A Unique Wine All Its Own

Cheese pairing with orange wine

is a worthy adventure to undertake.

Natural wines have taken the wine world by storm in recent years. Although there is no formal definition of the term in the United States, natural or low-intervention wines are generally thought to be ones made with no or very few additives. These typically come from vineyards that are organic, biodynamic or simply don’t use chemicals. The craftspeople making the wines often use naturally-occurring yeast instead of commercially-grown strains to kickstart fermentation.

A popular category within natural wine is orange wine (worth noting that not all orange wines are natural wines). “Orange wine is made from white grapes that have been macerated on the skins,” says sommelier Doreen Winkler, owner of the Orange Glou wine club and retail store in New York City. It is made in the same way as red wine: whole grapes are placed into a vessel during fermentation, which allows the colors, aromas, flavors, tannins and other compounds to come out of the skins and seeds and into the wine. The thickness and color of the skin as well as the length of time spent in the fermenter influences the color of the final wine, which can range from pale apricot to almost amber.

Orange wine has been made for thousands of years, first in the modern-day nation of Georgia and later in places such as Slovenia and Italy. Interest in the style has taken off in the United States, making it easier to find and sample than ever before.

Orange wine has a distinctly different flavor profile that, as it turns out, is a perfect complement to a variety of cheeses. “It is more versatile than it might appear at first,” says Laura Werlin, the James Beard-award winning author of “The All-American Cheese and Wine Book” and several other tomes on cheese. “It has a lot of the characteristics that you want when you’re pairing cheeses. There’s nice acidity in the wine, so it cuts through the fat in many cheeses. It has a little more body than a lot white wines and even rosés.”

“What I like most about orange wine is the savoriness,” says Karen Daenen, chief shepherdess at Two Shepherds Winery in Sonoma, CA, who has done several cheese and wine pairing events at the winery. “It’s completely different from a red wine and a white wine. I find the texture to be much more layered.”

Winkler calls orange wine “white wine on steroids.” “It was developed to be a little bit of an aromatic and textural step up from white wine,” she says. “With white wine, you don’t have to think too much about it. Most of the orange wines will wake you up.”

Perfect Pairings

When it comes to specific cheese and wine pairings, Samuel Rheaume with Jasper Hill Farm in Greensboro Bend, VT, believes there’s something to be said for serving orange wine with raw milk cheeses. Both are a throwback to a time when preservatives and additives were not used in food (or used more sparingly) and natural processes were king.

There are risks to working this way; natural processes are less predictable, which means there’s a greater chance the final product will not turn out the way it was intended. But, he says, “You’re willing to take some risk because you’re able to taste terroir or a sense of the place from where that product came.”

Rheaume and Winkler recently paired up for a cheese and orange wine tasting. Their first recommendation was Jasper Hill’s Sherry Gray, an ash ripened, double-cream cheese made with milk from grassfed cows, paired with Meinklang pét-nat made by an organic producer in the Burgenland region of Austria.

Pét-nat or pétillant naturel is a sparkling wine that is made by doing a single fermentation of wine within its bottle. It tends to be refreshing, unfussy and more affordable than Champagne or other traditional method sparkling wines. Given its simplicity, it is meant to be drunk within a few years after bottling.

Sparkling wines generally make good pairings with cheese, Winkler says, and bubbly orange wines are no exception. This one—which spent a mere five days on the skins—provides a light flavor that complements this creamy cheese.

On the other hand, the Vej Bianco Antico, made by Podere Pradarolo in Italy, sat on the skins for 180 days. Its deeper, more complex flavors and rounded mouthfeel made it an ideal pairing with Jasper Hill’s Highlander cheese. Inspired by traditional French and Swiss Raclette, this semi-firm cheese is made with a combination of cow and goat cheese and is aged for five to seven months.

Blue cheese is a natural pairing with sweet wine. Winkler’s recommendation with Jasper Hill’s Bridgman Blue, a raw cow and goat milk cheese with a dense but creamy texture, with the Matthiasson No. 4 Napa Valley sweet vermouth. Made in California, this is the first sweet orange vermouth produced in the country. It is made with the Flora grape (a cross between Gewürztraminer and Semillon), Muscat, blood oranges and sour cherries from the company’s orchards, and several aromatics and botanicals.

The variety of flavors and colors that are available in orange wine—sweet and savory, light to deeply pungent—is one of the fun things about pairing cheese with it, Daenen says. Two Shepherds in Windsor, CA, crafts several orange wines, including one made with Pinot Gris; one from Trousseau Gris, a very unusual grape variety from the Jura region of France; and Grenache Blanc, a white version of the better-known Grenache Noir grape common in Spain and southern France.

Given Two Shepherds’ proximity to the Pacific Ocean, plus the character of the grapes and winemaking process, the wines tend to have a salty, fresh flavor. That means salty, younger cheeses are an ideal accompaniment. In keeping with the brand’s ethos, Daenen likes to combine the wines with cheeses from the region.

One of those cheesemakers is Joe Matos Cheese & Farmstead Co. in Santa Rosa, CA. The owners come from a long-time cheesemaking family in the Azores islands, an autonomous region of Portugal. Its specialty is St. Jorge, a semi-firm cheese that becomes saltier and richer as it ages. The original, which is aged for three months, tastes like fresh butter but also has some savory notes, so it goes great with younger orange wines. The family’s Patrão, which is aged for 16 months and develops a crumbly texture and butterscotch flavor, is better with the more intense, Sherry-like orange wines.

Daenen also recommends Laura Chenel goat cheese from Sonoma. The brand has a wide range of products, including plain and flavored fresh cheese, a brie, a vegetable ash-rind log inspired by the cheeses of France’s Loire Valley and a disc cheese with a creamy center.

“Feta cheese or manchego or other hard sheep cheeses go really nicely because of the saltiness in orange wine,” Daenen adds.

In one of Werlin’s first encounters with orange wine, an expert recommended she eat it with burrata. The quality of that combination encouraged her to consider putting other soft cheeses with orange wine. Soft-ripened cheeses like robiola, which is often made with a mix of sheep, cow and goat milk, is one choice she really likes.

“One of the characteristics of a lot of orange wines is they have a nuttiness,” Werlin says. Because of that, she recommends trying them with cheeses that have a similar flavor profile, such as Gruyere or, even better, Comté. “They really bring the best out in each other. The wine brings out the nutty, buttery, savory, roasted onion characteristics in the cheese, while the cheese coaxes out a little fruit in the otherwise very dry wine. The cheese also highlights the Sherry-like quality in the wine, making it all the more interesting, appealing and tasty.”

Other Accompaniments

For people who want to try orange wine with other foods, Werlin recommends continuing to play up the nuttiness with hazelnuts and other nuts. Daenen recommends serving orange wine with charcuterie or Mediterranean favorites like baba ghanoush, hummus and dolmas. Even spicy foods, which are notoriously hard to put with wine, can go great with orange bottlings.

Thinking about adding some other favorites to a cheese and snack platter, but not sure if they’ll go with orange wine? When Winkler thinks about pairing, she focuses on whether the texture, acidity and saltiness of the wine and food match up with each other. “It’s all about finding balance,” she says. Oftentimes, the best way to determine what wines will pair best with which cheeses is to experiment—especially given how much variety there is in the orange wine category. “That’s how you will find out which ones works best,” Winkler says. “It’s not just professionals who can tell. Anyone will know when it’s a good pairing.”             

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