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