Orange: The Hipster on the Wine List

by Kathleen Culliton
Shannon Sturgis
April 2011

The Flavor Profile

Orange wines have a reputation for a narrow range of flavor variation, but simply put, that’s a lie. Sure, at first it’s easy to be overwhelmed by a wine that sommeliers call “an experience.” Lumped together, as they often are, orange wines can be called brash, oxidized, and acidic, giving a messy impression of what is actually a much more distinctive, refreshing wine.

Tasting Notes

2010 Rising Star Sommelier Jesse Rodriguez of Addison – San Diego, CA

Frank Cornelissen MunJebel Bianco, Sicily, Italy 2008
Retail Price: $32 per bottle

A blend of various vineyards of Carricante, Grecanico Dorato, and Coda di Volpe. These varietals produce a golden wine which is full bodied with long skin contact to extract the precise place that this wine calls home.

Gravner Breg Anfora Venezia Giulia IGT, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Italy 2003
Retail Price: $95 per bottle

This blend is composed of Sauvignon, Riesling, Chardonnay, and Pinot Grigio. From year to year the blend can vary. The color is always a deep orange-brass color with a concentrated oxidized nose of dried persimmons and pears.

Victoria Levin of The Tangled Vine – New York, NY

Stanislao Radikon Ribolla Gialla, Venezia, Giulia IGT, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Italy 2004
Retail Price: $32 per bottle

This one is not for the faint of heart, but if your palate is adventurous, this may be one of the more interesting wines you can try. Hand-harvested grapes are soaked for upwards of a month with their skins, and then fermented in large, old barrels without temperature control, no added yeasts or enzymes, and little or no use of sulfur. Cidery in taste, sherryish too; amazingly fresh-tasting and alive; a puzzlement to the modern palate; and a tour de force.

Tenuta Grillo Cortese dell’Alto Monferrato Baccabianca Italy 2005
Retail Price: $30 per bottle

Plenty of orange wines are in the mid-range (as in they're certainly drinkable and perhaps not scary) but they're still pretty darn orange wine-y. This is a personal favorite, it comes from a passionate husband-and-wife team creating exciting Cortese from Piedmont as if the 20th Century never happened. The wine is rich and expansive, yet superbly refreshing, uplifting even! Oxidative and energetic. Nutty, with a touch of olives and citrus zest. Barnyard aromas and minerals everywhere. Extremely food friendly—mushrooms, cheese, anything bitter or briny.

Niccolo Salvadori of Eataly Wine Shop – New York, NY

Gravner Breg Anfora Venezia Giulia IGT, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Italy 2003
Retail Price: $95 per bottle

This is the most orange, as in color, orange wine out there. It became popular a few years ago. There is a honey aroma, with a hint of cooked apples. The taste, however, is quite savory with a nutty finish. This wine is quite forward, and while it’s got a distinctive taste, it still tastes like a wine. I’d recommend pairing the Breg with really stinky cheeses to cut through it, and I know we always say this, but cured meats and dried fruits would also go quite well. The trick is to either match it, or cut it.  

Monastero Suore Cistercensi Coenobium Rusticum Lazio IGT, Lazio, Italy 2008
Retail Price: $23.00

The vineyard is very small and only produces 5,000 bottles a year. It’s a little more eccentric than the traditional Fruili oranges, and it’s made in a monastery by nuns.  It has no pesticides, no herbicides, and it’s completely organic. The skins are soaked in the must for 15 days. The color is more golden than yellow. The taste is quite floral, with a nose of light toffee, turpentine, and a hint of spice that’s almost Christmas-y. The taste can be funky with notes of cider, and acidic. It really opens up a day later. Rusticum pairs well with gorgonzola, but also fruit desserts, like poached pears or stewed apples, to bring out the honey tones in the wine. It’s also light and floral enough to go with a simply prepared fish, and the tartness pairs well with tomatoes.

La Stoppa Ageno, Emilia-Romagna, Italy 2006

Retail Price : $43 per bottle

This wine is very naturally made, if you ask me, Elena Pantaleoni, the producer, thinks that wines make themselves. The 2005 was really … interesting. It tasted like salami. I think she just left it out back and let it do whatever. But this wine is crazy and great. The color is an amber-orange color in the glass, with some cloudiness. The nose is floral but exotic and light. On the tongue the tannins create a texture that nicely coats the tongue. Tannins really do well with protein pairs, which bind themselves to the tannin and soften the wine.

