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The Ethical Cellar: Orange Wine Is the New Rosé

Recently, there’s a wine trend worth paying attention to that has seemingly come out of nowhere, taking wine lists by storm and causing eyebrows to raise.

Radikon Orange Wine

The late Karl Lagerfeld once said that “trendy is the last stage before tacky.” In fashion, this is quite accurate. In the world of wine, it’s rare to see bonafide trends that even dip their toes into tacky. Save for wine coolers in the ‘80s, pink Zinfandel in the ‘90s and a mass-produced Australian import with a kangaroo label that may or may not taste like cough syrup, wine trends are few and far between.

The rationale, it seems, is the history of wine, dating back thousands of years, which has created a through-line from ancient times to modern day. That Bordeaux you just popped for a special occasion was likely not that different from the Bordeaux your great grandfather may have popped upon returning from an overseas war at some point during the last century. Wine has connected the past to the present for millennia.

 

Ancient Amphora

But recently, there’s a wine trend worth paying attention to that has seemingly come out of nowhere, taking wine lists by storm and causing eyebrows to raise. The truth is, this trend is not even a trend, it has not come out of anywhere and is actually about as old as it gets. No, we’re not talking about the fact that the spiked seltzers of today are really just a rebrand of 1980s wine coolers: We’re talking about orange wine.

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 As a quick primer, there are essentially four colors of wine, derived from four different methods. The three most consumers know are:

Red: Wine made from red grapes. It is pressed and allowed to rest on the skins (and sometimes stems) for an extended period of time, giving the wine a red color, which varies depending on various factors (predominantly skin thickness and time spent on the skins).

White: Wine made from light green grapes. It is pressed but spends little to no time in contact with the skins and stems, thus, it stays light in color but sometimes golden.

Rosé: Wine made from red grapes. It is pressed and only sees a small bit of contact with the skins and the stems, maybe only a day or two, which is why it’s pink.

 

Grapes and Lees

Then, there is orange wine which is actually made from light green grapes. It is pressed and allowed to see a lot of contact with the skins and the stems—anywhere from a few days up to 30 days. This process, known as “extended maceration” or “skin contact,” gives the wine a deep amber, almost orange, color. To the orange rookie, these wines may appear to just be a dark version of rosé. To the orange wine aficionado, however, they represent an interesting and exciting time in wine consumption.

Orange wine dates back thousands of years to the Caucasus region of the Republic of Georgia, with archaeology showing evidence of orange winemaking as early as 6,000 B.C. Back then, before hipsters invaded the wine world, people would store grape juice during the winter months in underground clay vessels called “kvevri.” The process would both ferment and store wine, but since the juice would stay in contact with the skins and stems and was stored in clay earthenware, the wine took on its distinct orange color.

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Cut to thousands of years later in Northern Italy on the Italian-Slovenian border, where some pioneering wine producers began reviving these ancient methods. The story is rich and fascinating; legends like Stanko Radikon and Josko Gravner began making some serious waves in the wine world with their extended maceration whites in the late 1990s. For a deep dive on the topic, check out Amber Revolution, Simon J. Woolf’s excellent primer on all things orange.

Over the last 10 years, however, what was once a fringe wine movement has now reached mainstream “cool” and is not seeing any signs of stopping. As people are stepping out of the past year of lockdowns and restrictions, visiting local restaurants in places like New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and beyond, more and more wine lists are offering orange wines by the glass; some are devoting entire sections to this amber elixir.

 

Gravner Orange Wine

For the most part, the orange wine trend is somewhat confined to the natural wine world, showing up in trendy eateries, natural wine bars, forward-thinking e-commerce sites and, yes, Brooklyn. Most of the major players in the space are committed to preserving the ancient roots of skin-contact whites, choosing minimal intervention and natural yeasts during production, and many are using biodynamically or organically grown grapes. As suspected, Italy is one of the best destinations to sample amber wines, with the U.S., France, Spain and Georgia (the European country that is) trailing close behind.

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The good news is that orange wine in 2021 is quite different than orange wine from the late 1990s. Back then, the wines were not for the faint of heart, with overly complex aromas and even more complex flavor profiles. Frankly, they often tasted strange. Today, it’s easy to find expressions of orange wine that drink somewhere between a deep rosé and a floral Riesling and pair well with a wide array of foods. Given their identity crisis of being not quite white, not quite rosé, and maybe just a touch red, the mainstream wine world has not quite jumped on the orange bandwagon…yet. Simply put, while orange wines are emerging, they are still largely under the radar which means their price points are as well.

Give them a try and thank us later: The orange trend is a bandwagon we’d gladly hitch a ride on, and you should too.

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