Orange wine: why sales of the seductive new taste of summer are soaring

<span>Orange wine is going mainstream.</span><span>Photograph: 5PH/Alamy</span>
Orange wine is going mainstream.Photograph: 5PH/Alamy

On an early summer’s evening, customers flock to a bar called Oranj for glasses of wine that range in colour from subtle gold to deep amber. A catarratto from Sicily maybe, with notes of ripe yellow fruit and a savoury, saline edge, or a juicy, glowing pinot gris from Slovakia, or perhaps an intensely mineral blend of indigenous grapes from Italy’s Lazio region – all sell like the proverbial hot cakes.

Oranj, which does not only sell orange wines, started out as a natural wine e-commerce site during the pandemic, and later evolved into this wine bar in Shoreditch, London, in what was its logistical warehouse. It serves “exciting, unusual and unorthodox” wines, 25% of which are orange, says the founder, Jasper Delamothe. This is quite a proportion, given the niche status of orange wine just a few years ago. Delamothe tells me that while it does a roaring trade in orange wine year-round, it does see an upturn in the summer months, alongside rosé.

It is not alone. According to Ocado, this might be the summer that orange wine goes fully mainstream. The online supermarket has reported a 99% increase in sales since this time last year, with month-on-month rises of 437% in London, and 120% and 115% in Manchester and Kent respectively. Just a few years ago, you would only have found orange wines in independent wine shops; now M&S, Waitrose and Majestic all boast a small but growing range. And, in March, Aldi launched its “Rosorange” wine – a hybrid of rosé and orange wine – which caused a stir on TikTok and saw 5,000 bottles fly off shelves in the first week alone, with sales tripling the following week.

What actually is orange wine? While, yes, it is orange, it is not in fact made from oranges (which you could be forgiven for assuming, given the citrus theme to some of the bottle labels). Heidi Nam-Knudsen, a wine educator who was previously head of wine at Ottolenghi, describes it as “a white wine made like a red wine”. Grapes conventionally used to make white wines are aged with their skins on (known as maceration), and sometimes with their stems too – a process only usually applied to red wines. For this reason, orange wines are often referred to as “skin contact”, a suitably sexy moniker for wines that are steadily seducing the nation.

You might only be seeing orange wines everywhere now, but in fact they’re not new. They have been traced back some 3,000 years, to Georgia, which vinous circles consider to be “the cradle of winemaking”. As Helena Nicklin, a drinks ambassador at Ocado, says, “For centuries, this was the only way to make wine of any kind: you’d literally shove crushed white or red grapes in an amphora [terracotta pot], put it underground to keep cool, and let it do its own thing.” Nowadays, winemaking is a more controlled process, although orange wines – which are almost inextricably associated with the “natural” or low-intervention movement – have tended to be wilder, with lots of variation from bottle to bottle, making them less of a commercial proposition. “Because of the way they were originally made, orange wines can be really funky,” says Nicklin, “in a stinky farmyard way, and also a little bit volatile, tasting either a little bit vinegary or oxidised, depending on how they are made.”

Tasting notes such as “stinky” and “farmyard” might not sound up your street, but as Nam-Knudsen points out, orange wine is “a vast category”. If you are new to it, she might suggest something “super floral, peachy and easygoing” such as a Spanish moscatel, or for people who like something with more structure to go with food, a Georgian rkatsiteli with longer skin contact would be her go-to – “those wines always have a honey taste, but they’re also dry and have a smokiness to them”, she says.

But the sometimes wild qualities of orange wine, plus the cost – they are on average more expensive than whites or reds, probably because they are usually made in smaller quantities – have been prohibitive to them going mainstream. They are also not what older drinkers, or those who drink more conventional wines, think of as wine. When I poured a glass of a slightly cloudy skin-contact wine I’d proudly taken home to share with my parents some years ago, my dad announced that it looked “like a sample”.

So why are they popular now? Nicklin chalks the nation’s new enthusiasm up to three things. First, in the 2010s, the natural wine movement captured the imaginations of young drinkers. Wines with tasting notes sometimes described as “like cider” became cool, as did their (usually) illustrated bottle labels. Then, the pandemic changed people’s drinking habits. People were forced to drink at home, and it’s easier, perhaps, to take a risk on an unfamiliar bottle if you’re paying £15 to drink it at home, as opposed to £40 at a restaurant. Frederic Grappe, who runs biodynamic wine supplier Dynamic Vines, and was one of the first importers of orange wine into the UK, agrees: “During lockdowns, orange wine became a popular novelty; fast forward four years and our sales have grown exponentially.”

Last in Nicklin’s trio of reasons is social media, and specifically TikTok, which “blew up”. Orange wines are blingy, beautiful and head-turning – and drinkers are often magpies; just look at the meteoric rise of luminous Aperol spritz five years ago. Nam-Knudsen agrees that orange wines have a visual appeal unrivalled even by rosé: “They are really striking – people see them and always take a picture, even if they aren’t into wine.”

For Nam-Knudsen and Grappe, orange wines are the ultimate to go with food. “You have the acidity of white and the structure of red,” says Grappe, “which makes them ideal.” Nam-Knudsen thinks it’s also “a reflection of how we eat now, with sharing plates and lots of flavours on the table – orange wine is amazingly versatile at standing up to all of those”.

Delamothe, previously a commercial builder, remembers trying an orange wine for the first time: “It changed all my ideas about wine, and I loved that.” He launched Oranj sensing that he wasn’t the only one who would seek them out. “I tasted and felt the difference and I definitely needed to know more.” Clearly, more and more people are feeling the same about orange wine. As Grappe says, “It’s definitely here to stay.”

Five orange wines to try

Macerao Naranja Orange, Chile (moscatel) £8.99, Waitrose, 13.5%

Structured, savoury and floral: a great introduction to orange wine and a bargain.

Winzer Krems ‘Orange’ Grüner Veltliner 2021/22, Austria, £11.99, Majestic, 13%
Golden, slightly spiced and aromatic, this is a strong-legged wine that can stand up to spicy food.

Orange Natural Wine, Romania, £12, Ocado, 12.5%
Quince, orange blossom, gentle tannins and really versatile – as an aperitif or with a meal.

Okra Rkatsiteli ‘Svari’ 2021, Georgia, £19, Shrine to the Vine, 14%
Dry, nutty and honeyed, a perfect food wine and great example of orange wine aged in an amphora.

Sketta Grecanico, Cantina Marlina 2022, Sicily, £19.20, 12.5%
Crunchy tannins that really showcase the maceration process. Here you have ripe apricots and gorgeous salinity. Divine.