At the moment, orange wine is best known as something in-the-know sommeliers like to argue about on blogs. With good reason of course; the newness of orange wine, along with the complex flavor profile, the absence of a pairing heritage, and traditional location on the wine menu leaves sommeliers with endless possibilities for debate.

Orange wine is not fermented orange juice, it’s not a strange blend of red and white, and no, it’s not white wine with Tang. Orange wine is simply wine from any white varietal that is produced with extended skin contact. The name refers to the peculiar hues of orange wine. The ever-more-precise Italians, especially when speaking of wine, call it vino ambro—the amber wine. Orange wine’s method of fermentation dates back centuries, born from the need for a natural preservative—maceration creates sulfides that protect wine from oxidation. The maceration has an equally strong effect on the taste: skin-to-must contact allows the wine to absorb characteristics from the skin—tannins, complex flavor compounds, color, and terroir.

The Wine of Here and Now

A little more than a decade ago in a small town called Oslavia in Friuli-Venezia Giulia, an eccentric wine producer named Josko Gravner looked out over rolling hills, bathed in golden sunlight and neatly covered with rows of vines, and he was bored stiff. Using the latest technology, he had been producing a nice, stable, successful wine. He could guarantee satisfaction to his clientele but he couldn’t care less. What mattered, he suddenly realized, was the heritage and the natural process.

What followed was an epic exploration of Friuli tradition that pulled him deeper and deeper—almost 5,000 years—into the historic methodology of winemaking. Gravner began small, replacing his steel tanks with oak barrels. But still dissatisfied, he began aging his wines in Grecian amphorae (a traditional Greek vase), which he had transported from Georgia (not the one that's "on your mind"). But then came the most definitive step of all: he started macerating his whites.

“I was looking for a way to make wine where I didn't have to change something all the time,” Gravner later explained in an interview with Eric Asimov of The New York Times. Sick of the trend-chasing and technology, Gravner rooted himself in tradition, and found fulfillment in a sustainable system that would never produce the same wine twice.

The Orange Horizon

The first generation of the modern orange wine makers, Friuli natives like Gravner and Stanislao Radikon make their orange wines as their grandfathers once did. Today, they are the grandfathers to a new generation who experiment with everything from varietals to technique and terroir. Orange wine is now produced in Croatia, Slovenia, France, and even California.

In Slovenia, the Movia vineyard macerates the Rebola grape for their signature Lunar; in California, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay get the treatment; the French are breaking out Roussanne, Rolle, and Grenache Blanc; and in Italy, orange wine is no longer limited to Friuli—winemakers across the country macerate local grape varietals.

General Manager Niccolo Salvadori of Eataly Wine Shop in New York offers six Italian orange wines in his shop, each with a personality and a history of its own. “Our goal was to broaden the spectrum,” he says, “and see where else [beyond Friuli] orange wine is being made.” One of his personal favorites, the Le Stoppa Ageno is made by a woman in Emilia-Romagna who simply prefers to leave her wine in open vats and see what happens. He also enjoys a Coenobium Rusticum from Lazio made by nuns.

The common ground of the new generation, be they Trappist nuns or California hippies, is loyalty to pure, unfiltered, unclarified, and sulfur-free wine. This tip of the hat to old-school Friulani producers illustrates perfectly just what a strong influence Gravner and his compatriots have had on the market.

How Could a Sommelier Resist?

The art of balancing education with hospitality can be a sommelier’s life’s work. So how do you justify rocking the boat with a big, unusual, and expensive wine like orange wine?

Victoria Levin, sommelier and general manager at The Tangled Vine in New York, has a story to tell about every wine on her extensive menu. Her fondness for orange wine, while rooted in a love of story, is ultimately pragmatic—orange wines “love food.” The Mediterranean menu’s mushrooms, cheeses, and hearty vegetables sing next to a glass of this amber stuff—the palate cleansed by the acidity, the aromas captured in the tannins on the tongue.

In an interview with, Sommelier (and orange wine enthusiast) Levi Dalton, of the late Alto and Convivio in New York, points out that orange wines can be an indispensable tool for the sommelier. With orange wine in his cellar, Dalton is free to pair a full-bodied Carignano with a first course without fear of overloading the palate. Orange wine's strong body and hard-working tannins happily overcome the richness of most reds, and offer a crisp acidity to complement lighter fare to follow.

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