Explaining the Orange Wine Trend

Red, white and rosé have long been the colors or styles of wine, but orange wines have lately been providing a fresh and funky option.

Orange wines aren’t exactly new; they’ve been produced in Europe for some 5,000 years. But it’s just been in the past five to 10 years that consumers in the U.S. have discovered orange wines.

These wines fall into a category of their own, even though their color can range from white-wine-like gold through tawny brown. They tend to have earthy notes and a vaguely sour taste, with the fruitiness and minerality of white wines and the body, tannins and texture of reds.

“Orange wine is a white wine that drinks like a red wine, with red wine flavors, but drinks like a sherry,” says Keith Wallace, a beverage consultant and founder of the Wine School of Philadelphia.

Orange wines are also right on trend, since they’re as natural as a wine can get. They’re typically left to their own devices to ferment in a rudimentary way and have no additives—not even yeast or sulfur.

“You don’t want to sit around for a long time and sip this wine,” Wallace says. “However, I do love it, and if I want to stimulate my mind to the utmost degree, I might pull out an orange wine. But you have to embrace its freakiness. It’s an intellectual experience.”

“Pairing orange wines is interesting: There’s quite a spectrum in the level of freshness and extraction and the drying factor on the palate.” —Ksandek Podbielski, co-owner of Coquine in Portland, OR

Orange is the New White

Most restaurants that serve orange wines break them out into a separate section of the wine list. Waypoint in Cambridge, MA, categorizes them under its Sleeping Beauties section, which includes wines that have been through an interesting process, such as an albariño that’s aged under water. There are four or five oranges wines offered here by the bottle, as well as another by the glass.

Waypoint’s sister restaurant Alden & Harlow, also in Cambridge, has a section for orange wines as well, plus it highlights an orange wine of the day.

Coquine restaurant in Portland, OR, carries orange wines from around the world and lists them under a section called Gray (such as pinot gris), Orange and Yellow (vin jaune from Eastern France). “It’s a minor category but a fun one,” says co-owner Ksandek Podbielski. The section typically offers 13 wines, and three to seven are usually orange.

Italian restaurant SPQR in San Francisco has 10 to 15 orange wines on its wine list, as well as one or two by the glass. These rotate, “so guests can try something off the beaten path without committing to a bottle,” says sommelier Bianca Jimenez Rivera.

The orange wines are not in a separate area of the menu, but rather scattered throughout the white wine section. SPQR is known for having a more esoteric list, Jimenez Rivera says, so guests come in to look for unique wines.

Jimenez Rivera discusses orange wines only if customers ask about them. This happens fairly frequently, since the wines tend to appeal to three types of guest: those looking for something different; wine geeks “interested in different winemaking techniques, different flavor profiles and the adventure,” and those who trust the sommelier or server’s recommendation, she explains.

Orange wines have been on the menu at Bellina Alimentari in Atlanta since the restaurant opened in 2015. “It’s very much part of our philosophy—we celebrate natural wines, and our list is only wines indigenous to Italy,” says general manager Bethany Thompson.

Here they’re in their own orange section of the wine list “which makes it easy for people to find them,” she says.

Bring on the Funk

Wine drinkers are looking for more funky, weird drinks these days, Wallace says. “It’s a way of showing you know your stuff. Millennials especially are very exploratory and the story behind these wines appeals to them.” About half of customers at Alden & Harlow haven’t heard of orange wines and want to learn more. 

So wine director Jen Fields deliberately includes the word “orange” on the wine list, to bring up questions. Several orange wines—especially those from Italy—tend to be varietals many Americans haven’t heard of, such as verdiccio, malvasia and bical.

Podbielski gets a lot of interest in the “colorful” section of his wine list, especially from younger wine drinkers in their 20s and 30s. “The questions give me a chance to hopefully turn customers on to something exciting,” he says. “There’s definitely an increase of people in the past few years who know about orange wines.”

The team at Bellina Alimentari strives to introduce more customers to orange wines. “As part of our introduction, we ask who’s familiar with orange wines. Then we chat with them about the process of making orange wine and it’s amazing to see how many people want to try it,” Thompson says.

“People want to try it because it’s so different, and because we tell the story of this wine so they can relate to it,” she says. Once they try orange wine, she adds, guests “either love it or hate it.”

The orange wines at SPQR in San Francisco are not in a separate area of the menu, but rather scattered throughout the white wine section.

