As the UK gets its first dedicated orange wine bar, Millie Milliken takes a look at how the perpetual ‘next big thing’ in wine is performing in the on-trade
'We’ve seen a big increase in sales of orange wine... that’s a category in triple-digit growth for us.’ So said Alex Hunt MW, Berkmann Wine Cellars’ purchasing director, when Imbibe news editor Jacopo Mazzeo spoke to him in February of this year about what he thought would be 2020’s biggest wine trends.
Coronavirus was a mere whisper when he made his forecast, but the pandemic doesn’t look like it has put paid to the category’s popularity in the UK. Since we spoke to Hunt, the UK has gained its first orange wine bar, plus an orange and skin contact wine subscription box, restaurants are reporting a rise in its popularity and bartenders are working with winemakers to get them on their menus (hello, Tayēr + Elementary collaboration with Petr Korab, ‘6/4 Orange’).
Is this the big breakthrough we’ve been promised for the last decade? Or has London’s kombucha-swilling, kimchi-making elite just found its latest fad?
‘Our weekly “Orange Wednesdays” events were getting very popular pre-lockdown, so we’d been considering how to make this passion a bigger feature for a while,’ explains Sarah Maddox, managing director of the Silver Lining bar in east London.
After closing in March due to you know what, Maddox and her team took the time to rethink their offering. Now, Silver Lining stocks around 50 orange wines on its Insta-worthy shelves, with three of its best sellers representing myriad styles: Yetti & The Kokonut, Skinsy Gewürz 2019; Staffelter Hof, Little Bastard 2019; and Slobodné, Supermajer 2017.
For Maddox, orange wine’s popularity spawns from people wanting to drink lighter liquids and a leaning towards flavours of fermentation: ‘The process that orange wine goes through produces a wine that is very light and easy-drinking... The fermentation also brings out notes that you won’t find in red or white wines, so tasting becomes even more exciting.’
Using low-intervention wines as a launchpad, Edwin Methu-Frost and Jasper Delamothe have launched Oranj, a wine subscription service working with changing sommeliers (including Noble Rot’s Holly Willcocks and Bright’s Francis Roberts) to deliver natural – and orange – wines to consumers. Having both worked in the hospitality industry, the duo are hoping Oranj will make these more challenging wines more accessible to customers.
Is this the big breakthrough? Or has London’s kombucha-swilling elite just found its latest fad?
‘It’s about breaking the back on that feeling of inadequacy that some people have when they order a wine,’ says Delamothe, who also cites himself and Methu-Frost as the target demographic. ‘It’s the access point for novices, like we were two or three years ago, when we were like “orange wine, you sure about that?”’
Brodie Meah, co-owner of north London’s Top Cuvée sees the Covid-19 lockdown as an accelerator of trends, which included orange wine. Its Insta feed was awash during lockdown with tags of people drinking its Calcarius Nù Litr Orange Puglia (now off sale due to its owner Valentina Passalacqua being embroiled in a legal case). ‘Lockdown was the great accelerator for many things, and orange wine was one of them,’ he comments. ‘It’s something different, a lot of people relate orange wine with natural wine, and with the natural wine movement really getting some traction now, orange wine is the poster boy.’
It’s not just millennials who are interested either (like the ones who don Top Cuvée’s tongue-in-cheek Orange Wine tie-dye t-shirts). With its local demographic made up of middle-aged parents whose kids are at uni, Meah sees more of these older customers being interested in the wines that their children have told them about: ‘It’s definitely spreading out beyond the niche.’
Paying the price
While the enthusiasm towards orange wine is far from waning, there is a very real issue that is stopping it becoming wholly accessible: price point.
Meah highlights that most first-time drinkers of orange wines won’t splash too much cash, but as a result aren’t getting to taste its true potential. ‘Orange wines aren’t cheap to make… the problem we’re at now is a lot of the sub-£20 orange wines are not really showcasing the style that they could... We want to find some more expressive bottles at a lower price point.’
‘While sales are up generally post-lockdown, we’ve found our sales of orange wine have gone down a little bit recently,’ says Ola Dabrowska, co-owner of the Kwas shop and bar in Huddersfield. ‘It might be due to the pandemic. People here are looking for cheaper alternatives and our orange wines don’t fall into this category.’
Dabrowska is looking to stock more English orange wines after the recent introduction of Tillingham and Off Beat products to the bar’s ‘curious crowd’.
Nik Darlington, MD of importer Red Squirrel Wine, also sees price as inhibitive. ‘Orange wines tend to be at the more premium end and are naturally inhibited by the fact they are expensive… their cost stops them going mainstream,’ he tells me.
Looking at a wine list like a football team, he sees orange wine as relatable to the goalkeeper (alongside Prosecco and Champagne). ‘Unless they have a howler, you’ll see the same goalkeeper appearing more often than other players.’ And once you’ve got a good orange wine, the likes of Jürgen Klopp (or a wine buyer) are likely not to change it too often.
He does report strong sales of Eschenhof Holzer’s Invasion of Great Taste. Unsurprisingly, it’s his cheapest.
Is this orange wine’s breakthrough, finally? Maybe not it seems, but Oranj’s Delamothe is keen to remind me that understanding the longevity of orange wine is more important: ‘I want to be careful of looking at orange wine as a gimmick. It’s just a style of wine that happens to be having a moment – it existed before this moment and will exist after.’
Eschenhof Holzer Invasion of Great Taste 2019
100% fermented on skins, this wine is slightly cloudy in colour but more of a honey than an orange hue. On the nose, an initial hit of passionfruit and exotic fruits before moving into slightly creamier peaches and mandarin/orange citrus, gasoline, Riesling-esque. On the palate, acidic with peach coming through prominently, rounded and soft tannins, and a creamy finish.
The perfect entry-level orange wine.
£10.60, Red Squirrel Wines, redsquirrelwine.com
Entre Vinyes Oniric Brisat 2019
The Xarel-lo was fermented on the skins for two weeks, while the Parellada was directly pressed, before a further six months of fermentation together. The result is a light, bright orange wine with a strong hit of rose and other floral characteristics on the nose, along with white-flesh fruits such as apple, pear and nectarine. On the palate, crisp green apple comes through with a pleasant acidity and a surprisingly long finish.
£9.95, Modal Wines, modalwines.com
Petr Koráb Natur Ryšák On Leaves 2019
With the addition of Gewürztraminer leaves during the maceration on skins, the resulting liquid is more of your classic orange/amber in colour. On the nose, classic Gewürz characteristics of sweet, dessert wine-like notes shine through, while on the palate, dried fruits such as apricot and a nuttiness of almonds.
£14.70, Basket Press Wines, basketpresswines.com
This article was first published in the 2020 autumn issue of Imbibe.