"Una copa de vino de naranja, por favor" is not a phrase I thought I'd ever say—not until I moved to Seville, that is.
Vino de naranja, or orange wine, is something of a speciality here in Andalusia. Walk down any street in Seville and you can see why: Endless orange trees fill the city with colour, a citrusy aroma, and the constant danger of humiliation in the form of slipping on squashed fruit.
Legend has it that in ancient times, the homesick Queen of Seville threatened to leave the King unless he could make it snow after a long hot summer away from her native city in the mountains. The desperate monarch planted orange trees all around the city, and when spring came the trees blossomed, covering the city in flowers. Not quite the Alps, but the omnipresent white petals almost give the illusion of snow.
Bitter Seville oranges are best known for making incredibly tangy marmalade. More surprisingly, they also happen to make some pretty good, albeit misunderstood, wine.
My first impression of the stuff was not so great: Dining al fresco at a typically romantic Sevillian bar on a warm evening, I spotted the intriguing option on the wine list. Served at room temperature in a large wine glass, it was syrupy and almost sickly sweet. It seemed a bit like the lovechild between a can of Fanta and a bottle of cough medicine.
So how is this seemingly bizarre beverage making its way into guidebooks as an Andulusian speciality, and why is it so popular?
If anyone can answer that question, it would be the Gongora family: Winemakers famous for their "Duque de Carmona" Orange Wine, said to be the best of its kind.
Located in the Aljarafe region of Seville since the 1600s, the Gongora Bodegas stand surrounded by palm trees and enclosed in whitewashed walls. This area is packed with fertile soil known for its amenability to grape growing. Inside, the Bodega corridors are lined with rows of wooden barrels, which emanate a strong smell of fruity alcohol.
Ignacio Gallego-Gongora Vilches, an eighth-generation member of the Gongora family, showed me around and took me through the orange wine-making process.
Orange wine is made with an Oloroso sherry base, produced from Garrido Fino and Pedro Ximenez grapes. These grapes are mixed with alcohol, then aged in the American oak barrels for between five and seven years. This alcoholic blend filters through four rows of barrels stacked on top of each other.
Every year, the longest aged brew is drawn from the ground-level casks. Ignacio tells me that no more than two-thirds of a barrel will be taken at any one time. Once this bottom row of barrels has been partially emptied, the wine from the casks above is able to flow down and mix with that in the cask underneath it. The top row is then filled with new wine and the process is repeated.
This fractional blending process guarantees a certain amount of mixing from different barrels and lends complexity to the flavor. Sour Sevillian orange peel is later added to the mix and macerated for 18 months—giving the drink its distinctive bittersweet tang.
When I asked how long the Gongoras have been making orange wine, Ignacio didn't give me a date but told me, "My grandfather, who was born in 1890, would talk about how his father and his grandfather had made it."
What I really wanted to know, however, was how to drink it. Ignacio told me that the Gongoras would recommend drinking it as an aperitif before dinner, chilled and perhaps with ice and some tapas. "The taste and aroma of the orange awakens your senses before you eat," he explained. There are, of course, other possibilities—cooking with it or having it as a dessert wine—but the thought of a Spanish scotch on the rocks sounds pretty appealing.
That's when I realize where I (and potentially other visitors to Andalusia) have gone wrong with orange wine: thinking of it as a normal wine. Round two of my orange wine tasting adventure was undeniably better than the first—the Duque de Carmona goes down a treat before dinner that evening—in a whisky glass, and on ice, it is delightfully refreshing.