Orange-boom and the irresistible rise of skin contact wines

Every year winemakers get one crack at making the best wine they can. Some want to make the truest wine they can (more on this anon and anon). Throughout the year they nurture their vines to ensure that they produce the healthiest grapes. During this process of maturation the energy and the very essence of the vineyard is transmitted through the mechanism of the vine into the skins of the grapes in the form of polyphenols, colouring matter, tannins, aromatic substances, potassium and other vital minerals. Encoded in the skins, therefore, is the terroir material, the very DNA of the vineyard, that which gives the wine its singular identity.

les caves de pyrene Oranges are the only fruit?

Returning the wine to the skins is like keeping the wine on its lees; reconnecting with the natural building blocks of terroir. It is to do with extracting essential flavours and matter, everything that is latent in the wine. Modern wine-making methods jettison much of what is good – cleaning, clarifying, primping and priming, resulting in a denatured juice that can be manipulated in a number of ways. The majority of those making aromatic white wines prefer not to have phenolic uptake in their wines. For them the expression of fruit is the priority, and consequently, the juice should always be on the loose. The conventional approach here is to press the grapes, discard the skins, chill the must, hit with a heavy dose of sulphur and filter it. This is how we get a standardised “white” wine.

Some would say that the enhanced clarity of such wines makes them more ethereal, but that is to miss the point that terroir wine is truly rooted in its soil and locality. The colour from the skins contributes to the texture which is the very warp and weft of the wine. Hitherto we have been conditioned to see the wine world through red, white and rosé-coloured spectacles; there are, however, other hues and other styles in the spectrum, a whole range of new possibilities. And now a small band of growers across the world is re-examining these norms and exploring a new paradigm.

I interviewed two able practitioners of skin contact wines, Craig Hawkins (CH), whose Testalonga wines have been receiving acclaim for the last few years, and Mike Weersing (MW), owner and winemaker at Pyramid Valley in northern Canterbury, and eloquent advocate for the primacy of terroir.

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Mike Weersing, Pyramid Valley Wines, New Zealand

What influenced you to make skin contact wines?

MW: I had come to question the almost arbitrary divide between the way we ferment white and pink grapes – i.e. press the fruit, ferment only the juice – and red wines, which are fermented with skins and, sometimes, stems. We know that nearly all of the meaningful content of a red grape lies in the skins: colourants, flavonoids, aromatic precursors. The seed makes a small but, I believe, important contribution as well, containing as it does the genetic message of the vine, and some polyphenols which can affect wine structure. In between skin and seed, the pulp is merely sugar, acid, and water. So we ferment red grapes whole, in order to have time, temperature, and alcohol enough to extract all the goodness from the skins. White grapes and pink grapes are configured exactly the same way as are red: so why would we be content to press for several hours, and then to throw away our skins? This devalues the work done in the vineyard over the previous year (we farm our white grapes every bit as exactingly as we do our red), but more important, one is throwing away a vast part of the message of site and season. Terroir, after all, lives in the skins. I honestly believe that if one can accept the stylistic changes that come with skin contact, there is the likelihood of a more complete and articulate expression of vineyard and vintage. Imagine La Tache, pressed as fruit and made into a rosé.

I should also mention that the pioneering work, and wonderful wines of producers such as Josko Gravner, Stanko Radikon, Dario Princic, Vodopivec, Zidarich, etc., inspired and emboldened me to try extended skin contact at home.

CH: My primary influence was from an Italian producer who made his white wines like red wines. I was suddenly confronted by the wide array of new flavours and tastes, and immediately set about searching for more wines like these. This ultimately led me to investigate the skin contact wines of Slovenia/Italy and Georgia. The first wine I ever made was a Chenin Blanc from old vines in South Africa fermented for 5 weeks on the skins.

Everything is present in the skins! It is our job as vignerons to learn how far we can (or can’t) go to determine the level of extraction which gives us the most pleasure in the bottle. Obviously there are plenty of tannins and phenolics in the skins which people are often afraid of, yet these textures are precisely what I am searching for. Too be honest I don’t understand the term phenolics (one which seems to disconcert some winemakers), but if these flavours are achieved by phenolics then I want more of them! I find the resultant wines very sensual in every respect.

How would you describe the colour of the wine?

MW: Colour varies depending on variety or varieties used, time on skins, time, if any, in barrel (wood tannins, even from older oak, seem to fix colour), and whether any sulphur was added (sulphur has a bleaching effect). We have fermented 2/3 Pinot Blanc and 1/3 Pinot Gris on skins for 5-10 months, and the hue is typically a pale, limpid copper, something like the colour of the apricot roses that grow outside our kitchen window. A straight Pinot Gris fermented on skins for one month has a light, bright garnet colour, a bit like hibiscus tea. A coferment of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, and Muscat from home (in descending proportion, but don’t ask me percentages), which spent 3 months on skins in clay, is a pomegranate colour, with a slight peachy tinge.

