Unlike high fashion or craft beer, things move a little slower in the wine world. Over the past decade, however, orange wine has gone from ancient and obscure, to hip insiders’ favorite, to increasingly mainstream. It is now even offered by discount supermarket chains like Aldi.
To better understand the category, we caught up with Patrick Cournot, partner and sommelier at New York’s East Village wine hangout, Ruffian. Cournot and his team offer one of the largest selections of orange wine in NYC, and aim to introduce the style to a wider audience.
“Orange wines are trendy and a little mischievous,” Cournot says. So Ruffian decided to group them together using marijuana metaphors. Their “sativas,” for example, are acidic, aromatic wines, likely to wake you up. The “indicas,” meanwhile, are smooth and laid back, while the “dutch” are full-bodied, boldly tannic, and often smoky.
Before the time comes to select your preferred style, we’re going to answer all the questions you might have about orange wine, but were too embarrassed to ask.
Is it made from oranges?
“While there are a few obscure beverages made from oranges, this is not what sommeliers are referring to,” Cournot says. But he does get asked this question a lot. Instead, the name refers to the orange hue of wines made from white grapes in an unconventional manner.
What’s so unusual about how it’s made?
Orange wines are the product of vinifying white grapes the way red wine is normally made. Instead of removing skins after grapes are pressed (as is standard for whites), the juice, called must, is fermented in contact with skins. “This colors the juice,” Cournot explains, “and gives it [tannic] structure and bitterness similar to a red wine.”
What does it taste like?
Tasting tannins in wines made with white grapes is uncommon. But unlike a gripping Cabernet Sauvignon, for example, the effect in orange wine is more subtle, like a strongly brewed iced tea.
“Most orange wines taste like a bolder, more savory version of [wines from] the same white grape,” Cournot says. Generally speaking, orange wines display “mild flavors of stone fruit, like peaches; tea flavors, like strong oolong; and an impression of honey, without actually being sweet.”
Is it related to blue wine?
Orange wine has nothing to do with (the abomination that is) blue wine. Blue wine is made from red and white grapes, and gains its striking unnatural color from the addition of anthocyanin and indigo pigments.
What’s the right temperature to drink or serve orange wine?
As with all wines, the flavors in orange wines are subtler when chilled and become more expressive as they warm up.
“[Orange wines] are best when they are slightly warmer than a classic white, and slightly cooler than a red,” Cournot says, “around 55 degrees F.” It’s also perfectly acceptable to drink them slightly cooler, around 50 degrees, if it’s hot outside and you want them to be very refreshing.
Can you pair orange wines with food?
Orange wines are bold and complex, but you shouldn’t shy away from pairing them with food. They’re especially great at pairing with dishes whose flavors might better match a white wine, Cournot says, but require the fuller body of a red. “They’re also useful for handling strong spice or nut flavor,” he says.
“Orange wine goes with food from the Caucuses, Asia Minor, and the Balkans,” Cournot says. “In most of those cultures, individual dishes are rarely paired with wines. Instead, a spread of dishes are served at the same time, and multiple bottles will be placed in the middle of the table. These wines can handle this wide range of flavors well.”
Is orange wine a new invention?
Though very much à la mode, the first examples of orange wine appeared over 6,000 years ago in the Caucasus region, in the area now known as Georgia (the country, not the state).
Is orange wine the same as skin-contact wine?
All skin-contact wines are not orange, but all orange wines are made from skin contact.
Technically, the term skin contact could be used to describe all red wines, as they are always fermented in contact with grape skins. But the term is only usually applied to describe wines made using white grapes, where skin contact produces a notable departure from the standard style, such as orange wine.