Orange wine is cool, but will it stick around?
What is Orange Wine?
My most recent encounter with orange wine was about 4 months ago, in the Shoreditch area of London, where hipster culture has firmly taken root. I don’t live in the capital, so every time I visit, I expect to encounter a new hipster trend of some sort. Foliage-packed cocktails served in jam jars. Waiters with bushy yet impeccably groomed beards. ‘Matcha’ green tea that makes regular green tea seem tediously mainstream. Cafés that only sell breakfast cereal. Pop-up bistros where the phrase ‘would you like an avocado with that’ is used with reckless abandon. And on this occasion, a rather flamboyantly orange-coloured wine. I spluttered at the price per glass, then remembered I was in London, attempted to appear nonchalant as I reached for my credit card, and sat down to sip my orange wine.
Orange wine is NOT, of course, made from oranges. And far from being a futuristic hipster beverage, the story of orange wine is firmly rooted in the past – it is made using a technique that was originally practiced by the Romans. The best way to describe it is that it is a white wine made in the way that we tend to associate with red wine. The grapes that are used to make white wine are not white in color – their skins are various shades of green, or even gray or purple, with varying flesh colors also. There is a good deal of flavor and color in the bits and pieces that are usually removed when a white wine is made, so instead of discarding them, the orange wine producers leave them in contact with the juice, in order that all that flavor and color will be extracted. Some of the wines are aged in clay amphorae, a very traditional method that extracts even more flavor and color.
A New Spin on an Old Classic
As I sipped my wine, which was from Georgia, incidentally, I realized it was not my first encounter with the drink now known as orange wine. Many years ago, I had a bit of an obsession with a particular Italian Pinot Grigio Ramato wine which had a similarly orange hue. Of course, ‘orange wine’ is a term that has been coined relatively recently, whereas ‘Ramato’ wines, usually from the Friuli area of Italy, have been a well-kept secret for decades. What I had enjoyed about the Ramato wine, and indeed the Georgian wine in my glass, was the big punch of flavor. The slightly honeyed, tropical fruit notes on the nose lure you in, and then there’s this smack of weird things that you would not expect to find in a typical white wine. Tasters tend to mention things like hazelnuts, juniper, and bitter orange peel. I also detected some smoky undertones. (Mentioning things like wood varnish might be off-putting to less adventurous tasters, but let’s face it, we’ve been describing Riesling as having petrol-like qualities for years, we know it’s harmless and delicious.) In any case, it is the color that is more likely to repulse the unadventurous, as it can vary from a vibrant amber to a slightly unappealing pale brown. Purveyors of orange wine would insist that this is part of its charm and character, of course – the color is perfectly natural, and that, in itself, is a desirable quality.
Orange Wine has Hipster Appeal
Here in the UK, we have been guilty of the last few years of sticking the word ‘artisan’ in front of the name of products, charging twice as much for them, and convincing hipsters to buy them. As such, we have given mundane products like popcorn and potato chips a new edginess that appeals to a new, and desirable, kind of consumer, namely one with a disposable income and a desire to eat and drink things that are, well, a bit cool. Craft beer has been the biggest success story of this particular trend – we used to call it ‘real ale’, and it was anything but cool. Essentially, we have created an atmosphere where a product like orange wine, that is never going to be mainstream, can thrive. Of course, it has a few quirks – it is made in small batches, so it is relatively difficult to track down outside of wine bars and specialist merchants. It costs a fair bit more than the average house wine (but less than the average house – phew!). Its source is often a largely unknown winemaking country, such as Georgia, or Slovenia, and the grape varieties used in these countries have names that are difficult to pronounce, which can put people off. As such, orange wine is unlikely to become the new Prosecco anytime soon.
Just a Fad?
But as artisan products go, and unlike the caffè macchiato served in a hollowed out avocado that the couple sitting next to me were grappling with, orange wine has the potential to remain in vogue for the long term. Whether we embrace hipster culture or not, wine lovers are always in search of something new and different. We’re undeterred by unpronounceable grapes, and by spending a little extra on a wine from a country that we didn’t even know had vines. And even if we are not quite ready to dive into a Rkatsiteli from Georgia, some excellent orange wines are also made in the US, Australia, France, and South Africa. It’s a versatile food wine and can stand up to richer foods that would traditionally demand a robust red.
Another glass? Yes, please.
Written by Stephanie Knipe