CH: My wine varies on colour from year to year as I do various lengths of skin maceration, but in general they are a deep golden/amber colour for the longer macerations where the shorter carbonic maceration styles tend to be deep yellow.

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Craig Hawkins, Testalonga, South Africa

Are certain varieties better to use skin contact on?

MW: We’ve only tried those varieties mentioned above, but my gut feeling is that most any white or pink variety could be successfully fermented on skins, and these in combination with reds. I think the greater estimation involves evaluating the ripeness, the physiological maturity of the phenolics. I believe too that careful sorting is critical – no botrytised, damaged, sunburned, shot or hailed berries should be allowed into the tank.

CH: I think all grapes can be used for skin maceration/contact, but some are better for longer maceration than others. For example, Chenin can handle extremely long macerations (months, years even) without imparting bitter/green/vegetal flavours whereas Sauvignon Blanc tends to work better with shorter maceration times (weeks). I speak with reference to South Africa as our climate/soils are different to many others. I do believe all grapes should receive some amount of skin contact.

How long do you macerate on the skins? If it varies from year to year what are the criteria for the length of macerations?

MW: We’ve done 1 to 10 month macerations thus far. I do taste frequently to track phenolic development, but to be honest, the wines seem to continue to improve. I’m sure, however, there is a point when fruit freshness begins to diminish, and phenolics become bitter or hard. Usually, it is a question of waiting for the wine to become stable (dry, malolactic complete), then bottling soon after, so that we can retain fruit vibrancy and aromatic purity, yet still bottle unfined, unfiltered, unsulphured.

CH: It varies, anything from 5 weeks to 2 years (being the maximum so far…). As a rule I generally leave the wine until it feels ready – this is determined by taste, smell and experience… I have tended to vary the lengths over the past six years as I am still searching (perhaps forever searching) for new flavours and tastes. I did five weeks on the skins for my maiden vintage and this was very successful, then the following year I did four weeks carbonic maceration as this gave a new set of tastes. The year after that it jumped to two years on the skins/whole bunches! This may seem extremely long but it just ended up being this way as each time I tasted the wine it just didn’t feel right to press the grapes. The result was mind-boggling; I am still learning from these flavours. I now use a combination of a few weeks to months on the skins… I am evolving too…

Can you briefly explain the process of vinification when you use skin contact?

MW: We do a first pass through the block or blocks we will use, selecting the cleanest bunches. We then sort carefully in the winery, before destemming to small stainless steel, variable capacity tanks, or sometimes clay giare. No So2, or anything else, is added, and no refrigeration control is used, though the tanks are kept in a room that stays about 12C throughout the year. I do not plunge, but rather refresh the cap by turning the surface grapes under. When ready, we press in a small basket press, return the wine to VC to settle for a few weeks, then bottle. There can be variations, e.g. time in barrel before bottling.

CH: Normally I ferment 100% whole bunches in open top containers/wood cuves/bins with minimal “pigeage” and only by hand to keep the skins wet so as to enable the grapes to extract only what they extract themselves. Sometimes I destem whole berry grapes on top of the whole bunches and, as fermentation begins, the whole bunches lie in a bed of fermenting juice. For the longer macerations (more than a few months) I take the heads off my barrels and fill them with whole bunches; I tread lightly to get some juice and then close the barrels by putting the heads back on. After laying them flat I allow them to ferment for several months very slowly (always topping up) and once I feel they are ready, I drain the juice, remove the heads and press the grapes.

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Mike's orange wine in the middle

Does controlled oxidation, use of lees play an important role in the winemaking?

MW: Not really. One of the advantages of using stainless for long macerations, and of fermenting on skins in general, is that the wine can become quite reductive, and thus remains protected from oxidation. The reduction blows off when we press, but allows us to bottle without SO2, as the wine has remained fresh during the élevage.

CH: I always use the original “gross lees” for the full fermentation/ageing process, as the lees gives a certain richness and can round off harder tannins. I don’t use CO2 gas or anything “reductive” to regulate oxidation. Whatever oxidizes during ferment or before only enables the wine to be more stable later on. What a lot of people perceive as oxidation is often not the case and rather just something outside their spectrum of easily apprehended flavours/tastes. The colour is, of course, golden not as a result of oxidation, but from the tannins and colouring matter in the skins. We are so accustomed to associating “orange/gold” with oxidation, but I suppose that comes with the skin-contact territory.

Do you find that you need less sulphur with a skin contact wine?

