Recently, I happened upon a Twitter thread decrying those who would label orange wine as a “trend”. As Stephen Satterfield of Whetstone Magazine puts it, the style of wine has “been trending in Georgia and Armenia for, like, 8,000 years. We are talking about literally the oldest style of winemaking in the world.”
It’s true that Georgia is home to what’s thought to be the world’s oldest continually active winemaking tradition. It’s also true that orange wines – and Georgian orange wines in particular – have only started appearing on wine shop shelves and restaurant menus relatively recently. For many drinkers, the idea that there’s another vinous option beyond red, white and pink is still somewhat baffling.
It doesn’t help that “orange wine” is a controversial term, not least because many orange wines are closer in colour to gold, copper or coral. As winemaker Iago Bitarishvili notes, the term is particularly misleading in Georgia, as the country also produces orange wines made from, well, oranges. Instead, he prefers “amber wine”, while others might use “skin contact”. What they all describe is a white wine that is made like a red: instead of promptly separating juice from skins, winemakers keep them together during fermentation and into maturation. That period of skin contact can be as a little as days, as long as months. Generally, the results are wines that are deeper in colour than your classic, pale-lemon whites, and richer, often with noticeable tannins and a nutty, oxidated character.
Under his Iago’s Wine label, Bitarishvili produces an organic “orange wine” aged on grape skins, seeds and stems for six months. It undergoes maceration and fermentation in traditional qvevri – amphora-like earthenware vessels that are buried in the ground and cooled by the earth. His vines are some 60 years old and some of the qvevri he employs are a whopping 300 years old.
Chinuri is, in fact, the only grape that Bitarishvili works with on his two-hectare plot. The indigenous varietal (one of 500 unique to Georgia) is commonly found in the Kartli region, where Bitarishvili operates. It is high in acid, late-ripening, a popular candidate for sparkling wines and boasts a distinctive aromatic profile: there is an abundance of pear, a subtle hint of mint leaf and ample minerality. This wine also features a surprising (but not unlikeable) bitterness, akin to orange pith and walnuts.
Serve this wine cool but not excessively chilled – think 13° Celsius or closer to room/cellar temperature than fridge – to flatter its full complexity. Decant it before serving, too: with a little time and oxygen, its elements fuse harmoniously.
Claire’s food pairing: A caramelised pear and goat cheese salad or spiced roast quail
Claire M. Bullen is a professional food and travel writer. Our beer and food pairing book with Claire, The Beer Lover’s Table, has just won Best Book at the North American Guild of Beer Writers Awards, and is available via our online shop and hopefully at your favourite booksellers.