least interesting thing about them. There is a combination of flavours in the best examples – orange pith, spice, cherries, nuts, pears and Campari-like bitter herbs – that you just don’t get in other wines. Even more arresting are the textures: there is tannin and grip like a red wine, but less weight and density. The palate is enlivened with the mineral, mouthwatering acidity and tension of a white wine.
This best-of-both worlds feel is not surprising: orange wine is essentially white made using the principles you’d use to make a red. The key is the skins: whereas most white wines are separated from their skins and pips immediately after the grapes are pressed, orange wines take grapes used for white wine and, like a red, leave them macerating in contact with their skins.
It’s how most white wines used to be made but its renaissance is relatively recent, driven by pioneers such as Josko Gravner and Stanko Radikon in Friuli, north-east Italy. Disenchanted by the overly technical approach of modern winemaking, they began experimenting in the 1990s with long macerations using, in Gravner’s case, clay amphorae. The arrestingly different wines they made spawned imitators in his home region and across the border in Slovenia. Along with Georgia, where the style is also enjoying a revival, those regions remain the source of the best orange wines. But adventurous producers around the world are also beginning to experiment.
Not all of them are successful: orange winemaking is more risky. And you get the sense that many producers are still learning to master what is still, despite its ancient roots, a new technique.
Done right, a good orange wine’s combination of textures works well when matching with food. There’s substance enough for meat, the freshness required for fish – and the combination of the two makes them among the best I’ve come across for aged hard cheese.
The wines might take a bit of getting used to – and since they’re usually made in small quantities by small producers they don’t come cheap. But if you’re curious, try a glass in a natural wine bar before committing to a bottle – and keep an open mind.