MW: Thus far, we’ve never needed to use sulphur on any of our skin contact wines, for the reasons mentioned above.

CH: Yes, I use hardly any sulphur on my wines, but the amount you do use is always ultimately governed by the quality of work you do in your vineyards. Having healthy vineyards, farmed organically and biodynamically for a number of years, enables you to use less SO2. Having said that orange wines are often inherently more stable than a normal white wine because of tannin and other antioxidant properties.

How would you describe the structure of your final wine?

MW: This is quite interesting. I feel that there is a paradigm shift, or more accurately a spatial and architectural change, when one opts to ferment on skins. With fermentation of juice alone, a wine often shows a planar sort of interplay, a two-dimensional fulcrum balancing acid and sweetness (the latter can derive from RS or alcohol, obviously). When one does extended skin contact, the pH always rises, as potassium leaches from the skins; in addition, our unsulphured, unrefrigerated wines will always do malo, creating a further pH rise. The time on solids builds fullness of texture, volume, what the French call ampleur. The greater extraction of phenolics provides a skein of support, a skeletal substructure, upon which the flesh of the wine can rest. In this way, for me, the wine shows a more three-dimensional dynamic, a spatial harmony. I don’t believe one effect is necessarily better than the other, but I have been fascinated to see the inherent build of the wine change.

CH: Depending on the skin maceration length the structure varies considerably, but, in general, shorter maceration wines are more accessible earlier on, the perception of acidity being more apparent, making them more approachable, whilst wines that undergo longer maceration and therefore have more inherent structure, need more time to evolve particularly in the glass or decanter/bottle. The backbone of acidity is fundamental and I try to develop the tannins around that acidity to complement the final wine.

Do you believe that skin contact wines help to convey the sense of terroir?

MW: Yes, once one can tolerate, embrace even, a wine style that will at first seem unfamiliar, and challenge preconceptions.

CH: My answer is always simple: if everybody making their white wines used extended periods of skin fermentation then we would have a greater “terroir library” illustrated by the different terroirs expressing their uniqueness. I agree it is sometimes difficult for an inexperienced taster to see the specific terroir of a region through these wines, as very often, except for a few regions, there are sometimes a tiny handful of producers making wines in this idiom… The moment you decide to farm properly and cut the first grapes and make wine naturally is the moment you take the first step in conveying terroir.

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What do you say to those wine commentators who opine that all skin contact masks terroir and that the wines all taste the same?

MW: I don’t really want to enter the cat-fight, but I will say this. I have heard, dozens of times in my life, a novice wine drinker, or merely a frequent wine drinker who chosen not to impale themselves on the sharp point of pursuing profundity in wine, answer the question, “What do you think this wine tastes like?”, in this way: “It tastes like wine.” I would suggest that anyone who thinks all orange wines taste the same, has either tried an insufficient number, or failed to drop established blinkers. The idea that skin contact wine cannot show terroir is patently ludicrous, if one has made sufficient, open-minded investigation.

The taste challenge

“Consider the matter dispassionately, Mr. Foster, and you will see that no offence is so heinous as unorthodoxy of behaviour. Murder kills only the individual– and after all, what is an individual? “. . . .” We can make a new one with the greatest of ease– as many as we like. Unorthodoxy threatens more than the life of a mere individual; it strikes at Society itself.”Aldous Huxley – Brave New World

Too orangey for crows…

Before a style of wine is accepted, let alone fully appreciated, it has to be understood. Amber wines go against the conventional grain (and not only because of their graininess!) for those drinkers who taste with their eyes rather than their palates, because the wine’s unorthodox colour conditions them to look for faulty oxidation where none exists.

Tasting should not be so deterministic for wine is not so simple. Skin contact wines are not two dimensional fruit-flatterers, but composed rather of odd angles and unruly textures. The vineyards have inscribed their particular message in the skins from which we derive our various perceptions of complex minerality, vinosity and phenolics. These are impressions rather than specific, easily- defined flavours, compelling our palates to adapt and change shape in order to recognise these novel textures and nuances. We also have to find a new affirmative sensory language that tracks the shapeliness of the wines instead of alluding to them as if they might be summed up by the oddness of their colour alone.
Many winemakers are enthralled by the possibilities of skin contact winemaking; in countries like Georgia it is an integral part of a tradition now making a strong return, in other places like Friuli/Slovenia, Croatia, Sicily and Spain one might even make a case for the existence of an orange wine movement, but it is really much more than region-specific. As winemakers like Craig Hawkins and Mike Weersing demonstrate, these skin-on wines are highly relevant to the fascinating debate about what constitutes terroir and authenticity.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Interesting article and interviews. I picked up a few tips there for my own orange wines. Thanks 🙂

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