For years, I’ve been going to Charleston, South Carolina, to visit family, and for years, I have tried to secure a dinner reservation at FIG. The James Beard award-winning restaurant helped spark a gustatory revolution in that historic city when it opened in 2003, and after many attempts, my husband and I finally got a reservation for dinner in June. I was prepared for the menu to surprise me. I’d heard about chef Mike Lata’s compelling takes on seasonal fare. I hadn’t expected, however, for the surprises to start with the wine list. There, tucked below the whites and mixed in with the rosé, was a category for orange wine. Orange what?
Orange wine, I soon learned, is made from white grapes, but produced in the way you would a red. Rather than pressing the grapes and having the juice run off the skins immediately as with most whites, orange wines sit with the skins for a period of time, resulting in a deeper hue and a color that can sometimes resemble cognac. I could pull out the sommelier terms and tell you that orange wine is structural, heavy in tannins, with an intense aroma. I could tell you how the good ones balance the right amount of juiciness and acid, with hints of bruised stone fruits, or burnt orange, or herbs.
Or I could just tell you that it’s not at all what you might expect from the name. Orange wine, I assumed, would be a pleasant, floral kind of thing, akin to a rosé (I am decidedly not a sommelier), but what I got with my first glass was a complex and robust drink reminiscent of red. Orange wine is, in a word, challenging.
Morgan Calcote, general manager and beverage director at FIG, said she added orange wines to the list about a year ago because the general public is open to that challenge. “The dining public is savvier than ever,” Calcote says, “and they are willing to make leaps of faith based on the recommendations of knowledgeable servers or sommeliers.”
FIG is not the only restaurant adding orange wine to its regular offerings. Bottles are now infiltrating top wine lists across the country. Boutique wine shops are having trouble keeping it stocked. “There’s a novelty to orange wines right now,” Calcote says. “Not quite a white, not quite a red, they occupy this ambiguous place in between. Orange wines are their own unique thing.”
This trend may be new, but the winemaking that produces orange wine is the oldest in the world. The throwback technique is catching on as a natural alternative to mass-produced wine, a business that’s come under increasing scrutiny lately for chemically altering its product. Today, vineyards from California to Slovenia are making orange wine, and one 18-hectare vineyard in Northern Italy is largely credited with its revival.
If you were a sommelier in 1997, and you opened that year’s vintage from the popular Gravner vineyard in the Friuli region of Italy, you were in for a shock. Gravner was known for producing crisp and palatable whites, but this wine was dramatically different. Bobby Stuckey, the James Beard award-winning master sommelier and co-owner of Frasca Food and Wine in Boulder, Colorado, remembers it well. “You went to get your 1997 release of Gravner and you opened a bottle and poured a glass and it was orange,” Stuckey says. “None of us knew what was going on. Are the wines screwed up? Have they turned? The story of what had happened at Gravner soon became lore.”
The lore goes something like this. Josko Gravner, a third-generation winemaker, left his family’s grove in Northern Italy, close to the Slovenian border, to visit the vineyards of California. It was 1987 and Gravner, like the rest of the world, had embraced modern winemaking techniques. He had stainless steel vats for fermenting wine. He had fresh oak barrels. In California, he went on a whirlwind tour and what he tasted turned his palate. Chemical manipulation, he realized, was destroying wine. Over the years, additives had been incorporated to take the risk and the time out of winemaking. From stabilizers and sulfur dioxide to help with preservation, to a sickly concentrate of color called Mega Purple to correct the hue of reds, Gravner saw the art of winemaking devolving into a business no longer invested in what the French call terroir. And it wasn’t just America. The trend was spreading across Europe, too.
Gravner went back to Italy and he ditched technology. He went back to the beginning. He researched the earliest winemaking techniques and learned that until around 1000 AD, wine had been fermented in clay amphorae pots. He studied the traditional winemaking of the Caucasus region in Georgia, and he endeavored to revive these classic techniques and make an honest wine without additives. Gravner would come to use wild yeasts to ferment. He left the skins of the grapes with the juice to macerate in the brew for many months and act as a preservative. Because the skins remained, no chemicals could go on the grapes as they grew. For Gravner, orange wine required great care from soil to bottling. He let nature dictate the process, taking the great risk that a batch might not turn out.
