I think of orange wines as “reverse rosés”-instead of making a pale wine from a black skinned grape, you take a grape that normally makes a white wine but leave the skins on. Many “white” grapes have enough color in their skins to result in a wine that can be anywhere from delicate coral to fairly brilliant orange (lignin in the grape seeds also contributes). The grape you’ll most commonly find handled this way in this country is probably pinot grigio, but there are a number that will do it, including Gewurtztraminer, Vermentino and Roussanne. The flavors that come out when the skins stay on the juice can be quite different and are often very autumnal-marzipan, hazelnut and spice notes come up, as do persimmons and citrus skins.
Be on the lookout for these-or seek them out on purpose. They were “trending” and then they weren’t, and then whatever, but they are special.
Santa Cruz, CA ($30)
Electric orange and such a striking flavor profile it’s hard to recognize it as lemony ol’ pinot gris. Honey, hazelnut, beeswax marzipan, Asian pear, quince. It might be more pliant as an aperitif than a dinner pairing, I’m not sure-it’s intense. Like really intense. And so layered you kind of want to be paying attention to it. This is one of my favorite orange wines.
Hamptons, Long Island ($24)
From a region more known for quaffing than producing wine, this orange bevvie from the Hamptons is surprising stuff. Copper-wire hue in the glass and honeyed aromatics. Dried apricot and baking spice on the palate, voluptuous body, interesting earth and coriander finish.
Napa Valley ($30)
If you like your Napa wines without the Napa ‘tude, Dirty and Rowdy is a label you want to be on the lookout for. They have a skin-contact Semillon that is pretty badass. Semillon is not Pinot Grigio and it makes very different wines, but the skin and seed contact is a similar filter, if you will, applying nuttiness, heavier body, and more autumnal flavor notes than you’d find in its skinless counterpart. This one has a definite honey nose (don’t be fooled, this is not a sweet wine) and then gives way to lime and rocks and vegetal notes and a finish that’s not unlike the way Ponderosa pines smell on warm days (resinous with both pine and vanilla notes). A weirdo in all the right ways.
The wine that turned me onto orange wines in the first place and still one of my faves. There’s a burnt-orange quality to this wine, like zest that’s been held over a flame. Other prominent notes include marzipan and almond blossom, honey, wax, wet gravel, jasmine and honeysuckle, nectarines and cinnamon. Not a lightweight. But shockingly food versatile.
Amador County, CA
This one’s a white-fruit bomb with a lot of heft and gravity for a chenin blanc. It has some honey to it like most of these skin contact wines, but more white peach than anything. Spice notes and the granite terroir of the Sierra foothills take the finish. Burnished, almost brassy hue. Yummy.
Conventionally-made Gewurtztraminer can have a strong lychee note and often a lot of rose petal aromatics. This one gets some of its sweetness cut by the skin time, and it’s a soft salmon-orange color and while it still has a pronounced rose note, it also exudes all kinds of Grand Marnier and tangerine peel goodness. There is a persistent whisper of stone in this as well. Soft, mysterious, restrained.