Herbert Lehmann/CEPHAS
An intense golden hue only hints at the complex structure of Josko Gravner’s amphora-fermented Ribolla.
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A Different Kind of O.J.

Jeffery Lindenmuth / March 2012

Add a new color to the wine spectrum: orange. Jeffrey Lindenmuth explores these uncommon wines now popping up on eclectic wine lists.

Just when Americans have come to accept that there is more to wine than just red and white, adding the pink and salmon colors of dry rosé to their repertoire, there’s a new hue appearing on restaurant wine lists: orange. But, while rosé proved a popular addition for its broad appeal, unoffending flavors, affordability, and surging production, orange wines are none of these things.

Orange wine is the popular name for white wines that are permitted to have extended contact with grape skins during maceration—the same treatment that gives red wines their color and tannins—lending to these whites a copper or orange color. Many orange wine producers, members of a movement concentrated in the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region of northeastern Italy, Croatia, and Slovenia, but also including winemakers in France, California, and New York, also choose to ferment their wines in barrels or traditional clay amphorae and shun the use of sulfites. This accounts for orange wines tantalizing oxidative complexities. “For me, these are monstrously complex wines: you have the aromatics and brightness of a white wine, with the body, structure, and depth of a red wine,” says Christopher Losa, owner/wine director of San Francisco’s Bar Bambino, which features a dedicated section of about a dozen orange wines on a list “sourced from the former reaches of the former Hapsburg Empire.”

All this complexity comes at a price for winemakers, and therefore consumers. At Bar Bambino the orange wines start at $60 for Radikon Oslavje 2003 (500 ml) from Friuli, while Gravner Anfora 2003, from Friuli’s pioneering orange wine producer Josko Gravner, tops out the section at $160. “It’s disappointing that they’re as expensive as they are, but the principles involved in making these wines make them risky,” explains Losa. “The process includes natural fermentation and evaporation, and there’s a real chance that you can have an amphora go totally wrong.”

The unpredictable nature of orange wines doesn’t end with winemaking. For a small category of fairly elusive wines, orange wines offer a surprising breadth of flavors, with grape variety, usually a leading indicator of taste, offering little clue of what’s to come. Orange wines are frequently crafted from traditional grapes of northern Italy—Ribolla Gialla, Garganega, and Malvasia—but as the technique gains New World momentum, familiar names like Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, and Chardonnay are also going orange. This presents yet another challenge for sommeliers like Kerrie O’Brien, who counts Dettori Romangia Bianco 2007, a Vermentino from Sardinia, and Red Hook Winery SK Sauvignon Blanc Reserve 2008 from Brooklyn among the 18 orange wines on the list at DBGB Kitchen & Bar in New York City.

“We had them under ‘worldly whites,’ but I realized I needed a much larger disclaimer, a way to give a heads-up to what these wines were,” O’Brien says. “People think they know what Vermentino is about, then they’d order La Stoppa Ageno and they get this wine that is copper-colored and cloudy.” On the orange wine page of the DBGB list and during her handsell, O’Brien describes the wines with words like “discussion-worthy” and “surprising.” “I’m finding it pays to scare people a little bit,” she says.

Around the middle of last year, Christian Pappanicholas, owner of Resto and the adjacent beer-and-meat focused The Cannibal in New York City, decided to express his passion for orange wines by giving his growing assortment of eight wines their own section on the Resto wine and beer list. “We don’t describe them on the list, but by giving them their own section, it becomes a talking point and piques interest,” says Pappanicholas, who likens his passion for the wines to his taste for the wild-fermented beers of Belgium, which also feature prominently in the Resto beverage program. With their diversity and peculiarity, orange wines are no panacea when it comes to food pairing, although Pappanicholas suggests that certain wines, like Paolo Bea Santa Chiara 2007, a Garganega-based wine from Umbria, can be incredibly food-friendly. “Orange wines work well in terms of our menu because that little sourness and funkiness are great with fat foods like lamb belly and côte de boeuf,” he explains. “These wines also appeal to the adventurous eater, someone who is comfortable ordering lamb’s neck instead of lamb chops.”

At DBGB, O’Brien similarly takes her cue from the food before playing the orange wine card. “When we start talking about the menu, I’m sort of able to size people up. If they gravitate to tripe, bone marrow, and blood sausage, I think they’re the sort of table that may be cool with orange wines.” In practical pairing terms, O’Brien says orange wines offer a spectrum of possibilities, but generally go well with heartier foods, or where a food is a toss-up between red or white, finding many opportunities among DBGB’s 15 varieties of house-made sausage.

For a recent orange wine dinner, part of DBGB’s French Country Dinners series, O’Brien presented her wine selections to chef Olivier Quignon in order to collaborate on the menu. Noting the cidery brown spice and caramel flavors of La Stoppa Ageno, they arrived at a duo of chicken: breast stuffed with foie gras and a cider-braised leg with braised salsify and caramelized apple. “I like to pair flavors with these wines,” says O’Brien. “I want foods that can match their texture and richness, but the beauty of these wines is that they still have the acidity that sometimes can be lacking in red wines.”

One of Losa’s favorite dishes for orange wine is Bar Bambino’s crispy grilled rock cod with wedges of Belgian endive and citronette with a warm vinaigrette of seasonally selected citrus permitting the orange wine’s acidity to “frame the big winter citrus.” However, Losa is equally enthusiastic about pairing these wines with heartier fare, like prosciutto-wrapped pork tenderloin served with savoy cabbage. “This is a more protein-driven winter dish that might normally cry for a red wine, but the butterscotch, caramel, herbaceous notes found in orange wines allow them to play beautifully with it,” he says.

Restaurants that are embracing and succeeding with orange wines seem to have more in common in their sense of daring and personal passion than they do in large lists, deep cellars, or any particular regional cuisine. At Isa in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood, the third New York City restaurant from Taavo Somer, two orange wines, from Dinavolo in Emilia-Romagna and Tenute Dettori in Sardinia, seem perfectly at home on a list that looks like a pasted-together ransom note and totals only 16 wines in all. Somer created the wine list by actively tasting over a period of months with Isa chef Ignacio Mattos. “We both apparently lean toward the more obscure and funkier,” he says. “We had no rules of organization, by varietal, country, or having a certain number of whites versus reds. Again, we aren’t wine people and don’t really know the rules anyway, and didn’t care beyond our own criteria.”

For Isa’s diners, orange wine isn’t much of a stretch after ordering a plate of pig’s tails or salted sardines presented with their fried skeletons. And with both wines on offer by the bottle, half-bottle, and glass, starting at just $14, the gamble on the unknown is greatly reduced. “We want the customers to have a similar experience to our own with the wine list. We want them to experiment and taste,” says Somer.

When it comes to serving orange wines, O’Brien likens them to white Burgundy. She prefers to serve them close to cellar temperature and frequently decants them to unleash flavors that can include herbal, nutty, saline, and honeyed nuances. “The temptation is there to put them on ice,” she says. “Personally, I find that it mutes out the flavors, but we’re all learning. These wines are new territory for everybody.”