“Here was a guy who was making world class, traditional oak style wine. He had a list of fans two miles long. To go from making one of the top Italian white wines to giving people orange wine, well it freaked everyone out,” Stuckey says.
Now, the winemaking world is catching up. More vineyards are producing orange wines, including some in California, the very place that inspired Gravner to ditch modern winemaking. (Sommeliers I spoke to highly recommend the fermented Sauvignon Blanc vintages produced by Abe Schoener from Scholium Project.)
The general public is also catching on. Popular documentaries like 2004’s Mondovino portrayed the global wine industry’s use of additives and its devastating effect on small vintners. Today—in a world of Two-Buck Chuck and boxes of wine you can tap like a keg and cans you can crack like a beer—the business of mass producing wine that Gravner railed against is being questioned, most recently with a lawsuit over high levels of inorganic arsenic in cheap wine.
The growing popularity of orange wine is partly a reaction to that. “People are moving away from overly processed food toward the farm-to-table movement, and buyers want to know the exact growing conditions and origin of the food and beverages they consume,” says Braithe Tidwell, general manager of Salon by Sucre in New Orleans. “We don’t want to feel that we are eating or drinking a prescribed amount of chemistry. We want everything to be natural, and orange wine is a perfect fit, since its sulfites are produced organically.”
In addition to more vineyards producing orange wine, more sommeliers are sharing it with customers. “Orange wine has been an in-the-know sommelier term for quite some time now,” Tidwell says. “It used to be that the sommelier community could be quite snobby, but I believe more and more wine terms and styles of winemaking have caught on in the mainstream population, because the sommelier culture is changing to a society of people who love and enjoy wine, and also love to share their knowledge with others.”
Orange wine is also getting a little easier to order. “The tipping point for me adding it to our list at FIG was when orange wine was accessible enough and produced enough that it was maintainable on the list,” Calcote says. “And as some domestic producers look to that kind of wine producing, the price point has also come down.”
Still, orange wine is not for everyone. “The people who I see drinking orange wines are looking for a wine experience,” says Liz Martinez, wine director of The Purple Pig, Chicago. “These are intellectual wine drinkers, people that want to think about what they are drinking, and analyze it.”
Before moving to New Orleans, Tidwell worked in Brooklyn as the general manager of a Carroll Gardens wine store. “The Friulian producers were becoming a cult phenomenon, particularly, the master of orange wine, Josko Gravner. I saw those wines sell out.”
Even though orange wines are growing in popularity, it’s not likely spreading to the masses, according to Chloe Helfand. She is sommelier at Bazaar Meat, the Las Vegas restaurant by chef José Andrés. When they opened last August, Helfand had a few orange wines on the list, primarily for a limited clientele who already knew to ask about it. “It’s been trending for the last three to four years, but I wouldn’t say it’s something that will be popular everywhere. It’s definitely not something that I see trending in Vegas, or in middle America” Helfand says. “People are intrigued by it. People want to drink it, but I don’t think that you want to sit down and have an entire bottle.” And with a decent Gravner running upwards of a couple hundred dollars at a restaurant, a bottle is an investment.
For the average consumer, those bottles can still be hard to find, even with the recent uptick in producers. I asked about orange wine at the top wine store in Baltimore where I live and they shook their heads. Never heard of it. “It’s a commitment to make orange wine,” Calcote says. She only goes through about nine bottles a year at FIG. “Production is still limited. They are hard to find in many wine stores, so the average guest can’t get turned on by it and then run out to buy it in a wine shop. They are more expensive to produce. I can’t see Sutter Home putting together orange wine.”
Which was Gravner’s point when he turned his back on modern methods in favor of an ancient approach. That slow, complex production is orange wine’s very raison d’etre.