Ballerinas That Ride Harleys

That’s how one expert describes orange wines, deceptive whites now generating lots of buzz among oenophiles. You’ll want to try ’em.

BY LANEE LEE

Vinous exotica. If the latin term for orange wines doesn't pique your interest, we don't know what will. But while these wines are indeed exotic, they're quickly becoming less rare with their global popularity now increasing at a rapid clip. Until recently, the former Soviet republic of Georgia, Italy, and Slovenia dominated this market, but now nearly every wine region in the world has started producing orange wines, including U.S. vintners from Oregon's Willamette Valley to New York's Finger Lakes.

Don't let the name fool you. Not associated with the citrus fruit, these wines are actually white wines. During fermentation and aging, white-grape skins, stems, and seeds are left in the juice, infusing it with golden amber hues. Due to this au naturel approach and usually no added yeast or pesticides, orange wines are part of the natural wine movement, a recent trend captivating American wine drinkers.

Much like umami's classification as the mysterious fifth taste, orange wines enjoy similar intrigue. Oenophiles consider them the fourth wine color: red, white, rose, and orange.

Unlike the recent release of Pagani's Huayra roadster, orange wines are not the showroom's newest model. Originally from Georgia - the Eastern European country, not the U.S. state - they're considered the world's oldest type of wine, dating back to 8000 B.C. Visit Kakheti, the country's predominant wine region, and you'll discover they're still made exactly as they were thousands of years ago. Here, the bronze, amber, or marigold hues are derived not only from skin contact, but also from giant underground clay vessels, called qvevri (KEV-ree), the juice rests in. Clay pots also offer slow, oxidative aging that belies an unmistakable earthy quality and viscous texture.

 Because Georgians are extremely proud of their heritage, most make backyard wine according to family tradition - if you spot huge circles in the ground, you've stumbled upon their qvevri storage - and regard drinking it as commonplace as drinking water. But beyond the country's borders, these orange wines have become a highly regarded treasure for oenophiles around the world. UNESCO even awarded Georgian wine an Intangible Heritage designation in 2013.

"This style of wine is not new for us. For the world, it is new old wine," says Irakli Cholobargia, with the Georgian National Wine Agency.

But beyond the novelty, how do these orange wines taste?

In general, they have aromas of sourdough, hazelnut, dried orange peel, and jackfruit. Best to sit down if you're trying one for the first time. The light color deceives. Much like red wine, they are often extremely viscous, meaty, and tannin-forward with intense flavors of sour earthiness. But this bait-and-switch has a serious upside: versatility. They can dance with a platter of oysters as deftly as with roasted duck or spicy Indian cuisine.

 "Like rose, they can pair with both delicate and hearty dishes. They're ballerinas that ride Harleys," says Fahara Zamorano, head sommelier at Gwen restaurant in LA, about their multifaceted personality.


FOUR STELLAR AMERICAN ORANGES TO TRY

Amber Folly 2016
Yorkville Cellars
Mendocino, Calif.

Made of Sémillon grapes, Amber Folly is a "wonderful introduction to orange wines with salted caramel aromatics and tannins that are present, but not aggressive," says Chicago sommelier Anthony Rossi. Pair it with butternut squash soup. $28/750mL; yorkvillecellars.com

Chilion 2015
Ruth Lewandowski Wines
Salt Lake City

This honey-hued wine is made in Utah with obscure Italian Cortese grapes grown in Mendocino, Calif. It's sturdy in body with quince, granite, and baking spice on the palate. Pairs well with a gamut of foods, from sushi to rack of lamb. $25/750mL; ruthlewandowskiwines.com

Ramato 2013
Channing Daughters
Bridgehampton, N.Y.

Brilliantly copper in color, this Ramato ("auburn" in Italian) is well-balanced and pleasant on the nose and palate with flavors such as peach, dried apple, and honey. Pairs well with charcuterie and pork dishes. $25/750mL; channingdaughters.com

Wayward Son 2017
Kivelstadt Cellars
Sonoma, Calif.

