Updated: Mar 23, 2019
White wine 'aliens'?
In recent years, I have got obsessed with skin-contact white wines, by which I mean those which the winemakers choose to keep the grape juice in contact with the skins for a short period of time in order to extract more flavour compounds from the grape skins so as to increase flavour intensity, complexity and texture of the resulting wine. They are often charismatic, compelling and express a strong sense of personality.
The best examples of such style of wine often show beautiful delicacy and balance. They can be thrillingly aromatic, some showing aromas and flavours of dried citrus and pear, sweet pine, floral and herbal notes (like lavender and sage), some layered with spicy, white pepper bite, mostly with a long lingering savoury finish with a bit of lemon pith or a slightly resinous edge. Some people describe them as funky! Yes, but funky in a pleasant way! Such multi-dimensional flavours often strike an excellent balance with the tannin which gives extra ‘mouthfeel’ on the palate making the wine more pleasant when pairing with food, especially meat!
However, in most wine study textbook, it is often told that, it is only in red winemaking that after black grapes are crushed, the juice is kept in contact with the skins during fermentation to give colour and tannin, whereas, for white winemaking, only the grape juice is used because tannin and any colour in the skins are not desired. This overly-simplified concept of winemaking is deeply implanted in most people’s minds such that ‘skin-contact white wines’ seem just like aliens, or something outside the fine wine mindset.
So, is this style of skin-contact white wines just a fad? No! In ancient times, almost all wines, be they white or red, were fermented on their skins, usually in open-top fermenters, at uncontrolled temperatures. White wines fermented in this manner would extract pigments out of the skins to develop earthy colours, and the inevitable oxygenation of open-top fermentation even turns the colour of the resulting wine into orange. Such wines often express honeyed aromas of jackfruit, nuts, bruised apple, resin, sourdough, and dried orange rind.
It is around the time of World War II, with the development of stainless-steel fermentation and temperature-controlled facilities, that the practice of separating juice and pulp from the skins right at the start has then become the dominant conventions of white winemaking. Fresh, fruity, bright and crystal-clear wines have since become the norm for whites. The recent renaissance of this ancient winemaking notably first attempted by winemakers in Friuli-Venezia Giulia, north-eastern Italy in 1997, has led to the current orange wine fad. Orange wine is indeed the extreme of ‘skin-contact’ where the grape skins have been left till the end of fermentation.
What's my point?
My focus here is on those relatively ‘disciplined’ versions where grape skins are macerated in juice for only about four to 24 hours and fermentation is done in a controlled manner, rather than letting the wine to be oxidized into a vinegar-like liquid. Indeed, this is not something new; on the contrary, it is the routine for winemakers in certain wine regions which are of cool-climate but at the same time dry and sunny – the prerequisites to grow and ripe aromatic grape varieties, Gewurztraminer, Riesling, Muscat, etc. as the aromatic compounds (e.g. terpenes and pyrazines which smell like floral, vegetal, perfume, etc.) that are typical for these varieties exist not just in the juice and pulp but also in the grape skins.
Ripe grape is the key for skin-contact
Ripeness of grapes is crucial in employing skin-contact as under-ripe grapes tend to have more greenery and bitter flavours. Skin-contact would extract more of them making the resulting wine more astringent or even unpalatable. Alsace is France's northernmost wine region, yet it is not generally overcast and cool, as one might presume. With the protection by the Vosges Mountains from the westerly rains, the Alsatian vineyards especially those located on the south-facing slopes which capture maximum sunshine, are surprisingly sunny and dry. The growing season is long, grapes here can develop full ripeness and physiological maturity.
Other areas with smart employment of skin contact in white winemaking include Georgia, cooler parts in Australia such as Adelaide Hills and Victoria, and Yamanashi in Japan.
It has been a historical practice in Georgia where wine is fermented in qvevri, a large clay pot into which the crushed grapes together with the skins and seeds are put, are buried underground and sealed with soils and beeswax, such that the wine is protected from oxidation. That's why some Georgians would try hard to explain that theirs are not ‘orange wines’ but ‘amber wines’!
My last words: “skin-contact whites” are NOT “white wines made like red wines”. No matter red, white or rosé wine, the winemaking process is largely the same, ‘skin-contact’ is just a matter of winemaking option. Winemakers actually have the option for how long and under what conditions this is done.