It might be outdated prejudice, but it is still funny to me when a guy in tight jeans and a plaid flannel starts laying down some serious wine knowledge. But that’s just the world we live in. Beards, T-shirts, and leather bracelets are quickly replacing suits, white gloves, and tastevins as the de riguer sommelier outfit. Which is to say, real wine experts increasingly look like Pitchfork writers. And these days, they’ve all got a new indie darling: orange wine. The question is, which indie-darling path will orange wine take? Will it go the way of Bon Iver, hitting the mainstream, winning awards, and hanging out with Kanye West? Or will it follow the path of a band like Deerhoof, noise rock that’s beloved by nerds and devotees, but too damn weird for most folks?
To say that orange wine is sweeping the nation would be overselling it, a lot, but it has nevertheless started showing up at places like Má Pêche, St. Anselm, and Governor in New York; and the Tasting Kitchen in Los Angeles — bars and restaurants that are packed with the sorts of customers who used to hang out in record shops back when those existed. (There’s been a bit of national media coverage, too.) Wine shops have been slower on the uptake, but don’t completely avoid it, especially if the shop in question has the raggedy hipster vibe and clerks who know their stuff.
This is all to say: If you get your wine from a place staffed by cool kids, chances are good you’ll be able to get your hands on some orange wine.
But do you want it? That depends on how much you like weird wine. At Terroir, a natural-wine bar in San Francisco, I tried some with three friends, none of whom had heard of orange wine. “Wait, do you mean wine made from oranges?” Friend No. 1 asked. Alas, no. The name just refers to the color.
Orange wine does go by another name that’s less confusing, but is also more unfortunate: skin-contact wine, which brings to mind things far more evocative than fruit. Back around the year 2000, an Italian winemaker named Josko Gravner, bored with the wines he had been producing, decided to ferment a batch of wine in clay pots buried in the ground, which is about as old-school as it sounds. But that isn’t all he did: He was making white wine, and instead of removing the grape skins from the fermenting juice — something you would normally do — he left them in. This makes the outcome harder to predict, but that was sort of the point. What Gravner ended up with was orange wine. It wasn’t a new style, necessarily; it was actually a return to a really old style, and if the process of making it sounds rustic and strange and unlike everything else happening in modern wine, the resulting wine itself reinforces the idea.
Because the skins remain in the juice while it ferments, it picks up qualities you’d normally associate with red wine: tannins, structure, and a thickness that doesn’t come from oak aging or high alcohol content. At Terroir, we tried a 2008 Salvo Foti Vinujancu. It was yeasty and sour and cloudy. I liked it — a lot. But my friends were less enthused: Two thought it was different, but dull. “Sort of tastes like a warm wine cooler,” said Friend No. 3. “Put some sugar in this and it’s what my mom drinks.”
I wouldn’t go so far as to compare Gravner to Bartles and Jaymes, but my friend hit upon the big problem facing orange wine’s move into the mainstream: It isn’t the kind of wine that most people necessarily want to drink on its own. While “orange wine” the concept is cool and nerdy and different, “orange wine” the product isn’t for everyone. When I asked my friends if they’d ever order something like the Vinujancu over a standard white wine, each said they preferred regular white wine.
But here’s what to do: Drink some orange wine along with food. Orange wines are all over the place from a flavor standpoint, so there’s no go-to rule for pairing it, but unlike a lot of white wines, which get bowled over by strong food flavors, orange wine has the structure and acidity from the skins to stand up to strong dishes while still retaining the spectrum of white-wine flavors. Without getting too wonky about the pairing-speak, know that you can also ditch fish-with-white, meat-with-red thinking; orange wine is a lot more versatile. For example, a bottle of Angiolino Maule Sassaia, which tastes almost nutty, can holds its own against something like grilled hanger steak; and that Vinujancu had a lot of qualities of a funky craft beer; it’d be great at cutting through fatty dishes — or anything with bacon.
For a lot of people (your author included), the fact that orange wine is just something different is a compelling enough reason to try it, and a chance to learn a little more about it. It’s a whole new kind of wine to get geeky about, which is just awesome. But what makes it so awesome — its story, the conversation that you get to have about esoteric winemaking practices — just isn’t the kind of thing that’s going to get most of the wine-drinking public excited. That’s fine with me; there’s plenty of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in the world for those people. Orange wine can keep flying under the radar. In fact, it might be better that orange wine will never appeal to the masses. After all, it always sucks when your favorite band goes mainstream.
Earlier: How to Drink at Weddings