Last summer, something strange happened. Without warning, and without reasoning, I lost interest in rosé. And it wasn’t just interest; I lost my taste for it too.
It’s not the first time my opinions about wine have changed. In my early 20s, I only drank sauvignon blanc and malbec. Now, I prefer bolder flavors like unoaked chardonnays and Nebbiolos. And it makes sense. Our tastes and preferences change as we age. But losing interest in an entire color was a first. And even though I wasn’t craving rosé, it was hard to imagine a summer without the light pink hue in my glass.
That’s when I remembered orange wine.
I had my first sip at a new wine bar that had opened in Brooklyn in 2015. Perhaps due to its unique wine selection, or perhaps due to having a celebrity owner, the media went mad for it—namely for the orange wines they served. I was instantly hooked, but despite its newfound popularity, it wasn’t that easy to find (nor was it cheap), so rosé remained in my rotation.
But with the natural wine trend surging, perhaps things had changed. Could orange wine be my new rosé?
What Is Orange Wine?
Despite its name, orange wine is not made from oranges. It instead refers to the color, which ranges from cloudy copper to sunset amber to slightly diluted highlighter orange. (Or, as some like to say, “dirty bong water,” which I can’t imagine being true but haven’t been in close enough contact with to confirm or deny.)
For starters, rosé is made from red grapes, and orange wine is made from white grapes. Second, and perhaps the most differentiating, is that the grapes used to make rosé have their skin removed early in the winemaking process, whereas the grapes used to make orange wine can remain in their skin for months. (Ever heard of skin contact wines? Orange wine is one of those. Per the name, it simply means the skin soaks with the juice, like red wines.)
Letting the skin ferment with juice not only gives orange wine its orange color, but it also creates a fuller-bodied taste and tannic nature—tannic being that drying sensation in your mouth, which is often experienced while drinking red wines. Essentially, the longer the skins (and seeds and stems) soak in the juice, the more tannic and bigger bodied the wine is.
Seem a bit complicated? The easiest way to think about it is that orange wine is a white wine that’s made like a red wine. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say orange is the new white?
And though orange wine may be new to some, it’s hardly new. Orange wines have been made in Georgia (the country, not the state) for thousands of years. And, thanks to its booming popularity, is now made in Italy, Australia, Slovenia, South Africa, Long Island, and elsewhere.
What Does It Taste Like?
I’ve introduced my husband to countless bottles of orange wine. Every time he takes a sip—no matter the grape variety, hue, or origin country—he says it tastes like cider. While I agree with him sometimes, I’ve tasted everything from honey to apple to hazelnut to orange rind. To me, it’s a bolder, more complex white.
But orange wine can’t be summed up as a single flavor, let alone in a single sentence. Each wine tastes different depending on the grape variety and the way it’s made.
“Orange wine, like any other category (white/rose/red), has a huge spectrum of profiles,” says Chris Leon, owner and wine director of Leon & Sons wine shop in Brooklyn. “But I would describe the fruit profile to be dried or bruised; think an overripe apple or dehydrated apricot.”
If you want to get technical, other common descriptors include robust, bold, earthy, savory, and funky. They also tend to be dry, have a sourness that can be similar to a fruity beer, and tannic like a red wine. But hints of flavor run the gamut, from jackfruit to juniper to sourdough to wood varnish (!), it seems.
“It surely depends on the grape variety,” adds Isabella Ambrosini, event manager at Terroirs Wine Bar, the first natural wine bar in England. “There is no general rule, but they tend to be nutty, fruity, and fuller in body than a typical white wine.”
What differentiates orange wine (and its flavor) even more is that orange winemaking tends to have a natural process that uses little-to-no additives (like sulfites) and sometimes not even yeast, giving orange wine a sour, nutty, and deep flavor.
What Should I Drink It With?
Fish with white wine, meat with red wine… orange wines should be that simple too, right? Sadly, not so much. Because orange wine flavors vary, so do the things you should eat them with.
Some say salty, smoky bites like cured meats and hard cheeses are a foolproof pairing. Others suggest pairing bold with bold and serving orange wine with Indian, Ethiopian, Moroccan, and Korean dishes. And then there are those who prefer to get a little more granular, suggesting nutty oranges go well with grilled steak, and funkier, beer-like orange wines pair nicely with anything fatty (like bacon).
“It depends on the structure of the wine,” Ambrosini says. “A fuller body with an important tannic structure could be paired with proteins like our pork and pistachio terrine or pork belly, while lighter and fresher styles would be great with a meaty fish or some toasted almonds as an aperitif.”
Leon, however, says it’s all about the vegetables. “Orange wines are a great vehicle for vegetable-based dishes,” he says. “The savory profile is a great foil for any green or vegetal flavors that a veg dish brings. Especially root vegetables.”
If you want to keep it uncomplicated, head to a natural wine bar and have the bartender (or sommelier, if you should be so lucky) make recommendations. Or just drink it on its own and then you don't need to think twice about complicated pairings.
How to Pick the Best Bottle
One of the best ways to learn about wine is simply to drink it. And though my go-to trick is spewing a few adjectives that I generally like—dry, crisp, light—and letting the experts guide me, there are other helpful strategies for picking a bottle.
“I would personally recommend a light and clean orange wine to start with,” Ambrosini says. Two bottles she suggests: Testalonga 'El Bandito Skin Contact', which is dry and easy, and Sepp Muster’s Gräfin' cuvée, a sauvignon grape with interesting peach notes—though she’s also a fan of my aforementioned trick.
Regions and winemaking methods can also be a good guide, but ultimately, it comes down to your comfort level. If you’re feeling adventurous and want to pick your own bottle, look for a lighter hue or for producers in Slovenia or Georgia (orange wine’s country of origin). If you’d prefer to let the experts do the work, just ask anyone working at the wine shop! In my experience, it’s hard to go wrong and well worth the attempt.