Skin contact wine. Amber wine. Ubiquitous hipster juice. Whatever side of the fence you’re on, there’s no denying that orange wine is gaining mainstream appeal, thanks, in part, to the growing popularity of natural wine. See Natural Selection, Doug Wregg’s excellent intro, for more on this topic.
MORE THAN A TREND
A wider acceptance of wilder, more challenging flavours has led more people than ever to try orange wine – particularly millennials. It’s perhaps because of this that the more traditional side of the wine industry continues to tar skin contact with the same brush as oat milk and jackfruit burgers – despite it being the most ancient type of wine in recorded history. Fact is, experts claim it to be the original wine, and can trace production back to 6,000 BC, where grapes were crushed and fermented in qvevri (large terracotta pots) to achieve a rudimentary (but undoubtedly delicious) rendition of the style we know today.
A CHALLENGE OF TASTE
Months ago, I brought an orange wine to a dinner party. As the night’s resident ‘wine expert’, I arrived with a golden bottle of skin contact Riesling and the smug hope it would become their ‘eureka moment wine’ – a euphoria every wine-lover experiences, often the instance that kick starts a life-long obsession. I watched closely as they took their first sip. They politely smiled, dubbed it as ‘unfinished cider’, and left their glasses half empty until the end of the night. This hasn’t been an isolated instance. The tirade of complaints continues: to many well-meaning wine enthusiasts, orange wine is dirty, confusing, or just plain awful.
I think it’s dangerous to pigeonhole new, challenging tastes as ‘bad’ too quickly. I’m yet to meet a coffee-freak who didn’t shudder after their first ever sip, or a three-year-old who immediately adored broccoli.
Simply put, just because something is unfamiliar to your palate, doesn’t mean you need to (or will) hate it forever. Having said this, I recognise it’s incredibly pretentious to blame someone’s ‘undeveloped palate’, which is quite literally everything I stand against. On any given occasion, it is always better to meet skeptics in the middle, rather than condemn them for having the ‘wrong’ opinion. Where would we be without friendly debate – something, I find, which is always succoured by good wine?
It is my firm belief that the better we can understand how something is made, the more we can come to appreciate how and why it tastes the way it does, and the (often strenuous) steps taken to achieve it. Only then can we put to rest this notion that orange wine is crude, unfinished, or incomplete. It is exactly as it should be.
HOW ORANGE WINE IS MADE
Whenever I explain orange wine to the uninitiated, I first explain how white wine is made. To make a traditional white wine, grapes are crushed and immediately pressed, normally resulting in a clear, lemon-coloured wine. For orange wine, the process diverges after the crushing stage. Instead of immediately pressing the juice off the grapes, the juice is left in contact with the skins, seeds and stems, which impart more flavour, texture and – of course – colour. The result? An entirely different beast.
THE FOOD-PAIRING WINE
My love for orange wine doesn’t stop at a glassful on the sofa, its complexity, juiciness and texture makes it the perfect wine style for pairing with food.
They’re bold enough to stand up to strong flavours, but have the gentle aromatics to balance aromatic dishes.
If there’s a sharp acidity to cut through richer foods, even better. I’ve found expressions that have paired exquisitely with jollof, Malaysian chilli crab, and a peach and mozzarella salad.
A SPECTRUM OF STYLES
Just like red, white and rosé, orange wine can be made in a range of styles depending on winemaking techniques and grape variety. Strictly speaking, the longer you leave the grape juice in contact with the skins the more deeply flavoured and textured the wine will be. Expressions therefore vary from the tropical and complex (check out this the Graue Freyheit, an energetic blend from Heinrich, or González Bastías Naranjo an old-vine Moscatel, Pais and Torontel blend from the south of Chile) to gentle, more perfumed styles like Agrippiotis Orange natur, from Tetramythos in the northern Peloponnese, or Jeremy Bricka's fragrant, bergamot and clementine scented Vin Orange made from Chasselas.