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Orange Wines: Sometimes, the Best New Things are Old*

Last Friday night I attended a seminar on Orange Wines (no relation to actual oranges) with enologist, Charles Gendrot.  It was held at one of my local wine shops, Cork & Fork.
I normally shun Friday night commitments, because by Friday night, I’m plum out of steam.  As such, Friday night is sweatpants and gin & tonic night — and I’m selective about the things for which I give up sweatpants and gin & tonic night.  But, I promised myself (in my New-Year’s-Wine-Goals-that-aren’t-resolutions) that I would step out of my wine comfort zone and try new-to-me wines.  Orange wines didn’t make my original wine goals list, so I’m adding them retroactively — just so I can cross them off the list.  I do that sometimes.  Don’t judge. Crossing things off a list is very satisfying.

On to the seminar.

Monsieur Gendrot is French.  I know this because of his outrageous accent.  (Any Monty Python fans out there?? I’m French! Why do you think I have this outrageous accent, you silly King?!).  Sorry. My mind wanders sometimes a lot.  The moment Gendrot introduced himself, I thought — even if this turns out to be a lecture on the chemical composition of AA batteries . . . I’m staying.  All at once enthusiastic and incredibly knowledgeable, he was a joy to listen to (the accent was cake icing).

So, orange wines.

Orange wines have been enjoying a resurgence in recent years — they’re very popular with the sommelier set, and trendy-wine-list de rigeur.  But outside of some well crafted restaurant wine lists, orange wines are not easy to find.  You don’t just sashay into Safeway and ask for an orange wine.  Wait.  Please sashay into Safeway and ask for an orange wine.  I’m curious what kind of response you’ll get.

Orange wines are anything but new.  The making of orange wines dates back as far the Neolithic Stone Age in an area that is today the country of Georgia.  Georgian orange wines are fermented in large, beeswax lined, earthenware vats called qvevri (see photo below) that are buried underground and sealed with stones and more beeswax.  Archaeologists have found qvevri vessels dating back to 6,000 BC.  You have to drink something while you’re sitting beside the fire making flint spearheads, right?

Orange wines are, well, orange.  A whole rainbow of orange — from amber to copper and everything in-between.  And If you’ve never tasted orange wine before, all I can tell you is this: it won’t be what you expect.  Judging this wine by color alone, your taste buds might anticipate a dessert wine, maybe a sherry, possibly even an odd Rosé.  But that’s not what you get.  What you get is a rare and unusual white wine, with structure and strength.  Because orange wines have tannins.

The orange wine rainbow.

Why would a white wine have tannins?  In the making of orange wines, the juice is left to macerate with its skins, seeds and stems (the same concept as steeping a cup of tea) for a set amount of time (anywhere from a few days to a few months), depending on the winemaker’s game-plan.  It’s this prolonged contact with the skins that lends heft and strength (tannins) to orange wines.  But orange wines aren’t rooty-tooty-fresh-and-fruity wines.  They’re low on fruit, high on nuts and honey.  And they’re perfect partners for a wide variety of foods.

What’s the difference between orange wines and Rosé?  Rosé is red wine made like a white (with little or no maceration), whereas an orange wine is a white wine made like a red (with extended maceration).

We tasted five different orange wines from all over the wine world (Cork & Fork also provided a small charcuterie plate):

Pheasant’s Tears Rkatsiteli 2013  ⭐⭐⭐/87
From the Caucasus region of Georgia (my autocorrect desperately wants to correct Caucasus to the Couscous region of Georgia).  The name, Pheasant’s Tears, comes from an old Georgian story that ends with the maxim, only the very best wines are good enough to make a pheasant cry (pheasants being among the most emotional of all wine consumers).  Fermented in subterranean qvevri vessels, with natural yeast fermentation.  A stunning amber color.  There’s an unmistakable beeswax/paraffin quality to this wine.  I stuck my nose into the glass and thought, old cathedral  — burning candles and incense.  Flavors of raw honey (not the stuff in the bear-shaped bottles) and walnuts.  If there’s fruit in here, I can’t find it.  Soooo many walnuts.  Tannic, but not uncomfortably so.  Super long finish.  Retail = $25.

Monsieur Gendrot told us Rkatsiteli seeds were likely the first seeds planted by Noah after the Great Flood.  Archaeologists have found Rkatsiteli seeds in clay vessels dating to 3,000 BC.  This was right about the time of the Kura–Araxes civilization (aka Early Transcaucasian Cultures) of ancient Georgia.  What?  Never heard of the great Kura-Araxes people?  Me, neither.  But Stephen Batiuk, an archaeologist from the University of Toronto, noticed a correlation between grape cultivation and migration patterns in these ancient civilizations.  The Kura-Araxes/ETC people probably brought not only wine making vessels, but wine making know-how to the Fertile Crescent; “rather than being viewed as unwelcome interlopers, they brought something new and valuable to the table.”

