Skin Contact, With or Without the Orange
I started wanting to talk about orange wine, what I thought of as skin fermented white wine that has a beautiful orange or amber color. No, there are no oranges used in production. But the topic is much more nuanced than just the color orange.
However, a white wine can have skin contact, but not necessarily be skin fermented. It depends how long that skin contact takes place and the varietal used. Some are thicker or more concentrated than others and take better advantage of that time and can produce more tannin.
In general, think of the wine process as the inverse of rosé wine. Instead of red grapes with the skins removed early, orange wine is white grapes with the skins left on to macerate, using red wine-making methods. If it’s only a few days, the wine qualifies as skin contact wine and may look like your typical white. Longer than that, allowing the skins and seeds to macerate in the fermentation process, could produce bright orange, brown, or even rosé colored (What up, Pinot Gris) wine.
But hey, white wine is often more yellow, red wine can be purple or brown, and even rosé can look more like a red, white, or orange. What’s with all this judging wine by the color?
The British wine importer David Harvey first used the term orange wine in the early 2000s, but the first white wines were produced in this style. There’s evidence this technique was used in the country of Georgia as far back as 6000 BC. They made wine using large vessels called Qvevri that were buried in the ground to keep the temperature down. They were topped with stones and sealed with beeswax.
Northeast Italy, Slovenia, and Georgia never stopped producing this way and continue to produce the majority of orange wine today using more modern versions of this ancient technique. As its popularity has grown significantly in the last 20 years, wine regions around the world have begun playing with this style.
Skin ferment Pinot Gris John and I drank at a wine bar in Bratislava
For skin fermented, the white grapes are mashed up with their skins and seeds and placed in a large vessel often made from cement or ceramic. They are left to ferment for anywhere from a few days to over a year. This is a natural process with little to no additives, sometimes not even yeast. They get a nuttiness from the oxidation as well as sour or bitter notes not typical of white wine from the skins.
The color actually comes from the lignin that is in grape seeds. Therefore, skin contact wine will still retain some of the flavors, but with only setting in the skins for a few days, the orange hue may not come through. But again, varietal and technique dependent.
You need to experience skin contact wine to fully comprehend. They are bold and even tannic, with honey, nut, pressed flowers, citrus rind, spices, and dried fruit notes. The longer the wine is fermented with the skins, the more-red like characteristics it will take on. However, it retains its acid in the process. Some taste more like a finely aged white while others come across more like a fruity sour beer.
Since this is such a robust version of white wine, it can be paired with equally bold foods. Anything from spicy Asian dishes to a good steak, skin contact white wine is up to the challenge.
And now for some tastings:
Donkey and Goat Stoner Crusher 2013, Roussane, EL Dorado USA - 12.1% ABV $45
This wine spent 14 days on the skins in open top wood. We tasted orange marmalade, grapefruit, passion fruit, eucalyptus, asparagus, hay, and acetone (but in a tasty way). This wine came in with medium plus acid, soft medium minus tannin (age does wonders), solid medium body, and a beautiful medium plus finish.
Onward Skin Fermented 2016, Malvasia Bianca, Suisun Valley USA - 12.6% ABV $30
This wine spent 3 weeks on the skin, but was not done in an oxidative style and kept its color more yellow. It showed flavors of apricot, lemon pith, honeysuckle, orange blossom, wet wool, and mint. We thoroughly enjoyed the medium plus acid, low tannin, medium body, and medium finish for a Central Market wine purchase.
Bichi La Gorda Yori 2018, Chenin Blanc, Tecate Mexico - 13.5% $40
This spunky very orange wine had 35 days of skin contact in concrete pots. It boasted peach, grapefruit pith, cinnamon, almond, quince paste, and bruised apple. There was medium plus acid, a bit more intense but friendly medium tannins, full body from the higher alcohol for this style, and a bitter but amazing medium plus finish.
Donkey and Goat Alveare 2018, Marsanne, El Dorado USA- 12.4% ABV $38
This wine has a very impressive 280 days’ worth of skin contact. That’s 250 days more than any other of Donkey and Goat’s broad portfolio of skin contact wines. We enjoyed the flavors of elder flower, kiwi, melon, lemon peel, nutty, chamomile, and honey. We enjoyed the medium plus acid, delectable medium plus tannin that oh my you could blow away any red wine drinkers mind with, surprising medium plus body, followed by a well-balanced medium finish.
In conclusion, don’t limit yourself to the term orange wine. However, do explore what skin contact whites have to offer, which can be made with any white grape, follow many techniques, and range in color. Cheers!