They’re still using grapes. Don’t worry.
But what is this mysterious liquid? Why did that waiter just say chardonnay but the glass is full of a deep-amber juice that smells like dried apricots and tastes of oversteeped tea?
Turns out it’s all about the skins.
Colour in wine––red, rosé, or orange––comes from grape skins, not juice. If you ferment only the juice of, say, pinot noir, it will come out white. If you ferment the juice with its skins for only a few hours, maybe a day or two, you get rosé. Only if you give the grapes a good, long ferment with their skins do you get a red wine with all of its attendant colour and flavours.
Orange wine is made like a red wine, but with white grapes. A period of prolonged ‘skin-contact’––sometimes for days, sometimes for months––gives the wine a colour ranging from burnished gold to deep amber. During this skin-contact, the wine also extracts flavours and aromas from the skins. Most importantly, it extracts tannins, the antioxidants giving you that grippy, dry feeling in a Malbec or young California Cab.
What does it taste like?
The taste, suffice it to say, is unusual.
Orange wine is lighter than a red but richer than a white. Orange wines are still diverse, though. A skin-contact pinot grigio, like the ones produced by Nichol and Kettle Valley in the Okanagan, end up pink, floral, and delicate. An orange muscat will be tropical and sweet on the nose but will feel like green tea when you drink it. Orange vidal, like Sperling Vineyard’s, will be rich with dried apricot and pressed flowers, with a tart acidity on the palate.
You can typically expect three things: a smell like dried or cooked fruits; a grippy feeling in your mouth; and, oftentimes, a bit of funk. Unusual, for sure, but once you’ve had a few choice bottles, you won’t know how you ever lived without it.
So Who’s Doing This?
Nowadays, nearly everybody is experimenting with skin-contact. But the new winemaking trend is as old as wine itself. In Georgia, the recently-confirmed birthplace of wine, farmers chucked their grapes, skins and all, into buried clay jars called Qvevri to ferment. Eight thousand years ago Georgians were drinking orange wines out of horns, bowls, or whatever vessel they could get their hands on. They still do.
As wine grapes travelled beyond Georgia and into Europe, so too did orange wine. The tannins helped the wine from turning to vinegar in a world without chemical additives. As winemaking became more industrialized, however, orange wine fell out of favour. It remained only as a village winemaking tradition in little pockets that the rest of the world forgot. Perhaps the most important region was around the border between Italy and Slovenia. On the Italian side, a few winemakers––namely Stanko Radikon and Josko Gravner––started making legendary orange wines. As their wines grew in popularity, more and more producers started experimenting with skin-contact. Orange wine became especially popular in the iconoclastic, additive-free, ‘natural’ wine movement.
So now, artisanal wines from Georgia to B.C. are coming out orange. They’re flying off the shelves too, for their novelty and their uncanny ability to pair with spicier, lighter cuisines. Next time you order Middle Eastern or Thai, crack a bottle of orange wine and experience some unexpected loveliness.
What to Look Out For
Little Farm, Sperling Vineyards, and A Sunday in August are all producing exciting orange wines in B.C. The latest bottles of Gravner just arrived from Italy, and you can usually find a bottle of Radikon kicking around if you look in the right private stores. Domaine Matassa is making some wicked oranges from French Catalonia, and La Stoppa is sending some fabulous orange wines from Emilia Romagna.
You can almost always find an orange wine or two going by the glass at Juice Bar, a Wednesday-night natural wine popup at the Birds and the Beets. Keep a lookout for stores and restaurants that are known for their natural wines. Odds are, where ‘natural’ is, you can find orange wine.