The first time I tasted an orange wine was about seven years ago while I was living in Napa. I was working with Tommy Fogarty, of Thomas Fogarty Winery out of Santa Cruz, attempting to sell Santa Cruz wines—a daunting task in Napa, to say the least. However, there was no better person to tackle the obstacle with than Tommy. To this day, he’s still one of the coolest guys in the business—not to mention his Rapley Trail pinot noir is one of my favorite California wines.
When I dropped him off at his car at the end of our day, he grabbed a shiner (a bottle with no label) out of a case in the back of his Jeep and handed it to me. It was an orange wine made from chardonnay; he laughed as he told me it was a little funky, but it was a fun wine he thought I’d like.
I really didn’t know much about orange wine; in fact, I had never tasted one, but if Tommy thought it was fun and cool, I was game.
I held on to the bottle for a few weeks, staring at it in my wine fridge, never really sure if today was the day I should get freaky and try this odd little wine. Looking back, I think I was actually nervous to try it. What if I didn’t like it? Would that mean I didn’t have an elevated or knowledgeable palate? What if it was a “food wine,” and I was supposed to have it with some avant-garde meal of braised offal or an eccentric charcuterie plate covered with stinky cheese, and head cheese, and uncured meats? I created a ridiculous predicament in my own head. “Just open the damn wine, Katie.”
So that’s what I did. After my son was tucked in for the night, and the husband was still at work, I pulled out the bottle, fixed a simple plate of cheese and crackers, and opened the damn thing.
Yeah, it was kinda weird. But it had the most beautiful marmalade color, and wafting up from the glass came an aroma like a hard cider, with orange pith, honey and a note that was almost like sourdough bread. I sat there and drank about three-quarters of the bottle just trying to wrap my head around it. It was faking (or maybe freaking) me out. It looked like it should be a dessert wine, but it wasn’t sweet. It reminded me of molecular gastronomy, where a chef would trick you into thinking you’re eating a watermelon salad, but really it’s cubed ahi sashimi (and truthfully, I hate that). But I was loving this wine in all its nerdy, mischievous glory.
Time passed, and I maybe saw one or two other orange wines in Napa. I can only assume that marketing something as seemingly obscure as orange wine to the influx of tourists who descend on the valley is right up there in difficulty with selling them wines from Santa Cruz.
Fast-forward eight years, and orange wine is everywhere. Well … actually, it’s virtually nowhere to be seen here in the Coachella Valley, with the exception of Dead or Alive and maybe a bottle or two at Whole Foods—but it’s in every wine publication, blog and urban hep-cat wine bar. We’ll get there … eventually.
This brings me to the part where I tell you what orange wine is, and why you should not be scared or nervous like I was to try one. It’s really very simple: Orange wine is just white wine that is fermented on its skins like a red wine. You see, with very few exceptions, the juice from grapes is clear. It doesn’t matter if the finished product is red or white. If you were to crush a bunch of cabernet sauvignon grapes in your hand, clear juice would run down your arm. It’s the skins that give it pigment. White wine is no different: The type of grape and the length of time it spends in contact with the skins determines how pigmented the final product is. Just as it is with your favorite red wine, that’s where some of the tannin comes from, too. That’s the element in the wine that has a slightly bitter, drying sensation and gives the juice its texture and mouth-feel. This is something that’s not typical with a classic white wine, but it’s an unexpectedly enjoyable component in its orange form.
Admittedly, tasting a white wine that’s the color of a nacho-cheese Dorito can take some getting used to. But think of it like this: Your favorite bottle of salmon-hued rose is simply red wine made like a white wine, with very little color imparted from the skins. Orange wine is white wine made like a red, with maximum color extracted from the skins. And just like any red grape can be made into a rose, any white grape can be made into an orange wine. But I caution you: Because it can be made from any grape, and the length of time the skins are in contact with the juice can vary wildly, no two orange wines are alike.
If you’re looking to get your hands on a bottle, you may need to order some online. Here are some of my suggestions:
• The 2017 Field Recordings “Skins” Central Coast Blend is delicious and an easy drink. A great introduction to orange wines, it’s a blend of chenin blanc, pinot gris and verdejo.
• The 2017 Jolie-Laide (pronounced jo-LEE luh-DAY) Trousseau Gris Fanucchi-Wood Road Vineyard Russian River Valley is one of my all-time favorites. These are rare, near-extinct vines that originally hail from eastern France. This wine is serious, and savory, and elegant, and at the same time, it makes for a joyful, sublime glass of wine.
• The 2017 Channing Daughters Ramato Pinot Grigio Long Island, New York, is a beautiful symphony of dried apricots, baked apples and coriander. “Ramato” means copper in Italian and is the term used in the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region of Italy for skin-contact pinot grigio. It’s definitely not like your bottle of Santa Margherita.
• The 2008 Josko Gravner Venezia Giulia Ribolla Gialla is a very pricey bottle of wine, indeed. But Josko Gravner is the undisputed king of white wine in Friuli … and dare I say, all of Italy? He is revered by absolutely everyone in the industry as being the resurrector of natural winemaking. This is the holy grail of orange wine.
Open your mind and open a bottle. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll find your new favorite wine.
Katie Finn is a certified sommelier and certified specialist of wine with more than 15 years in the wine industry. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.