While blue wine, called Gïk (I kid you not), may be a colour too far for the Spanish wine police, orange wine, much beloved of hipsters, is still having a moment. I'd tried it by the glass a number of times and liked it, so when I was in New York last summer, it was time to go full-on hipster. I headed into Wildair, an über-cool wine bar on the Lower East Side and ordered a bottle of Nikoloz Antadze's Rkatsiteli, as you do. I know, Rkatsiteli. Doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, does it? And maybe it was the jet lag, but we found that getting through a full bottle was a bit heavy going.
May is Real Wine Month, and with one of the world's leading experts, master of wine Isabelle Legeron, visiting the country for the Ballymaloe Litfest, I thought it was time to revisit natural wine in general, and orange wine in particular. After all, leading chefs like René Redzepi of Noma are huge fans. But what exactly is it?
"Natural wines are made without any additives, fining or filtering taking place," says Isabelle Legeron. "You bring your grapes into the wine cellar, you crush them and wait for the yeast, which is partly in the cellar and partly in the grapes from the soil, to start the fermentation process. You don't add any sulphites at any stage of the vinification process, and you don't take anything away by filtering or fining the wine to speed up the process and get a clear wine."
If this sounds a bit vinobabble, think about the difference between freshly pressed apple juice, which is cloudy, and the big-brand, clear apple juice you get in a Tetra Pak. That's what wine looks like when it's unfiltered and unfined. And if you leave this cloudy juice exposed to the air, a natural fermentation process takes place. Apple juice becomes cider, and grape juice, with a little luck, becomes wine.
Unlike organic and biodynamic wines, there is no certification system for natural wine, so Isabelle set up Raw Wine, an organisation to bring natural wine growers together. The criteria for membership are strict. "Everybody has to be organic or biodynamic in the vineyard; they have to ferment the wine naturally, and they cannot add any yeast to start the fermentation process," she says.
While a tiny amount of sulphites is permissible at bottling stage to stabilise the wine, that's it. There is nothing else added. To make orange wine, the juice from white wine grapes is left sitting on the skins and the pips, to macerate for days, even months, to add a broader flavour. It's how wine was originally made 8,000 years ago.
So, what does it taste like? Isabelle advises you to forget all you've ever learned about wine and keep an open mind. This is a good idea, as not only do these wines look different in the glass, they are completely different to anything you will have tasted before. The general consensus is that these wines go particularly well with food, but I also think some of them make lovely apéritifs. They are wines you can drink slowly, contemplate and savour the wide range of flavours they pack into a single glass.
Natural Wines with Isabelle Legeron, Ballymaloe Litfest, May 20, €16, litfest.ie
Three wines to try
Claus Preisinger, Kalkundkiesel 2015, 12.5pc, €26
A cloudy white wine that looks like natural lemonade. On the nose, you’ll get citrus fruits, almost like grapefruit sweets, without being concocted, and a touch of newly baked apple tart. An easy-drinking, natural wine that has refreshing acidity. Stockists: Baggot Street Wines, Fallon & Byrne, Green Man Wines and 64 Wine, all Dublin
Tenute Dettori Bianco 2016, 14.5pc, €29
A golden-hued, slightly cloudy Italian wine made from the Vermentino grape. It has slight oxidation on the nose and is rich, with hints of fresh nuts and apples, and a touch of Marsala on the long finish. Great as an apéritif or with grilled fish. Stockists: Green Man Wines, Dublin 6; 64 Wine, Glasthule, Co Dublin
Pheasant’s Tears Rkatsiteli, 2015, 12.25pc, €23.95
An orange wine made by the traditional method in Georgia, in a clay vessel buried underground to allow for slow fermentation. Surprisingly full-bodied, it opens up beautifully after time in the glass. A delicious apéritif, also good with food. Stockists: Baggot Street Wines, Corkscrew, Green Man and Le Caveau, all Dublin