It’s high summer, the season that typically coincides with a proliferation of rosé wine offerings on drinks lists across the northern hemisphere. In recent years, however, the blushing beauties are sharing more menu real estate with their edgier, exotic cousins — orange wines.
The term “orange wine” applies broadly to skin-contact white wines. While rosé wines are made by briefly soaking red grapes with their skins to impart a pink tint without the prominent tannins found in red wines, orange varieties are made by macerating white grapes on their skins for long periods. The results range in hue from pale salmon to bright copper and rust. Skin contact contributes complexity — flavors of honeyed fruit, dried flowers and nuts — along with phenolic grip from tannins. Think of orange wine as white wine with brawn, or rosé with teeth.
The skin-contact method is most closely associated with Slovenia, Greece and, in particular, Georgia, where the tradition of fermenting grapes with their skins in egg-shaped clay vessels called qvevri has continued for 8,000 years.
As with rosé, part of the appeal of orange wine lies in its ability to harmonize with a variety of foods. When I visited Georgia several years ago, winemaker John Wurdeman, of cult winery Pheasant’s Tears, told me that instead of selecting different wines for each of the dishes in a traditional Georgian meal, a couple bottles of orange wine (or, as they prefer to call it in Georgia, “amber wine”) are commonly served. Often, these repasts are multicourse feasts spanning several hours and all food groups. For this, you need wine with freshness and acidity to match the spiced vegetable pates and pickles, but with enough structure and body to stand up to the meats and cheese: You need an orange wine with guts and stamina.
Even without food, skin-contact whites tend to make lasting impressions. My first encounter with the style was in Vienna more than 10 years ago. The wine was Maria and Sepp Muster Erde, a biodynamic blend of sauvignon blanc and Morillon grapes fermented in wooden barrels with up to a year of skin contact. Although I’ve forgotten the vintage, I remember the flavor: earthy, pungent and wild.
Since then, I’ve discovered intriguing amber specimens all over the world, and the memories of many remain — the muscle and oomph of wines from Italy’s Josko Gravner, beguiling funkiness of Organic Anarchy from Slovenian winemaker Aci Urbajs and the complexity-bordering-on-cacophony that characterizes Momento Mori wines by vigneron Dane Johns in Australia.
These days, orange wines are increasingly easy to find at restaurants in Tokyo.
One of the first eateries to offer a noticeably substantial selection of skin-contact whites was modern Vietnamese restaurant An Di, and owner and sommelier Motohiro Okoshi has included a few bottles, such as 2018 Koerner Pigato Vermentino, at more casual sister restaurant An Com inside the new Eat Play Works food hall near Hiroo Station.
At the Tokyo branch of Brooklyn-based Mexican restaurant Oxomoco, also in Eat Play Works, Ekleipsis Meraki Skin Contact Riesling 2019, a light and peachy — but savory — number, works wonderfully with both a piquant shrimp ceviche tostada and a taco topped with meltingly tender pork carnitas, drizzled with tomatillo salsa and sprinkled with puffed chicharron pork rinds. At Pelmeni Kitchen, Russian-style dumplings stuffed with veal and bathed in sour cream are a match for lively Pheasant’s Tears Tsiska Imereti 2016. In Shibuya’s newly opened Miyashita Park complex, restaurant Dadai features several orange varieties — including Domaine Tetta Chardonnay Macere 2018 from Okayama Prefecture and sherry-like Stori Marani Rkatsiteli 2015 — that pair with pan-Asian bites such as shrimp toast with mango-chili sauce, tamarind-marinated chicken wings, and shrimp and coriander steamed dumplings.
I predict we’ll be seeing more amber wines on menus here in the future. Rosé is still great, but orange is the new pink.