The world of orange wine is a wild and uncharted one — at least for many American wine drinkers. “It would take too much effort to explain to customers why the wine looks like iced tea; they might even think it’s spoiled,” said one sommelier about orange wine at a recent trade tasting. Taylor Parsons, beverage director at République, offered an easy solution: “Start by telling them it’s a white wine made like red wine.” Parsons explains that an orange wine has nothing to do with oranges. Instead, it is white wine that has been left to ferment on the skins — and sometimes stems and seeds — which is the process by which red wine gets its color.
Devout beer drinkers may be pleasantly surprised that some orange wines resemble cider or lambic beers fermented with wild yeast, a result of the oxidation that can occur when they are fermented in traditional earthenware vessels — like amphorae or Georgian qvevri. Skin-contact whites tend to be expressive, and can taste like stone fruit, apples, toasted almonds, hazelnuts, honey and fresh pine.
Wine guru Lou Amdur, owner of Lou Wine Shop in Los Feliz, explains why orange wines tend to be unique and exciting: “There’s a high level of conformity when it comes to winemaking styles, but orange wine only conforms to what the winemaker’s desires are.” If a customer comes to Amdur's store looking for something “interesting or weird,” he brings them to the skin-contact section, where he stocks a rotating cast of orange wines from Georgia, Slovenia, Italy, Spain and even Oregon.
Many orange wines are incredibly food-friendly, given that they posses both acidity and tannin. Acidity makes you salivate and crave another bite of food, while tannins cut through fat and contribute to a wine’s texture. “What's most important to me about orange wines is texture,” Parsons says. “The added textural intensity brought by the skin tannins adds a whole different layer — drying, chewy — that is almost completely unique in white wines.”
Mary Thompson, beverage director at the Line hotel in Koreatown, is big into orange vino. “I think skin-contacted whites were a wine-geek thing up until about a year ago,” she says. “But as we add orange wines to [beverage] lists and share our love for them, the general public is now latching on.” And that is precisely how some trends come about: Experts first geek out about an ingredient or product, and then they slowly introduce that item to the general dining public. Eventually, the masses catch on to its awesomeness.
If you’d like to challenge your perception of what wine can be, pick up a bottle of orange wine from Lou Wine Shop, Domaine L.A., Wine House, Wally’s Wine and Spirits or Silverlake Wine and bring it to your next dinner party.
Don’t know what bottle to snag? We interviewed three sommeliers about the orange wines they’re obsessed with right now and where you can find them.
Taylor Parsons, beverage director at République
Wine name: Kabaj Rebula 2012
Where it's grown: Goriška Brda, Slovenia
Where to find it in Los Angeles: the Wine House.
What makes it so good: “Jean-Michel Morel is one of the great practitioners of skin maceration, partially because of the time he spent learning the technique in the Shavnabada Monastery in Georgia. His Rebula is the best entry into his outstanding range of wines. Thirty days on the skins adds a wonderful textural complexity as well as spicy, woodsy flavors, and the wonderful natural acidity of the grape keeps everything fresh and balanced.”
Wine name: Jolie-Laide Pinot Gris Rorick Heritage Vineyard 2015
Where it's grown: Calaveras County
Where to find it in Los Angeles: Domaine L.A.
What makes it so good: “A gateway drug into the skin-maceration universe. Scott Schultz always kills it with these wines, and the combination of light maceration with great fruit yields delicious results. Easy-drinking, super-fresh and very versatile. No qvevri here — all stainless and neutral barrel.”
Wine name: Gotsa Family Wines Mtsvane 2013
Where it's grown: Kartli, Georgia
Where to find it: Online at Blue Danube Wine Company
What makes it so good: “The real deal from Beka Gotsadze. High-elevation vineyards and superb traditional Georgian winemaking. Seven months with skins in qvevri. Richly structured and dense with really heady aromatics, but unbelievably refreshing for such a powerful wine. Super cool stuff.”
Chris Mallery, sommelier at E.P. & L.P.
Wine name: Brash Higgins "ZBO" Ricca Terra Farms Zibibbo 2014
Where it's grown: Riverland, Australia
Where to find it in Los Angeles: Available by the bottle at E.P. & L.P.; also at the Wine House
What makes it so good: “This wine is skin-contacted for five months in amphora casks and rested for five months. Unfiltered and unrefined. Very pretty, bright yellow/orange color. Tropical fruit notes, light tannins and bright flowers. I would say this is my favorite orange wine we sell at E.P. & L.P.”
Mary Thompson, beverage director, 10 Grand Hospitality at the Line hotel
Wine name: Point Concepcion Celestina Pinot Grigio 2013
Where it's grown: Santa Barbara County
Where to find it in Los Angeles: Commissary at the Line; also at Lincoln Fine Wines
What makes it so good: “This is an approachable introduction to orange wine. It has the added body and complexity but doesn’t get too funky on the palate. Due to its New World nature, it still leads with plenty of fruit-forward notes on the palate and is only accentuated by the textural notes due to the winemaking process.”
Wine name: Dario Princic Jakot
Where it's grown: Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Italy
Where to find it: Online at Winfield Flynn
What makes it so good: “This is some serious step-it-up orange wine. The grapes come from a 60-year-old vineyard planted on clay, limestone and marl. It spent a whopping 22 days on the skins, which leads to wild flavors of brewed tea, apricot and even plum.”