Remember when you would ask which wines a restaurant offered and the waiter would reply, “Red, white and pink”? Nowadays, your options might include an unexpected color.
Orange wines are a small drop in the ocean of wine available to us, but they have become a significant niche, even earning their own subheading on restaurant lists. In the District, the Red Hen, Ripple and Dino offer orange wines as a distinct category.
These wines appeal to sommeliers and wine buffs eager to try something out of the ordinary. Because they are rare and unusual, they tend to be found more easily in restaurants than at retail.
What is orange wine, exactly? There’s no precise definition, but essentially it is a white wine fermented and aged on the grape skins. Modern winemakers typically remove white grape juice from the skins immediately after pressing and before fermentation. That preserves bright fruit aromas and freshness. An orange wine is made using red wine techniques, leaving the juice on the grape skins to extract body and tannin. The wine can be left on its skins for weeks or months, maybe longer. It is invariably made without adding commercial yeasts or enzymes.
The result is a wine with a deep yellow, even orange, color, typically with the nutty, spicy flavors that come from significant exposure to oxygen during the aging process. People who make wine that way — names such as Movia from Slovenia, Gravner and Radikon from northern Italy and Donkey and Goat from California — have dedicated followings.
The wines are unusual, even bizarre — far outside our normal paradigm for white wines. Yet they can be compellingly delicious.
“These wines were built for food,” says Sebastian Zutant, co-owner and wine manager at the Red Hen in Bloomingdale. Zutant poured me a glass of Pheasant’s Tears Rkatsiteli from the former Soviet republic of Georgia, a wine fermented and aged underground in large clay amphorae known as qvevri. The color was deep gold, the wine exotically perfumed, but not in the way some modern white wines resemble a produce display at the market, with fruit varieties lined up in succession. This was a fascinating fruit compote, the flavors cooked into a harmonious unity, spiced with earth and time.
Danny Fisher put orange wines on the list at Ripple, but they didn’t sell until he gave them their own subheading. Then people started asking about them. For several months, the general manager featured Donkey and Goat Stone Crusher, a roussanne from California, by the glass. He sold one case per week until the winery ran out.
“It’s bone-dry and people loved it,” Fisher says. “We were suggesting it with all sorts of dishes.”
Fisher cites the novelty of orange wines as a major part of their attraction. “As a wine buyer, I taste a lot of wines,” he says. “It’s all about picking out little intricacies about a wine that make it better than the last few, or why it’s the best sauvignon blanc you’ve ever had. With these, it’s an entirely different flavor profile that opens your mind and your palate.”
Dean Gold, co-owner of Dino, a few doors up from Ripple in Cleveland Park, has offered orange wines for years. He expresses frustration at their scarcity, even while celebrating them for being out of the mainstream.
“We live in a world of manufactured wine,” Gold says. “It’s an industrial product. It’s hard to pick a bad wine, but it’s also hard to pick an interesting wine. These wines offer true variety, true choices.”
Gold describes orange wines in terms similar to those used by the “natural wine” movement, a broader category that emphasizes pre-industrial winemaking techniques. He groups them at the back of the Dino’s list, under the heading “The Perfection of Imperfection.”
Williams Corner Wine, an importer and distributor in Charlottesville, carries many of the orange wines featured at Red Hen, Ripple and Dino.
“The wines offer a good bridge for certain foods where you wouldn’t necessarily want an oaken white or a red,” says Williams Corner manager Nicolas Mestre. “And the more diversity, the better. Red wine, white, sparkling, rosé and orange wines: All these give us more choice and make our lives more interesting.”