Rotten Socks & Candied Apricots

“Red, white or rose” used to be enough to get us through the dilemma of wine color choices. Now fashion and industry have conspired to force a fourth option. Orange wine: is it worth it?

We can’t say that we weren’t warned. The U.K.’s Independent newspaper sounded the alarm about three years ago, offering a baker’s dozen of the best orange wines for the adventurous oenophile. The same paper wagged its futuristic finger at us laggards in 2016, telling us that we’d all be drinking orange last year. Well, they were wrong, but in 2018, orange wine is finally finding its way out of the nerdy niches of upmarket specialism (London’s Ritz has always had a handful in its Livre du Vin) and into every day and even low-budget supermarkets.

What is it? Well, to begin with, it isn’t made of oranges. In fact, it’s not even related. No zest, no juice, not even a pip. Orange wine is also known (somewhat more alluringly) as skin-contact wine, or amber wine. A bit of background, then. In the making of white wine, the grapes are typically separated from the skins soon after pressing, which helps to guarantee a clean, crisp freshness in the final product. Red wines, conversely, are allowed more contact in order to ensure that the tannins and color are absorbed into the wine. Orange wine is a kind of “third way” wine where white grapes (for example Chardonnay or Viognier) are used, but the wine is left “skins-on” for days, weeks or even months according to the sordid intent of the vigneron.

“Most other orange wine is very expensive and horrible, and we wanted to make one that’s more commercial. It’s textured like a red wine, but it doesn’t have the smell of rotten socks…” Philip Cox, Commercial Director, Aldi.

Despite its unfamiliarity with this column and the wider wine-drinking public, it’s not a new thing. In Northern Italy and neighboring Slovenia they’ve been at it for centuries, so it has the pedigree of south-central European tradition. It’s on-trend with neo-hippies and the light-footprint brigade as well, bless them, as it doesn’t require added yeast (it uses the wild yeast already on the grape skin) or additives like sulphur which are typically used for preservation in both red and white wines. As a result, orange wine has earned itself the moniker “natural wine.”

What’s it like, then? Fans of New England IPA will note with interest that it can be pretty cloudy in the glass, although some are clearer than others. Your humble reporter tried the Orange Natural Wine from the U.K.’s Aldi chain (a low-rent, scruffy outlet which has, nevertheless, won serious plaudits for its wine range). It’s not entirely unpleasant, but it’s decidedly not for everyone. Somewhat tellingly, Aldi’s own review of the alarming-looking liquid concentrates more on the ecologically-friendly wine-making methods, and skips over the flavor with a reference to candied apricots, herbal notes and full body—all of which are accurate. Perhaps wisely, they only fleetingly mention the “powerful structure,” which is a euphemism for the bewildering presence of serious tannins (the things that dry your mouth out when you drink red wine).

In the interests of balance, it would be a crime of omission to ignore the negative press that this weird tipple gets from some quarters. Aldi’s own commercial director, Philip Cox, seemed to think he was being nice about his offering when he described it thusly: “Most other orange wine is very expensive and horrible, and we wanted to make one that’s more commercial. It’s textured like a red wine, but it doesn’t have the smell of rotten socks…” [Interview with Wine Business International, August 9 2018.]

All in all, orange wine makes an interesting diversion from routine and stands up to oriental cuisines—including the slightly spicy varieties—much better than its pale and attractive cousins. Having said that, it’s not a monolith, and there is a reasonable range of prices and styles to check out. For the adventurous Dongguan resident, a trip across the border to Hong Kong is probably necessary to sample the murky delights of skin-contact quaffing. For those too mean, too poor or too lazy to make the trip, leave a glass of Fanta out until it’s flat, add a dash of vinegar, a shot of baijiu and a used teabag. That’s perhaps a reasonable approximation.