What happens when you pair red winemaking techniques with white wine grapes? Orange wine. In colors ranging from light gold to amber pumpkin, it's the perfect way to toast the fall season. Even better, orange wine can pair with anything from beef to pheasant to figs, with the strength of a red and the brightness of a white.
Actual oranges have absolutely nothing to do with it: It's an ancient vintner practice originating in Slovenia, Georgia and Armenia that's since been adopted by Italian, French and Californian winemakers. White wine grapes are allowed to macerate in their skins for days or weeks, until the skin pigments release their color. The wine is infused with tannins from the skin, which add dryness, bitterness, and complexity.
Dan Farr, sommelier at The Eveleigh, is the perfect tour guide into these rare specimens of the wine world. (Bonus! His hair is as orange as his pour.) At the restaurant Farr carries five different orange wines, which range from about $80 to $100: AmByth Estates' Roussanne out of Paso Robles; a 2012 Sluice Box and a Roussanne by Donkey & Goat Winery; Scholium Project's “The Prince in His Caves” 2010; and Frank Cornelissen's “Munjebel 8” from Sicily.
We sat down to talk and taste this “wild, gnarly” orange wine — and to learn why Farr calls it “sex in a glass.”
Squid Ink: OK, I'm looking at these labels and none of them even mention the word “orange.” How are you able to tell what you're going to get?
Dan Farr: You won't see it on the label because technically it's a white wine. What gives it the orange color is the time it spends with the skins. You'll see the skins of white grapes are a variety of colors — green, pink, yellow — and you can make orange wine from any variety of white wine grapes. The orange wines are having a bit of a renaissance. People are tasting them and falling in love with them all over again.
[He pours the first one.] This Ambyth varietal is a Roussanne. This is one of my new favorite wineries. You see, it's not your typical white wine color; it has some skin contact so it's just starting to turn orange. It hasn't gone all the way to a real copper color.
SI: So how long was this one macerated with the skins?
DF: About a week. So it just has kind of that nice clean color. The first three wines we're going to taste are partial orange wines. These they take half the grapes, they de-stem them, they do a maceration with the grape skins on and get that beautiful color; then the other half they press on whole clusters [without skin maceration]. So it's a blend of the two.
SI: Why is this orange and rosé is pink?
DF: Rosé is pink because you're starting with red grapes. You give them just a bit of skin contact and then you pull it off the skins to get a light color to it. The orange wine starts with white grapes.
SI: You say these are all natural wines that are sulfite-free. What does that mean?
DF: Sulfites are what they add to the wine to stabilize it, so it's not as volatile. The quickest way to ferment wine it is to throw it in a vat, throw a bunch of yeast in there, throw in some sulfites so it's safe and just let it go like crazy. If you add yeast you can make wine ten times as fast; you can make wine in a few days. The other way — the way these wines are made — is to have natural fermentation, which means you don't add any yeast.
SI: Does it take longer?
DF: It takes a lot longer, and the problem is you risk the chance of losing your wine completely. Because it can go bad, it can turn, it can get too hot, the sugar levels might not be exactly right. It's just more dangerous.
SI: OK, what's this next one? It looks even more orange.
DF: This is Donkey & Goat and these are people who care more about making a quality bottle of wine than making a lot of money. You can't make wine for two dollars a bottle. Well, you can — but you can't do natural yeast fermentation. It takes so much longer and is so much riskier. Tracey and Jared (Brandt) are the wine makers, and the old saying goes when you plow the fields you have a donkey, but donkeys are grumpy and angry so you need a little goat just to keep him happy and keep him company — so she always says she's the goat to his donkey.
SI: If I saw that on a shelf I would have no idea it was an orange color. Is there any way to tell?
DF: There's really no way to tell except education. Only 5% of the market is orange wine and some don't like the term because they don't want people to think it's made of oranges. It's really just skin contact. And some sommeliers scoff too and think they wines are too yeasty and kind of wild and gnarly.
SI: How did you get into wine?
DF: When I was 15 years old, I was out visiting my Jewish girlfriend in Detroit …
SI: That's kind of weird.
DF: I met her at a snowboard camp. So I went out to see her and we're at a big family dinner with grandma and everyone's sitting around and they open up this really expensive Bordeaux. So I take a slug and I haven't really drunk wine ever, so I kind of cringe a little bit. And the grandmother sees me and says, “Oh no, darling, you did not just scoff at my wine!”
She kicked everyone down one seat at the table and pulls me over so I'm sitting next to her and starts tasting wine with me. For the next three days I was out there I had to go see grandma every day and taste wines with her.
SI: OK, onto the next Donkey & Goat. Why does this taste so different?
DF: It's the tannins; all the goodness you get in red wine, that all comes from the grape skins and the seeds and stems too. It just adds a lot more complexity in the glass and makes it a food wine. I've paired it with beef heart tartare, with figs, and with tomatoes.
It's kind of the get-out-of-jail-free card among sommeliers because if you're unsure of what to pair with a course, you can usually find interesting orange wine that pairs well. My favorites are pheasant and rabbit. What's neat about orange wine is you get some of the advantages of red wine, with food pairing, more depth — you can really taste it. But it'll also cleanse your palate.
SI: Moving on. This one is The Prince in His Caves.
DF: Yep, this is our wine of the month. It's 100% sauvignon blanc.
SI: So when people order this, they're going to be shocked when they see this color.
DF: They're shocked. I usually prepare them a little bit too: It's cloudy, and it's orange. You get the sauvignon blanc notes but you also get diesel notes. It is just sex in a glass. It's so earthy, sexy; it's so just delicious and special.
[At this point, we consider leaving Dan alone with his wine for a while.]
DF: Give me that beaker.
[We hand him a beaker, which he uses as a decanter.]
DF: The biggest advantage of making a white wine like a red wine is that it'll develop like a red wine when you open it up. It can actually develop in the bottle after it's opened. You can see it's going to develop in the beaker here and when you try it the next time you'll notice it'll taste different. A normal white wine you'd never decant. This becomes a fuller, brighter, neater wine. It's so special.
SI: This last one — the Munjebel — is the darkest of all of them. It's described as amber. That's like a redhead calling himself “auburn.”
DF: I call my hair “electric copper,” actually.
SI: Wow, this one tastes really funky. Sour, almost.
DF: This is NOT a crowd-pleaser. This wine is as orange as it comes — and this is the only one we're tasting which is buried underground in clay pots to age. It's an ancient way of winemaking and it's really natural. This is a wine geek's one to try. This one too grows immensely the more air hits it.
[He pours the Munjebel into a beaker.]
DF: You can see the wine move around. That's just yeast, grape skin contact, everything that's living going on inside. And now this is like a whole new level of orange. It's pumpkin-colored. The jack-o'-lantern of wines.
SI: Is orange wine something you wish more people knew about?
DF: Absolutely. These are wines that are just so special to me now. They're such small production and so few people know about them. It always sparks up a conversation. Some people get it, and some people don't.
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