Orange wine isn't orange-flavored. It isn't necessarily orange-colored. And those misconceptions are only the beginning of the story when it comes to a rustic, complex drink that defies categorization.
Also called "skin-contact wine," orange wine is, most simply, a white wine that's more like a red. It's made using an ancient technique but is enjoying a resurgence that some winemakers and restaurateurs said has been bolstered by a growing interest in natural wines and customers who are increasingly open-minded. And it's appearing on more menus in and around Philadelphia.
The Good King Tavern in Bella Vista has had orange wine on the menu for about two years. But recently, more people are looking for it, said general manager and co-owner Chloé Grigri.
"I got a phone call the other day from someone wanting to know what I was pouring for skin-contact wine," she said. "That's not something that used to happen."
Orange wines are made from white wine grapes that are processed in the style of red grapes, meaning the skins are left on to mingle and ferment with the juice for some time. That contact often gives the wine a golden or amber hue, as well as a richer flavor profile that can be bitter, nutty, even slightly sharp. It has the acidity of white wine, but the body and fullness of red. It can be any color, from pale yellow to pink to a rich, yes, orange shade.
The skin-contact technique was used for centuries in Georgia, Slovenia, and Italy but fell out of favor decades ago as clear, crisp white wines gained popularity, said Anthony Vietri of Va La Vineyards in Chester County.
"As Americans, we don't like to be intimidated," he said. "So the industry took out the skin contact. The downside is, when you remove the skins from white grapes, you're taking away the main component of complexity and flavor. The guts."
In orange wines, the coloration and cloudiness that came to be seen as a flaw in a white wine become an asset. And because there can be wide variation in how long the skins are allowed to ferment, there's no standard flavor profile: Orange wine can taste like cider, chardonnay, rosé, even sour beer.
"Some of them you wouldn't really be able to identify by taste," said Rachael Barclay, general manager of Center City's Maison 208, which offers several types of orange wine. "Especially if you didn't see the color."
Those bold flavors make the wine more versatile for food pairings than traditional whites, said Jill Weber, owner of Jet Wine Bar at 15th and South Streets. It may also appeal to beer drinkers who ordinarily eschew wine.
"There's always a temptation to compare it to rosé, but orange is not the new rosé," Weber said. "They're diametrically opposed."
Grigri, of the Good King Tavern, said interest in orange or amber wines had been helped by the recent popularity of "natural" wines, which are produced with minimal use of chemicals and artificial techniques. Orange wines are usually natural, she said, but many customers still need some guidance when it comes to choosing them. Her menus no longer use the word orange, she said, because people don't understand it. Instead, those wines are grouped with white wines — even a wine that looks pink.
"We instruct the servers to explain that," she said.
Because orange wines are natural and often not mass-produced, they are hard to find in Pennsylvania Fine Wine & Good Spirits stores, and they are expensive. Only one variety is currently available through State Stores — Radikon Slatnik Venezia Giulia ($39.99; PLCB Item #74896) — but Weber said she knows of at least one other skin-contact wine that will be making its way to shelves soon. Various local and imported varieties are poured at other bars and restaurants in the city, including Martha, Zahav, Kensington Quarters, and Vedge.
Vietri, of Va La, said his company has been making skin-contact wines for years. But until recently, he never thought to mention it as a selling point. Previously, some customers might have thought it sounded too rustic, he said.