Tasting Notes

Even though a lot of orange wines come from Italy, and some from France, they typically don’t pair best with foods from those countries, says Wallace. The hands-down winning food to pair with orange wine, he says, is barbecue, because of the acidity.

“It helps accentuate the flavors, because the wine has very distinct earthy notes, like mushroom, but they’re also sour,” Wallace notes. These are things that work as a counterpoint towards the fattiness.”

He also loves fermented foods such as kimchi or sauerkraut with orange wines “because they have flavors that are in the wine as well—they mirror each other. It can be kind of funky.”

In Fields’ opinion, orange wine goes well with a lot of foods “and that’s why we brought them in initially. We have a lot of umami, nut purees, cheeses and miso,” she says. “What I love about the orange wines is they have acidity and a lot of brightness.”

“There’s a bit more structure and acidity to orange wines but it’s not too overwhelming and there’s a savory aspect—such as herbaceous notes.” —Bianca Jimenez Rivera, sommelier at SPQR in San Francisco

Pairing orange wines is interesting, Podbielski says. “There’s quite a spectrum in the level of freshness and extraction and the drying factor on the palate.”

The orange wines go well with a whole roast chicken dish. “It’s a dish you can continue drinking orange wine with and it evolves and changes,” Podbielski says. They also pair well with a roasted guinea hen, “so the more substantial and savory styles of orange work well with the deeper, gamier flavors.”

Podbielski also loves orange wine with artichokes. “The acidity cuts through the sweeter and weightier elements of artichoke, and the tannins bind up with the richness when they are braised.”

Jimenez Rivera feels orange wines lend themselves particularly to seafood preparations. “There’s a bit more structure and acidity to these wines, but it’s not too overwhelming, and there’s a savory aspect—such as herbaceous notes,” she says.

The orange wines at Bellina Alimentari are best served with the restaurant’s misto board of cheese and charcuterie, says Thompson. The wines’ acids cut through the richness of the foods, she says. 

The lightest bodied goes well with Georgia shrimp with black rice risotto, while the heavier ones go well with a dry aged steak or pungent cheese.

The Bottom Line

The orange wines at Alden & Harlow tend to be on the pricier side: They range from $50 to $150, but that’s in line with the other bottles on the wine list.

By-the-glass pours are usually about $15, “and we generally don’t make the same percentage on those, but it’s important we feature them,” Fields says. Overall, she adds, the more affordable orange wines come out of Italy.

Bellina Alimentari has four orange wines, ranging from $60 to $160 by the bottle and $12 to $40 by the glass. These tend to be a little more expensive than the average bottles on the list. But even the $40-per-glass Gravner orange wine from Friuli is priced well for what it is, Thompson says.

Gravner “is the king of orange wine and [Friulian winemaker Josko] Gravner himself has been so instrumental in re-einergizing the orange movement,” Thompson says. “It embodies all ideas of quality and the pursuit of perfection in winemaking.

Gravner’s attention to detail ranges from hand-picked grapes to using ancient wine making techniques, such as fermenting in Georgian clay amphorae, Thompson says. “His wines are special because of the efforts, techniques and respect for tradition and land.”

That fits in with the restaurant’s mission, she adds. “The intention of Bellina is truly to make things approachable, price-wise, so people can get an understanding of different food and wines that are part of Italian lifestyle.”

SPQR, which offers only wines from Italy, prices its orange wines at $16 to $17 on average per glass and about $45 a bottle.

At Coquine, Podbielski features orange wines from Austria, Oregon and Italy, with the domestic wines being the most affordable and Austrian wines being the most expensive. But all orange wines are on the upper end ($50 to $90) of the restaurant’s price point for bottles, which averages $65.

SPQR offers only wines from Italy, and Jimenez Rivera says the orange wines vary more from producer to producer than region to region. They cost $16 to $17 on average per glass and around $45 per bottle, though they can go close to $200. That’s in line with prices for the other wine bottles on the list.

Podbielski thinks orange wines are going to slowly gain in popularity and anticipates them being more year-round wines than rosé.

“Because of the tannins, the savory quality and the weight, they challenge people’s understanding of what white wines are,” he says. “I think we’ll see them gain in popularity, but I don’t think they will have a mass market appeal.” 

Amanda Baltazar is a freelance writer based in the Pacific Northwest who frequently writes about food and beverages.

1 Comment

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