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  • 29 April 2020
  • Wine 101 Guides

Skin Contact - 'Orange Wine' 101

Why is my wine the colour of pineapple or orange juice?

A "macerated white wine" is the terminology used to define a white wine that has been produced together with its skins. It has been coined “orange wine” or “amber wine,” but disclaimer: no oranges made their way into the glass in front of you.

Cuvée Marguerite by Matassa, Roussillon

Si Rose by Christian Binner, Alsace

They are the wines that have splashed onto the wine scene in the past few years and landed droplet by droplet on food and wine institutions around the world: from Copenhagen's one-of-a-kind Noma restaurant, to London's wine institution, Noble Rot, across the world they've hit the foodie headlines. 

In short, an orange wine is a white wine made like a red wine.

Skins vs No Skins 

Most white wines in the world are made from the "direct press" technique: which means that the juice from the grapes is separated from the skins at the very beginning of the fermentation, after which the skins are sent off to a distillery or for composting, no longer useful to the winemaker.

Some white wines are made with a short period of skin maceration; this may be anything from a few hours to a couple of days. This can help to extract certain flavour compounds from the skins, leading to fruitier flavours. It can also be useful for other elements that are less about the direct flavour, for example what Markus Altenburger of the Leithaberg region in Austria describes as “phenolic acidity.” By this he means that the tannin naturally present in the skin can add a dimension of freshness and crispness to the wine. This, however, would not result in an “orange” wine.

The line over which a white wine crosses to become an “orange” wine is indeed a metaphorical, invisible line, for there is no such definition, but in general terms, we can say that it would need to consist of more than a week of skin contact. 

Orange wine pairing at the famed Noma restaurant, Copenhagen. Both photographs by sommelier and founder of Bastarda, Honey Spencer

Orange wines as often praised by sommeliers as brilliant food pairing wines

Ancient Heritage

This type of wine is by no means a modern invention, even though it may be enjoying a renaissance. Many ancient yellowish grape remains (skins and pips), as well as orange or yellowish stains, have been found in jars and pots dating back thousands of years, which suggests that the white wine of the time was left to macerate on its skins, just like red wine. 

Georgia has one of the oldest histories of wine production, and is particularly known for its qvevris. These are clay pots, which are buried beneath the ground, full of grape juice, skins and seeds. Not only does this provide stable cooler temperatures, but it is also an ingenious space saving technique. Slovenia also has hundreds of years’ history with skin-macerated white wine, as does Italy, where it became popular in the early 1900s, and where it is making a huge comeback today. Since its popularity has grown, we now find shimmering wines of the orange colour spectrum from almost every corner of the globe. 

A qvevri: Usually these are buried in the ground, but here you can see the shape of one at Claus Preisinger's winery

Amplification

Skin contact is particularly popular with aromatic grape varieties (for example Muscat and Gewürztraminer), as it acts almost as a method of amplifying the aromas naturally present in the wine. It’s a little like putting these aromas and flavours in front of a microphone. 

With less overtly aromatic white grapes, it can add a textural element. For any white grape variety, it may bring out aspects of the grape that are less evident when pressed directly; for example highlighting apple aromas in Chenin Blanc or white pepper in Grüner Veltliner (Grüner is one of the few white grape varieties that has a high concentration of rotundone, the naturally occurring chemical compound that creates the taste of pepper, commonly found for example in Syrah). Studies have shown that such pepper-causing compounds live in far greater concentrations in the skins, so if the skins are left in longer contact with the juice… 2 + 2 = 4 and the winemaker will likely find greater concentrations of these aromas.  

Technique

Aside from the more obvious flavour benefits, skin contact can be a useful tool in the winemaker's toolkit. Tannins act as antioxidants, therefore often skin macerated wines are naturally more protected against oxygen once in bottle, and so in terms of ageing, they might have a longer life ahead of them. This is the case in the famous wines of Gravner and Radikon of Friuli Venezia Giulia, which age beautifully over many decades.

In addition, in a world that is getting hotter, where grapes are accumulating more sugar (sun = sugar), there have been some issues for winemakers in recent vintages where white wines have been fermenting very slowly, resulting in a small amount of sugar remaining. This is fine if it happens every so often, as the fermentation will eventually end on its own accord, months or in some cases years later. However, if this becomes a regular occurrence, it means the winemakers are sitting on a lot of lazily fermenting wine, which is far from ideal for cash flow. Could skin fermentation be the answer? Maybe. Writer Aaron Ayscough explains in a profile on Hervé Villemade

"Increasing time on the skins for white grapes, so the thinking goes, increases exposure to native yeasts on the skins, thereby aiding successful fermentation."

Vermentino macerating on the skins at Ryme Cellars, California

Savagnin macerating in a demijohn at Domaine de la Tournelle, Jura

Blurring between the lines

There's no particular definition for what constitutes a “skin contact” or “orange” wine. There isn't a definition that states, xxx days = orange wine.

It gets even more confusing when looking at the plethora of colours that "white" grapes exist in: from the pale yellow Riesling, to the rare and intense pinky-bronze Trousseau Gris, which is vinified as a skin contact wine by both Pax Mahle of Pax Wine Cellars and Scott Schultz of Jolie Laide. Depending on amount of time with the skins (imagine the wine as water and the skins as tea), the colours will intensify according to the colour of the skins.  

Jean-Pierre Frick's macerated Pinot Gris: more pink than orange

Pax Mahle's skin contact Trousseau Gris

The problem sits in our human obsession with terminology. Some "orange" wine produced with skin contact are in fact pink in colour, such as the sought-after Pinot Gris Macération "Pur Vin" by Jean-Pierre Frick and the Fuoripista cuvée by Elisabetta Foradori. So what do we call this? A pink wine? Well, this would enter the realm of rosé. Some might argue that macerated wines are in fact the opposite of traditional rosé wines, which are pressed directly, with no skin contact.

This is when we end up scratching our heads and wondering,

Are we too obsessed with terminology? Does a wine have to be orange, or pink, or white or red? Should we just let the wines be, and speak for themselves?

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