I'll have to begin by saying that I was completely oblivious to orange wine -- yes, I'll explain myself here in a moment -- until nearly a season ago while surfing Instagram, a wonderful place where I learn new things from my favorite tastemakers (I like the personal and off-the-cuff pulse for the culinary world that no wikipedia page or google search can offer: it's just more honest, and often slightly more inebriated).
The foodie in this instance is Oliver Strand, a foremost coffee journalist. He was dining at the Builders Arms Hotel in Fitzroy, Australia where among the list of vinos sprawling from Barossa Valley syrahs to natural proseccos and the stuff of Australian co-operative wineries, he pointed out quite literally the first very thing he saw: "Orange gets top billing."
Simply put, orange wine is the result of treating white grape varietals like they are red grape varietals. The goal is to do the same thing as red wine, keeping the white grape skins on for an extended maceration and fermentation period of typically around a week but, in some cases, for months.
Alas, that's where the summarization suddenly become generalization and, unfortunately, nearly inaccurate; this process is not new -- it's just as old as red wine is, but these days extremely sporadic, dating back to a time before separating grape skins was common processing.
Vineyards seem to be reviving the tradition, not continuing it. Some vineyards produce sterile orange wines, a safer bet, while others embrace the categories wild roots of open-fermentation, slight oxidation and the by-passing of filtration, leading to robust, cloudy liquids.
All the same, I thought I was on to something -- that I'd stumbled on to the cusp of wine industry fodder. Naturally, I had to find some orange wine and taste for myself.
That would be a challenge. Searching #orangewine on Instagram yielded some vineyard names and regions to start with, but sadly even bloggers in New York were lamenting their failures, bringing back bone-chillingly sparse yields to forum boards. They struggled to find much of a variety of orange wine at all, schlepping through the the dark, uncertain alleys to the Upper East Side's most shrouded and unforgiving wine boutiques for just a small taste of a murky, old-world, bio-dynamic, orange wine.
I went to the new Total Wine at Tempe Marketplace and not a single salesperson didn't ask me, "Like, wine made from oranges?"
And so the real reporting began, and not 33 calls later did I find orange wine where I should have looked immediately: Kazimierz World Wine Bar. I walked into the dark bar, and just as soon as my eyes could adjust I was flipping through the giant wine list.
Turns out, Kazimierz stocks not only an Orange Wine from Vista Hills Vineyard in Oregon, but also a couple unfiltered wines from a biodynamic vineyard, Batič, in Slovenia. One in particular, Zaria, evokes "mezcal smoke" and is a blend of the usual suspects for the region: pinel, zelen, rebula, vitoska, klarnicka, and yellow muscat.
This kid wanted a glass. The owners of the vineyard, Ivan and Miha Batič, have explained their practice: "A complete path from must to wine is written in a grape. A great penological understands that wine is a masterpiece of Nature, not man. The most precious and purest wine is born from only one idea. The idea of Nature." Such a sentiment captures every bit of romanticism surrounding old world, natural, organic, the-waves-and-the-moon, biodynamic orange wine.
But nothing was offered by the glass -- and a with a bottle price of $51, alas, my search would continue elsewhere.
However, there were no other leads. So I let a sleeping dog lie. About a month later I was preparing to dine in at Hillside Spot, the unassuming Ahwatukee restaurant, by peering into the beer fridge for something sour, when I walked back by the wine shelves and the bright orange nectar of the Vista Hills Vineyard Pinot Gris caught my eye. Of all places! I planned a trip back for their Wine Wednesdays and caught a bottle half off the full price, a whopping $14 after the cut.
This wine was certainly the filtered sort, but I dove in without prejudice -- if you google orange wine you'll certainly find its critics (who isn't suspicious of the "new kid?"). I flared my nostrils at the glass and absorbed nothing more than the spray of an apple at the moment it's sliced, the aroma of a bygone summer.
A sip left a lump of acidity in my throat that sat there for moments before fading and leaving the sides of my mouth dry, tannins tingling. It certainly had its fruity qualities, but with every sip of the malic flesh you were cut off by equal waves of bitterness I attribute in part to slight oxidation -- like you bit too far into a slice of melon and hit the rind or, in a more affectionate description, like you've bit into an uncut peach and tasted the peel long after the soft center has dissolved.
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I'm not talking apples and orange here: Every sip is, in fact, a sip of the white grape skin and its flesh working in tandem.
So, was it little more than an intriguing glass of domestic, entry-level orange wine at an unexpected locale with a small, rotating wine menu? You be the judge. It's available by the glass until it isn't.