Look at that.  Wine, building bridges between cultures since 3,000 BC.

Jordi Llorens Natural Blan 2013  ⭐⭐⭐/85
From the Catalan region of Spain.  This is a blend of 60% Macabeu and 40% Parellada. You’ll recognize those grapes as two of the three traditional varieties used in the making of the Spanish sparkler, Cava.  A biodynamic wine, made and aged in stainless steel tanks without the addition of sulfites at any point in the process.  Wild yeast fermentation.  The wine is unfiltered (and you thought the photo was out of focus).  The nose reminds me of rose pot-pourri (the fresh kind, not the bowl of dust-covered rose mulch your grandma kept in the bathroom).  Much more fruit than the Rkatsiteli, with flavors of apricot and white pepper.  Higher acidity.  Medium tannins.  ABV is only 10%.  Retail = $30.

Supernatural Wine Co. Spook Light 2013  ⭐⭐⭐/88
From the Tuki Tuki hills (just try to tell me that’s not fun to say) of Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand.  100% Pinot Gris.  Organically farmed. The grapes were de-stemmed, treated to a pied de cuvee ferment (think sourdough starter for grapes), and rested on the lees in stainless steel (sounds like a spa day for grapes, doesn’t it?).  A beautiful rose gold color.  The intensity of the nose took me by surprise.  Unmistakable — strawberry leaves.  Lighter tannins than the other orange wines we tried, with a lovely mineral finish.  Absolutely killed it with the paté.  Retail = $34.  I bought two bottles of this one.

Although you can’t see it in the photo, the bottle is sealed with a traditional crown cap (think beer and soda bottles).  The bottle design was recognized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where it was included in a 2010 exhibition entitled, How Wine Became Modern.  I love the juxtaposition of an ancient wine in modern packaging.

Radikon Pinot Grigio 2013  ⭐⭐⭐⭐/90
From the Fruili Venezia Giulia region of Italy (near the Slovenian border).  Winemaker Stanko Radikon rejects the use of all chemical pesticides, temperature-controlled fermentation, and sulfur in his wines.  This wine is macerated in cone-shaped vats for about 4 months, aged a minimum of three years in oak casks, and then another year in bottle.  Looks like liquid copper in the glass.  Gorgeous.  The nose is bright — raspberries and currants.  Substantial mouthfeel, with powdery tannins, slightly smoky. Remarkably clean, with minerals and licorice lingering on the finish.  As far as expressions of Pinot Grigio go, this is about the least neutral and least boring Pinot Grigio I’ve ever tasted. Retail = $45.  A bottle of this is coming home with me.  I’ll probably regret not buying more.

Frank Cornelissen Etna Munjebel 2014  ⭐⭐⭐/86
From the northern slope of Mount Etna in Sicily (IGT Terre Siciliane Bianco).  60% Grecanico Dorato and 40% Caricante.  Frank Cornelissen’s farming philosophy is to avoid all possible interventions on the land we cultivate, including any treatments, whether chemical, organic, or biodynamic, as these are all a mere reflection of the inability of man to accept nature as she is and will be.   I think I get it — kind of like hands-off parenting, the wines pretty much make themselves.  Beautiful golden color.  The nose is slightly acidic, and very reminiscent of a dessert wine — floral blossoms and raw honey.  But this is no dessert wine — this is savory, not sweet.  Flavors of ginger, white pepper and smoke.  You have to wait for the finish, but when it hits you, it hits like a rogue wave — WALNUTS!!  Retail = $45.

Wordsmithing:  I forgot to ask what Munjebel means.  At the mercy of the Internet, I learned the Sicilians (especially the older ones) call Mt. Etna, Mungibeddu.  And the Arabic word for mountain is jebel/jabal.  So I’m going out on a limb and guessing Munjebel is a splicing of the two?

All in all, a great educational evening.  I’m glad I gave up my gin & tonic ritual to try something new-to-me.  Sometimes, the best new things are old.

Have you tried orange wines?  What did you think?


P.S.  If you ever want to have some fun with your wine friends, slip an orange wine into your next blind tasting.  It’ll be even more fun than asking for an orange wine at Safeway.

* This is also my entry into #MWWC23.  The theme this month is New.  You see how I’m multi-tasking here??

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