This cult favorite blends Marsanne, Roussanne, and Viognier. Released in April, it's predicted to sell out within six months. Pair it with cheese or creamy pasta. $32/750mL; kivelstadtcellars.com


THREE STALWARTS FROM EUROPE

Gewurztraminer Demoiselle 2015
Domaine Rietsch
Alsace, France

Probably not like any cloyingly sweet Gewurztraminer you've ever had, this orange wine is fresh and zingy, yet polished - an ideal host gift for your next summer soiree or BBQ invite. Pairs well with cheese or lamb curry. $22/750mL; alsace-rietsch.eu

Mtsvane 2015
Pheasant's Tears
Kakheti, Georgia

From 70-year-old Mtsvane vines, it delivers rich vanilla and spice notes on the nose and flavors of dry sherry and smoky apricot. Pair it with grilled white fish or pork dishes. $18/750mL; pheasantstears.com

Rebula 2012
Movia
Primorska, Slovenia

Made by eighth-generation biodynamic winemaker Ales Kristancic, this golden-colored wine has notes of banana and ripe apple on the nose. In the mouth, it's medium bodied with a touch of tannin and savoriness. Pair it with trout, oysters, or salmon. $31/750 mL; movia.si


5 CHOICE SPOTS TO SIP ORANGE WINES


Gwen, LA
Celebrity chef Curtis Stone's second LA restaurant - this one in Hollywood -  features nine orange wines by the bottle, as well as two limited-quantity ones (off the list) and one by the glass. Wine director Fahara Zamorano says the orange wines on the menu, mostly from Northern Italy and Slovenia, represent pioneering winemakers of the modern-day skin contact movement. 6600 Sunset Blvd.; 323-946-7512; gwenla.com

Pleasantry, Cincinnati

"Orange wine is foreign to 99 percent of the new guests who walk through our door. It catches their eye because they've never heard of it. But when we put it in their glass and they're able to taste it, especially with food, they get it," says wine director and co-owner Daniel Souder (right). This Over-the-Rhine restaurant sells roughly five orange wines by the bottle and one by the glass. 118 W. 15th St.; 513-381-1969; pleasantryotr.com

Roberta's, Brooklyn, N.Y.
Except for its cardboard to-go boxes, nothing is stereotypical at this Bushwick pizza joint, including its wine selection. Look for the menu's orange wine section with 10-plus choices, including the popular Richard Stávek Vesely Oranzove from the Czech Republic. 261 Moore St.; 718-417-1118; robertaspizza.com


IF YOU'RE TRAVELING OUTSIDE THE U.S. ...


Fera at Claridge's, London

This Mayfair restaurant offers more than 100 orange wines by the bottle and at least two by the glass. "We happily showcase this style of wine, which opens another dimension to wine tasting and dining due to its versatility in food matching," says Raphaël Rodriguez, the restaurant's director and head wine buyer. Brook Street in Mayfair; 011-44-20-7107-8888; feraatclaridges.co.uk

10 William St., Sydney
This always jamming Italian-influenced restaurant in Paddington specializes in niche wine. Currently, it has 26 orange wines by the bottle listed - mostly from Italy - with two more available by the glass. 10 William St.; 011-61-2-9360-3310; 10williamst.com.au 

Q&A With an Expert

Anthony Rossi, sommelier at Chicago's Enolo Wine Cafe, is an orange wine enthusiast educating restaurant patrons, one glass at a time, about the category's unexpected, yet alluring, characteristics.

Who will like orange wines?
I sell orange wines the same as I do stinky cheese. I say, "You're probably not going to like this, but ..." Otherwise, IPA beer drinkers tend to love orange wines. Tannin and hops have a very similar, astringent effect on the palate, and the combination of citrus and resin on the nose is strikingly similar.

What temperature should you serve them?
People serve many orange wines too cold, as with many white wines. Serve them at room or cellar temperature (roughly 55 degrees).

Best food pairings?

You can drink them with just about anything. I like bringing an orange wine to a picnic to go with cheese, charcuterie, or foie gras. In the fall, I love them with Thanksgiving dinner, especially with gamey fowl and squash dishes. But you can find an excuse to drink orange wine anytime, even with fatty fish or as a dessert wine.

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