What Is Orange Wine and Why Is It So Popular Right Now?

What Is Orange Wine and Why Is It So Popular Right Now?

Like Twitter discourse or the Star Wars universe, the wine world is riddled with complexities that alienate people on its periphery. If a friend, sommelier, or salesperson starts calling a bottle “glou-glou” or raving about its tannic structure, those of us who haven’t spent large portions of our lives and bank accounts studying oenology may understandably smile politely and tune out. That’s what makes the wine world’s latest sales boom so surprising: Orange wine, a category that can have challenging descriptors like “bruised apple” and “wood varnish,” is growing the way that rosé did years ago. 

Also called skin contact or macerated wine, orange wine is an easy-to-order, 8,000-year-old overnight sensation that’s uniquely situated to introduce casual wine drinkers to insider-y conversations about wine grapes, production, history, and more. Recently demand for it has grown in tandem with the natural wine movement, but even within that space, orange wine has a niche all its own. Orders on Drizly, the alcohol delivery platform, are up 167% year-over-year, and data analysts predict the global orange wine market will grow nearly $27 million to reach $67 million in the next decade.  

But the orange crush is not like wine trends of the past, like when wine critic Robert Parker turned American collectors onto Super Tuscans in the 1990s, how Sideways fueled Pinot Noir in the aughts, or the way that rosé gained and sustained its buzz in the 2010s. According to wine professionals, the rise of orange wine is creating a new type of casual wine drinker: one who is actually eager to learn a lot more about wine. 

“Since day one, it’s been pretty prominent, people coming in the door and asking about orange wine,” says Jeremy Patenaude, the general manager of All Together Now, a four-year-old bar and bottle shop in Chicago’s Ukranian Village. Patenaude recently began including orange wines when he teaches tasting classes because so many customers are curious about them. “I always see people perk up when I introduce an orange,” he says. 

This is partly due to the nature of orange wine. It’s a singular category, but one with incredible diversity. It all comes down to what happens in the vineyard and winery. 

You make red wine by picking grapes like Cabernet or Merlot, leaving them in contact with their skins as they ferment, and then pressing the juice and possibly aging it. For white wine, winemakers use lighter-skinned grapes like Chardonnay or Riesling, and the process is the same, except there’s no skin contact during fermentation. 

Orange wine, on the other hand, can be made with any white wine grape that’s left in contact with its skins for any amount of time. Those eye-catching amber, copper, or traffic-cone hues don’t come from actual oranges—a question sommeliers still field despite the category’s popularity—but rather due to the amount of time the juice sits with its skins. The resulting wines are a kaleidoscope of colors and characteristics, ranging from heavy-hitting bottles aged underground in ancient clay amphora for years,to light, refreshing sippers that sat with their skins in stainless steel tanks for all of three hours. 

The diversity of this category, and its associations with similarly ascendant natural wine, allowed the hype to spread quickly throughout like-minded bottle shops, bars, and restaurants. If you’re new to or curious about wine, you can breezily say “I’ll have a glass of the orange, please,” and any server worth their salt will have to ask you all sorts of questions: what sorts of flavors or textures you’re looking for, what texture means in this context, whether you plan to eat while you drink it, why that matters, and so on. A casual orange wine order opens up all sorts of dialogues about how wine is made in ways that ordering the one Argentine Malbec or South African Chenin Blanc rarely does, simply because the orange category itself is so vast. “Drinking orange wine is a great way to learn how to taste,” says Isabelle Legeron, founder of the natural wine fair Raw Wine. “It really teaches you what you like.” 

Elise Rosenberg has witnessed this phenomenon firsthand. The co-owner of Brooklyn restaurants ColoniePips, and Gran Eléctrica says that interest in orange wine has “exploded exponentially in recent years,” with notable degrees of receptiveness from unfamiliar guests. When she first offered orange wine by-the-glass 12 years ago, people would send it back half the time. “People had no idea what to expect and were a little confused.” Now, she says, orange wine outsells rosé in the summertime. “The question used to be ‘What’s orange wine?’ and now it’s ‘What’s your funkiest orange wine?’”

