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Orange You Glad There's a New Colour of Wine to Try?

Orange wine actually has a long history, but it's new to North America – and it's the talk of sommeliers here

When it comes to wine, orange is the new pink.

This is bound to be a source of confusion to some, especially those who are just getting used to the rehabilitation of rosé. Best get used to it, though, since sommeliers at trend-setting restaurants and bars are turning orange. In some cases, they’re even devoting entire sections to it, beyond the more traditional colours – red, white and pink.

“It almost always requires explanation, since, the first thing everybody thinks when they see the words ‘orange wine’ is that it’s made with oranges,” says Alex McMahon, wine director at Ottawa’s Fauna and its sister tapas restaurant, Bar Laurel. “So, I tell them the simplest explanation is that it’s white wine made in the style of red.”

When time permits, McMahon is happy to delve deeper. “Orange” refers to the wine’s hue, which comes from prolonged skin contact during maceration. That’s how red wines are usually made, while most other wines have little or no contact with the grape’s skins, which contain bitter tannins and interfere with the winemaker’s ability to deliver a clear, fresh-tasting and crisp white wine. As you might expect, then, orange wines, which are frequently made by macerating the whole grape cluster, are generally cloudy. They can be slightly bitter, and tend to have a more challenging, aromatic flavour profile than white wines.

“You have to throw out all the standard wine descriptors and, instead, start thinking of words you might use to describe tea,” says Ann Sperling, the winemaker responsible for two different orange wines – Southbrook’s 2015 Small Lot Natural Orange (Niagara) and the 2015 Natural Amber Pinot Gris from her own Sperling Vineyards in British Columbia’s Okanagan region. “There’s a more herbal nature to an orange wine and there’s a very different mouthfeel compared with a white wine.”

Courtesy Southbrook Vineyards

Winemaker Ann Sperling

That alone might appeal to some palates, but Sperling explains that there’s a range of other valid reasons to go orange, most of which fit in with the philosophies governing natural wines. For starters, the method isn’t really new: It’s a revival of early methods from the region where wine was first made, namely Eurasia’s Georgia. Orange wine is still common there. (Meanwhile, winemakers the world over have become fascinated by another Georgian winemaking holdover:  use of amphorae.)

The use of skins in the maceration process also cuts out two interventionist steps for the winemaker: First, natural yeasts in the skin of the grape mean there’s no need to introduce so-called foreign yeast; second, aging in oak becomes unnecessary because the tannins in the grape skins give wine structure, naturally.

These aspects of orange winemaking appeal to Sperling, who sees lack of intervention as a means to express the terroir of the vineyard. After considerable experimentation with different uses for Vidal Blanc – a high-sugar grape used frequently in ice wine – Sperling has demonstrated that the varietal has another, more serious side that most people are unfamiliar with. The golden-hued Southbrook Orange has distinct herbal dimensions – chamomile and bergamot, for example – that play off the light, sweet-citrusy body. Her other orange wine, the Pinot Gris from the Okanagan, is, as you might expect, wholly different. It’s the colour of a hazy, yet vibrant orange sunset and it tastes like bright, fresh cherry fruit.

The wide and wild range of possibilities is one reason orange has captured the imagination of winemakers, enthusiasts and somms, especially at American wine bars that have access to a lot of Slovenian, Georgian and Italian natural wine. In Boston, you can try this new style of blush at Eastern Standard, No. 9 Park and Craigie on Main. Chicago's Sepia is big on orange, as is The Boarding House, and Webster's Wine Bar in Logan Square. As usual, New York is ahead of the pack when it comes to natural wine, so there are many options for exploring the new colour at places such as Pearl & Ash (Nolita), Corkbuzz (Union Square) and, over in Brooklyn, The Four Horsemen (Williamsburg) as well as Sunrise/Sunset in Bushwick.

In Canada, you’ll find orange wine at spots with adventurous As well as Ottawa’s Fauna, try Woodlot and Archive in Toronto, or Montreal’s Le Vin Papillon. In terms of domestic production (other than Southbrook), Okanagan’s Haywire winery produces an orange wine and Niagara’s Pearl Morissette is scheduled to release its Cuvee Blu 2014 (Viognier and Riesling) in the next six months. Italian and Slovenian imports are available through private agencies that specialize in natural wines, such as The Living Vine.   

Over the next few years, McMahon of Ottawa’s Fauna is expecting this category to blow up all across Canada. Orange wines’ “ability to pair with such a wide range of food makes them a really beautiful tool to have as a sommelier,” says McMahon. “And, since it’s so different and exciting, if you have the right person, it’s an opportunity to really blow their mind.”

Published Monday, October 31st 2016

Header image credit: Courtesy Southbrook Vineyards



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