Skin-con­tact wines

Get to know this wine­mak­ing tech­nique that’s on the rise

Halliday - - Contents -

CALL THEM ORANGE, mac­er­ated or ex­tended skin-con­tact white wines; the lat­est rage, a fad or phase. Call them clean or cloudy, aro­matic or odious, dy­namic or numb, dis­cor­dant or melo­di­ous. Dive deep into the weird­ness, the un­canny and the odd, and revel in the pleasures of un­fa­mil­iar smells, tastes and tex­tures. Af­ter all, isn’t that what wine is all about? Plea­sure, joy and dis­cov­ery?

Once it was the out­liers of the ‘nat­u­ral’ wine bri­gade lead­ing the way in skin-con­tact wines. Now, this am­ber wine rev­e­la­tion has cy­cled through its rev­o­lu­tion as a new alma mater of Aus­tralian wine re­bel­lion, with many pro­duc­ers redis­cov­er­ing this an­cient and artistic side of wine.

“I think skin-con­tact whites are a very le­git­i­mate wine style,” says Iain Riggs, chief wine­maker of the Hunter Val­ley’s Bro­ken­wood. “They’ve been made in re­gions like France’s Jura and the Loire forever.” Old World wine­mak­ing coun­tries such as Italy, Slove­nia and Ge­or­gia also have a long his­tory mak­ing white wines in this way; some 5000 years back in the case of Ge­or­gia. Even the Hunter Val­ley has a pot­ted his­tory with skin-con­tact wine­mak­ing.

“If you think about the days of [pi­o­neer­ing Hunter Val­ley wine­maker] Mau­rice O’Shea, be­tween 1923 and ‘56, the whites he cre­ated would have been made in a sim­i­lar way to some orange wines you see to­day,” Iain says. “There was no stain­less steel in those days. No cool­ing, no power, nothing. O’Shea would have fer­mented some semil­lon on skins to act as a preser­va­tive to help pro­tect the wines from ox­i­dis­ing.”

Dur­ing the 2017 vin­tage, Iain de­cided to try and repli­cate the Hunter semil­lon style of old. The Bro­ken­wood team wild-fer­mented a por­tion of semil­lon in­side a spe­cially made egg-shaped oak bar­rel, then left it on skins for 275 days. The re­sult is a pale-gold wine that smells nutty, also with yel­low and orange citrus aro­mas, and a sherry-es­que, slightly saline and phe­no­lic palate. It’s a real cu­rio, of which only a tiny amount will be bot­tled and sold. The rest is des­tined for blend­ing across some of Bro­ken­wood’s semil­lion range in an at­tempt to re­cap­ture a sense of that by­gone style. “The idea is to add be­tween five and 10 per cent of this wine to our nor­mal semil­lon and try to get back a lit­tle of that his­tor­i­cal style we all raved on about,” Iain says. “[These were] wines like the great Lin­de­man’s from ’65 and ’68, or the Roth­bury wines of the ‘70s, which were all made in large for­mat-oak and aged beau­ti­fully for decades.”

Okay, let’s re­cap. A wine’s colour is de­ter­mined by the par­tic­u­lar grape va­ri­ety used to make it. Gen­er­ally speak­ing, a white grape will make a white wine when its skins are re­moved and only the juice fer­ments. On the other hand, a red grape will make a red wine when its skins are left in con­tact with the juice. This tech­nique of mac­er­a­tion extracts the phe­no­lic ma­te­ri­als – think flavour, tan­nins and colour – from the grape’s skins, seeds and some­times stems into the fer­ment­ing juice, or must. When white wine grape va­ri­eties are pro­cessed like a red, the colour of the skins is ex­tracted into the must, chang­ing its colour from white to orange. Of course, it de­pends on the wine­maker’s in­ten­tions and grape va­ri­ety used, but ex­tended skin-con­tact ex­am­ples might be some of the most in­trigu­ing wines you’ll drink.

“Skin-con­tact whites are unique be­cause they are white wines made like a red wine,” says Cape Jaffa wine­maker Anna Hooper.

“Skin-con­tact whites are unique be­cause they are white wines made like a red wine. They have a cop­per colour to them, and more in­tense aro­mas and flavours than nor­mal white wines. Some­times they can have a mouth­feel sim­i­lar to red wine.”

Anna Hooper, Cape Jaffa Wines

“They have a cop­per colour to them, and more in­tense aro­mas and flavours than nor­mal white wines. Some­times they can have a mouth­feel sim­i­lar to red wine.”

In 2014, Anna spent time in Ge­or­gia learn­ing about the coun­try’s an­cient wine­grow­ing cul­ture. “I worked vin­tage at Pheas­ant’s Tears and spent some time vis­it­ing other winer­ies to find out about their ap­proach to wine­mak­ing, par­tic­u­larly their skin-con­tact whites, which are made quite dif­fer­ently to how we’re taught in Aus­tralia,” Anna ex­plains. “I found a lot of horrible ex­am­ples, but also dis­cov­ered quite a lot of re­ally in­cred­i­ble wines, which in­spired me to have a go at mak­ing my own back home.”

Cape Jaffa’s Sam­phire is an in­spired, skin-fer­mented chardon­nay topped up with gewurz­traminer. It’s fas­ci­nat­ingly aro­matic, like a Mid­dle East­ern spice mar­ket; maple syrup, mar­malade, but­tery lemon, lime and gin­ger ig­nite the senses, mak­ing it a de­li­cious in­tro­duc­tion to these un­con­ven­tional, an­ces­tral wines.

Ex­tended skin con­tact is not just for whites ei­ther. McLaren Vale’s Brad Hickey uses the method to make a num­ber of wines un­der his Brash Hig­gins la­bel. This in­cludes the com­pelling NDV red wine made from nero d’Avola, which is slowly fer­mented on skins in spe­cially made clay am­phora for up to six months. Brad says he does this to heighten com­plex­ity and em­pha­sise as much vine­yard char­ac­ter as pos­si­ble.

“The wine is in­fused by the skins to build in struc­ture without us­ing oak, then gen­tly press­ing them to coax out more savoury and herbal notes,” Brad says. “I find we get these won­der­fully aro­matic Ne­groni, Cam­pari and Amaro-like char­ac­ter­is­tics into the wine.” Brad also uses ex­tended skin con­tact to make the vi­brant and de­li­cious ZBO, a zibibbo. “We use ex­tended mac­er­a­tion for our ZBO, aka Muscat of Alexan­dria, to add lay­ers of flavour to this aro­matic white wine, which usu­ally tends to be a bit one-di­men­sional,” Brad says. “ZBO smells wild, with a big pop of gin­ger, apri­cot, white ale and jas­mine tea, and yet fin­ishes bone-dry with nice tan­nins and a won­der­fully tex­tured mouth­feel.”

Pinot gris is one white grape va­ri­ety that ben­e­fits from a bit of con­tact be­tween flesh and fluid. Its thick, twi­light-tinted skins pro­vide wine­mak­ers with plenty to play with, as far as grapey phe­no­lic good­ness goes. Gris skins can be used to trans­form this typ­i­cally sim­ple and un­com­pli­cated wine into an am­brosial elixir fit for the trendi­est of in­ner-city wine bars.

“If I’m be­ing mean, pinot gris can be a lit­tle bor­ing,” says Stu­art Knox of Syd­ney venue Fix Wine. “In terms of flavour, it can be a lit­tle plain and light on. But when wine­mak­ers give the grape juice some ex­tra skin, it gives the wines so much more tex­ture and com­plex­ity, mak­ing them far more in­ter­est­ing to drink, par­tic­u­larly with food.”

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