Colonie currently offers 15 skin-contact wines by the bottle and 2 by the glass, which Rosenberg believes is key to helping people navigate a vast array of wines that can be lean and easy-drinking or tannic and heavy-hitting. People are responding and ordering wines made from less ubiquitous grapes and regions. “They’re getting more adventurous, which is very exciting. I see guests confidently ordering, say, a Georgian Rkatsiteli without batting an eye these days,” says Rosenberg, referring to Georgia’s indigenous white wine grape with a limited footprint and insider-y reputation in American wine circles. .

Zwann Grays, a New York–based sommelier and founder of Zwann’s Wine Club, got deep into orange wine after she traveled to Georgia, which many consider the birthplace or spiritual home of orange wine. She too has watched it go from industry darling to fan favorite, and has seen its potential for engaging in conversations about wine. If one person at a table orders it, she says, others often ask what it is and how it’s different from red or white wines. “That’s the place where conversations can get interesting,” she says. 

Plus, the diversity of orange wine means she can find one that appeals to someone who likes their wines super wild and to their friend who thinks “funky” is a bad word. “That’s some of the fun of having a whole skin-contact section,” Grays says. “There are all sorts of styles and flavors for people to enjoy.” 

This openness is a pretty revolutionary aspect of orange wine’s popularity. As anyone who has worked in a bar or restaurant can attest, it can be extraordinarily difficult to get many customers to embrace the expertise of hired professionals who they suspect are upselling them at every turn. This is especially potent when it comes to wine, an industry shrouded in convoluted geo-specific classification systems, and, let’s be honest, generations of homegrown snobbery, Sideways-style cringe, and Eurocentrism.

A lot of people tune out or shut down during wine conversations, whether it’s a sales proposition or a casual chat. Talking about wine can alienate people who just want to drink something delicious without needing to recall how Sauvignon Blanc will be labeled “Sancerre” or “Pouilly-Fumé” depending on which part of France it comes from, or “Muskat-Silvaner” if it’s Austrian, or “Sauvignon Blanc” if it’s from the US—unless it’s made in that one corner of Napa where Sauvignon Blanc is called “Fumé Blanc.” Orange wine—with its easy moniker, eye-catching appearance, and diversity of expressions and price points—is a welcoming deviation from the strict, impenetrable nature of a lot of corners of wine culture. 

Jahdé Marley, a Brooklyn-based wine and spirits educator, partially credits the hype around the wine on social media. “It really does pique curiosity,” she says. But she, too, thinks that orange wine has the potential to be a better gateway wine than previous trendy wines. “Not all orange wines are rip-your-face-off tannic, amphora-aged Georgian wines,” she says. “There’s also really pretty, floral orange wines, or tropical orange wines, or wines that have been macerated for so long that the bitterness starts to dissolve and dissipate. There’s so many things to talk about, and people are more open to receiving them, I think.”

Of course, when anything becomes widely popular, questions of quality control arise. For instance, when rosé surged, it introduced some drinkers to great rosé, but its ubiquity also meant that there was incentive for mediocre rosés to flood the market. Some winemakers with no expertise or particular interest in pink wines quickly made them simply because they knew they’d sell. “When the product becomes crap and we’re just drinking whatever because it looks a certain way, that’s not really the vibe,” says Grays.

That, too, is a way that orange wine may not go the way of rosé. Lauren Feldman, the co-owner of Valley Bar and Bottle Shop in Sonoma, California, believes the category has some built-in guardrails to withstand the whims of fashion and Instagrammability. Unlike rosé, which goes from harvest to bottle very quickly, some orange wines take years to make and age before they’re brought to chic bottle shops or dimly lit wine bars. “The people who have been making the super traditional ones have been doing it for generations and won’t be manipulated by market trends,” Feldman says. 

In a worst-case scenario, where wine bars and shops could be flooded with clumsily made skin-contact wines with names like Orange You Glad It’s Happy Hour or Mommy Orangest, there’s still hope. Orange wine empowers its fans to ask questions and engage their palates, and they’ll be better able to recognize good wine where they see it, Marley says. 

“As long as you have some people who want to make good wine, and folks that are willing to educate, and folks that are willing to keep the conversation and the dialogue open,” Marley says, “then it’s not like good wine is going away.”

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