By Laura Milnes
Orange wine has been around for a while but is slowly gaining popularity. It has turned wine tasters’ beliefs about wine on their head, as nothing expresses itself quite like skin contact does.
When pouring orange wine for guests or friends – a rose gold pinot gris or the enchanting amber hue of radikon – the reaction is almost always the same. “Wow, I’ve never tried a wine quite like this – is this made from oranges?”
While it’s entrenched itself as a fixture among wine enthusiasts, what is special about the technique is the inherent stability skin contact provides. It forces the winemaker to slow down and allow the aromas to be coaxed out. It is a wine that requires patience.
Andrew Etsell produces seven acres of siegerrebe in Abbotsford, B.C., and decided he wanted to experiment with skin contact. With the help of Matt Dumayne, winemaker of Okanagan Crush Pad in Summerland, B.C., they tried one tank, allowing the siegerrebe to ferment naturally, and macerate on the skins for 90 days. “The end result was a completely different wine than our traditional style that is typically off dry and aromatic,” says Etsell. “The aromatics stayed, but it expressed more steeped rose petals and earthiness. It was a very interesting experiment and we’ve continued to do it ever since. “
Likely the most special character about orange wine is its unique ability to pair with foods that can be difficult to match with. Because skin contact taps into an entirely different category of aromas, so too do the possibilities of what foods complement or contrast with it.
Bailey Williamson, proprietor and winemaker on Vancouver island, shared this sentiment when I had the chance to speak with him about his orange ortega recently. “The food with wine thing – that’s where orange wines excel,” he says. “They’re very savoury, not meant to be consumed as an aperitif while sitting out on your back porch in the sun. That’s not how they show well. They do require some food, especially for the orange ortega that I make.” Williamson suggests pairing it with salami, manchego cheese, or salted nuts. “When I first made it, it reminded me of a fino sherry. I think it will always be a nit of a niche product. It’s difficult sometimes for the wine cognizant to put themselves outside of their feedback loop and think about what the general population does.”
Whether orange wine will ever become mainstream remains to be seen. Young up-and-coming winemakers like Rajen Toor makes his own label, Ursa Major, in the cellar at Desert Hills in Oliver. With the combination of chic artwork on the labels and a fearless approach to experimentation and reinvention, Rajen has captured the hearts and palates of many.
“Fermenting white grapes on skins brings out a whole other side of the variety,” he says. “Oftentimes, I find it makes the varieties more three dimensional, adding on layers of what already exist in the juice. It adds tannin and intensity as well, making them very good food-friendly wines.”
Toor says demand for the orange wine has been incredible and believes that it’s finally here to stay. “Personally, I find the style incredibly versatile. Good for the beach, park, dinner, and lunch, and cooler autumn/winter days.”
The adoption of orange wine as a category on restaurant wine lists has also assisted the general public in accepting it as a style that is here to stay. While we remain far from the culture of skin contact the likes of Slovenia or Northern Italy, we are well on our way there. Canadian producers are leaning into the style more than ever, revealing a side of their beloved varieties while testing limits, palates, and talents.