For years, I assigned wine connoisseurs to one of two distinct categories: restaurateurs and assholes.
That was long before barrel-aged grapes earned their prominent share of real estate along the hypebeast frontier. Now, as something of a postscript to the variety of wine snobbery practiced by your college French professor, the whole being-into-wine thing has received a facelift. Somewhere between obscure pickle plates and pseudo-corrective Givenchy sneakers, a culinary movement has boldly fermented: Orange wine.
Call it a renaissance, a wine revolution, a hipster shtick—all the same, we’re watching crops of new and natural wine bars dot our culinary heat maps by the handful. And joining whites, reds, and rosés on nearly all of their menus, is none other than orange.
As a recent convert to the church of orange wine, I can personally attest to the fact that I’ve spent far more time infatuated with wine people than I have with wine itself. But as a trend, orange wine has spread beyond the niche gastronomy influencer circuit, trickling its way from the broader Internet Person community down to people like me—a proud believer in the judge-a-wine-by-its-label doctrine. It would seem that this particular contagion runs deeper than a generational palette shift or an insular culinary movement. Connoisseurs or not, we’re all beginning to think differently about what—and how—we consume. Orange wine is just the prologue.
On a technical level, an orange wine is simply a white wine crafted like a red. One of the reasons a Cab Sauv has so much more body than say, a White Zinfandel, is because red grapes are processed with the skins on, while lighter grapes typically aren’t. (If you’ve heard someone insufferable shout the phrase “skin-contact!” at a waiter, this has nothing to do with combat sports and everything to do with the way grape skins alter a wine’s flavor profile.) For a wine to earn the “orange” signifier, white grapes are macerated with the skins on, infusing the wine with all the tannins and flavor notes we associate with a red—and thus dying the stuff some variation of a musky orange.
Present interest aside, orange wine itself is not a new phenomenon. Georgians and other Central Europeans have been producing and importing the stuff en masse for over 8,000 years—which begs the question: In 2019, how did orange wine become “cool”?
Most classic connoisseurs—all of whom we can assume wear monocles and velvet dinner jackets—are still wedded to the vintage bordeauxes of the world. Often, they’re not interested in the so-called lazy or less refined process that is white skin-maceration, no matter how far back it dates. So it makes sense that, in the grand tradition of counter culture, the current-day wine drinker in jorts and Nike Cortez’ would be very into those things. Orange wine is the beverage equivalent of wearing a sock-and-sandal combo so heinous it qualifies as fashion. You might call it the scumbro of wines.
“There are lots of guests who ask if it’s made from citrus,” says Justin Chearno, Wine Director and Partner at The Four Horsemen, a beloved Williamsburg wine bar most known for its prominent cameo in Master of None. “It’s important to note that there’s no singular flavor to orange wine. There are wines that are very tropical, wines that are super tannic, acidic, some that taste like sour beer or kombucha, some that are reminiscent of apple cider and some that you would swear were red wines if you didn’t see the color when you were drinking.”
While orange wines have been a subset of The Four Horsemen menu since the spot opened its doors four years ago, Chearno says more and more people arrive at the bar with an interest in, and an understanding of, what they’re actually looking for in the realm of orange wine.
His personal favorite is Dario Princnic, whose wines “taste somehow ancient and contemporary at the same time.” Perhaps that’s part of the magic of orange wine: it’s an antiquated tradition, but rebranded and made interesting—even to the more angsty, apathetic millennials so lovingly disparaged in mainstream media. For all the ways Pete Davidson gave stature in high fashion to the classic Champion hoodie, orange wine—long ignored by aficionados—turns a timeless thing on its head.
“Customers ask us daily for orange wines,” says Lorena Ascencios, head buyer at Astor Wines, one of New York’s largest and most comprehensive wine and spirits vendors. Currently, the shop holds 24 different orange wine varietals, all of which sell out without fail. “The interest is tremendous,” she says. “If we had more, more would surely sell.”
I might also add—to mostly everyone’s chagrin—that the stuff is now available at Aldi for $5.99.
“We have this whole desire for recognition based on our taste,” says Lizzie Noonan, a woman I often describe socially as my “wine friend.” We’re eating cornichons and drinking from plastic cups on a blanket in Fort Greene Park. Tavo Dam—another friend who, like Lizzie, holds court in the upper echelons of Food and Drink PR—has selected the wine. Naturally, it’s orange: a Sicilian Praruar from Il Censo. “Right,” he agrees. “And especially here, and especially with millennials, everyone wants to be different, so they try to set themselves apart from the whole old-school wine tradition while still asserting their high-brow taste.”
The wine isn’t funky per se, but it’s a deep orange, deeper than most. It’s light and nuanced and acidic. Imagine Sunny D, sans synthetic sugars, crafted by old Italian wine wizards. Neither fully white nor red, it hangs in a peculiar in-between space—the flavor equivalent of that slippery window before Sunday melts from a fixture of the weekend into Monday’s preamble. Think: Fort Greene terroir with hints of Bed-Stuy. Notes of Kurt Vile. Pairs well with not knowing what time it is.
“We have a new wave of customers seeking experiential wine” says Chris Leon, the man behind cult-favorite Clinton Hill wine shop, Leon & Sons. “Wine thats either new to their favored category or reimagining what that category means. Many times orange wine is both of those things.“
There’s something apt about labeling orange wine as experiential. It urges us to write down the signifiers that come from certain vineyards, whether or not we identify as “wine people.” It demands a little involvement—a little more attentiveness to the experience that is consumption. To taste something—actually taste it—is a rare act of presence. For the amount we consume, it’s unfortunate how little time we spend tasting.
It’s not surprising that there is cachè in presenting your wine vocabulary over dinner, especially when it’s one as nuanced as orange wine calls for. What is surprising, instead, is the wine itself.
Photos by Louisiana Mei Gelpi.