While deeply rooted in wine regions throughout Georgia, Italy, Slovenia, and Croatia, orange wines have recently made a splash at American restaurants.
Graham Kotalik—sommelier at InterContinental Hotel in Milwaukee and in charge of its two bars plus its Kil@wat restaurant—is a fan of orange wines. With two by-the-bottle selections (Johan Vineyards, Willamette Valley, Oregon, and Scarbolo, Fruili, Italy) on the list, he recommends pairing them with dishes that feature ingredients like pears, leeks, and parsnips.
“You get that refreshing acidity you might find in a white wine but you also have an herbal structure,” he says. “Orange wine has the ability to be cross-seasonal, but its best characteristics are shown with fall and spring cuisine.” A rich blue cheese is another of Kotalik’s go-to pairings.
Yet getting customers to stray from their beloved wine varietals and take a gamble on an orange-hued wine is a challenge, particularly with orange wine’s higher price points. During the hotel’s Wine Craze on Wednesday evenings, when select glasses of wine are just $5, one of the two orange wines is often featured. This has turned many customers on to orange wine.
Because of their food-friendly nature, orange wines thrive in a restaurant setting. Offering by-the-glass pours is key. “These wines are meant to be sipped with six or seven dishes—spread across vegetables, fruit, and various types of meat like pork, chicken, and beef. They’re not a poolside drinking wine,” says Chris Terrell, an importer of orange wines. He brought the cult wine Pheasant’s Tears to the States in 2009, from an American winery owner in the Republic of Georgia. A pioneer in bringing orange wines to the States, he has made them available in New York City, Seattle, Portland, Oregon, and cities throughout California. Popular with wine aficionados, particularly Millennials, Terrell credits their increased popularity to strong food-pairing qualities.
Matthew Rorick, of Forlorn Hope Wines in Napa Valley, California, released his first orange-wine vintages in 2010: Faufreluches Gewurztraminer, Morrow Sauvignon Blanc, and Sihaya Ribolla Gialla. “I was very much inspired by a handful of Italian wines in that style,” says Rorick. Driven by his dislike for Gewurztraminer’s “oily mouthfeel,” but encouraged by a grape-grower’s generous offer of that varietal grown in the Russian River Valley, Rorick took on the challenge. At first he struggled to sell the wines to restaurants, recalling restaurateurs who said: “I don’t know where I would put this on my list. I don’t know how I would present it to the guest. There is not a section on the wine list where you can easily put it. Do you put it in the white list with an asterisk?”
“Orange wines are obviously different,” says Levi Dalton, Eater New York’s wine editor and a former sommelier at Masa and Boulud Sud in New York City. His suggestion is to simply create a new category called “orange wines.” Describing the wines as being like other varietals isn’t always effective in his opinion.
Food pairings also entice diners to experiment, and are appealing to groups where orders might range from a delicate fish entrée to braised pork. Orange wines find ideal food matches across a range of menu items from lighter, softer fare to spicier dishes.
Among Dalton’s favorite food pairings with orange wines are sea urchin and shiitake mushrooms, or any dish with an umami element. The wines should be served slightly chilled, but too cold results in hard tannins. “The biggest fallacy is that orange wines all taste the same,” says Dalton.
To entice customers he once hosted an orange-wine dinner he dubbed “Show me some skin.” It was an immediate hit. And to school the waitstaff he organized a side-by-side tasting to demonstrate the wide variance in flavor profile.