In a town with a vibrant booze industry, it can seem as though obscure drinks are periodically championed as on-trend simply for being weird. For those of you who’ve come across the words “orange wine” on a list, rest assured, if it’s a fad, it’s worth getting on board.
Orange wines are not made from oranges. Nor are they sweet wines with orange peel. The term is widely used to describe a style of whites that are often orange or russet in colour, determined by the mix of grape solids and liquids after crushing. Orange wine also represents a return to slow, traditional methods of winemaking that eschews industrial practices. They are also, generally, made on a small scale.
Red wine is produced by leaving grape skins and other solids in contact with the juice, for the colour and other compounds to impart into the juice. Rosé is made by cutting this contact with skins short. Typically, in modern white-wine production, the juice is very quickly separated from these solids.
In orange wines, for the most part, white-wine grapes have undergone extended maceration in the manner of red-wine production. Wines made in this fashion are much closer to the method with which the ancient Greeks and Romans liked to get their swerve on. More recently, it is a style traditionally practiced in specific parts of Italy, but can reflect the specificity of any wine-making region.
Louisa Chalmer, owner and operator of Clever Polly's wine bar in North Melbourne is no great fan of the orange-wine label. “Apart from the fact that they are orange in colour, I don't know if it's necessarily the most appropriate term,” she says. “I guess the term has come about for that reason, and is now embedded in our wine terminology.”
Michael Smith, sommelier at The Estelle Bar & Kitchen in Northcote, which has a section on its wine list for rosé, orange and natural wines, is a little more bullish. “It helps from a marketing point of view, and it probably helps from a selling point of view as well,” he explains. “Tags like that come up quite often in the wine business – Super Tuscan, for instance. They are made up by wine writers and they just catch on. But if that makes it easier for the consumer to know what they're getting, then I don't see a problem with it.”
If Chalmer is not so keen on the name, it is likely out of concern that a unique style is being misrepresented by an unflattering catch-all. “What's really different about orange wines is that they offer a more complete story of the grape they've been made from,” she says. “In a regular white wine you often lose a lot of anthocyanins and tannins that contribute to a wine's structure and flavour. Which is not to say that I don't enjoy them, I just see them as having a different place.”
As Chalmer points out, orange wines are nothing new. Rather, they’re a return to traditional methods of wine making, from a time when you actually needed those extra flavour compounds and tannins to hold the wines together. “In doing that I think they tell more of the story of where the wine comes from,” she says. “They offer more of an expression of terroir than more commercially made white wines. I would seek them out if I wanted to understand wine from an area where they were actually a part of the culture, to understand the culture and agriculture and also the food.”
The orange wines on The Estelle’s list are disparate, from Friuli, Italy, the traditional home of orange wines, to New Zealand, a relative newcomer. “They are chosen in the same way that any other wine would be, on merit,” says Smith. “If it's a good wine then it'll make the list.”
Smith has encountered a range of reactions to the wines. “It's still a fairly unknown quantity with your average day-to-day diner,” he says. “The people who do know it tend to have quite an interest in wines already, and definitely an interest in the more unusual styles and grape varieties. For those who don't know, generally speaking, when given an explanation, they won't tend to go for orange wine.”
Chalmer sees orange wine as both an important traditional style and as part of the continuum of a holistic, environmentally engaged modern lifestyle that people are increasingly choosing. “I do see that organic or holistic approach, that return to nature, in the way people eat and drink, and other aspects of their life,” she says. “There are a lot of people making that style of wine in areas where they weren't traditionally made, and I'm all for that. I think that if we are going to continue to move forward and discover new things, or even rediscover old things, we have to be open to experimentation. There’s always room for trying new things.”
Or old ones.