Skin-Contact White Wines, a.k.a. Orange Wine for Beginners

White grapes being crushed
Crushing it / Getty

The unusual charms of skin-contact white wines come as a novel thrill to most. Less than a decade ago, these distinctive wines came in like a fad, but their mystique and quality fueled a popularity that has gone far beyond the style’s initial champions.

Also known as “orange wines,” “amber wines” or ramato, these bottlings aren’t just quirky, esoteric outliers meant to appeal to sommeliers. People eager to try new styles of wine have made skin-contact wines a regular fixture beyond just niche restaurants and bars.

What is “orange wine,” or skin-contact white wine?

Skin contact is another term for maceration, or the period during winemaking when the grape skins remain in contact with the juice. Reds and some rosés get their color from maceration. Most red wines are made by fermenting grapes with their skins for the entire period of alcoholic fermentation, though the juice can be separated earlier if the winemaker seeks lighter taste or body. Rosés usually undergo less than 12 hours macerating on their skins before the juice is pressed off and fermentation is allowed to finish, though some can rest on their skins for up to a week.

Worker emptying white grapes into crusher at Nodari Wine Cellar, Georgia / Getty
Worker emptying white grapes into crusher at Nodari Wine Cellar, Georgia / Getty

When people talk about skin-contact wines, they usually refer to white grapes that are vinified like red wines. Most white wines are made by pressing grapes after harvest, and only the resulting juice is fermented. But even with white grapes, if you let the juice ferment on the skins, it extracts additional tannin and flavor, just like in red wines.

During maceration, the wines can become darker than the average white bottling. It’s why they’re often referred to as orange wine, though not all skin-contact wines are orange in color. The name can create confusion over whether the wines contain actual oranges, so many proponents prefer to call them “skin-contact wines.”

“Amber wine” is the preferred term for skin-contact wines from the Republic of Georgia, where the technique is said to have originated. The traditional method of winemaking used in the region is to let indigenous white grapes like Rkatsiteli and Tsolikouri ferment on their skins undisturbed in clay vessels called qvevri.

Georgian qvevri fully buried, alongside Rkatsiteli grapes destined for fermentation / Photo courtesy Wines of Georgia
Georgian qvevri fully buried, alongside Rkatsiteli grapes destined for fermentation / Photo courtesy Wines of Georgia

In the early 1990s, inspired by Georgian winemaking techniques and natural viticulture, a pair of cult winemakers from the northeastern Italian region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Stanko Radikon and Joško Gravner, began to produce skin-contact wines.

There, the wines are called ramato, which translates to “copper-colored.” Made from grapes like Ribolla Gialla and Tocai Friulano, as well as Pinot Grigio, Radikon and Gravner brought skin-contact wines to prominence. It inspired a new era of experimentation throughout the region and elsewhere.

How do skin-contact wines taste?

Even if the wine in your glass looks closer to straw than apricot in color, the nose and palate of skin-contact whites reveal a very different kind of wine. The aromas are bolder and more intense than if the same grapes were vinified as traditional white wine. It’s akin to the difference in intensity between rosé and red wine.

The same goes for the palate. Expect deeper flavors as opposed to breezy citrus. Skin contact draws out fleshy apricot and intense floral notes in some wines, particularly if the maceration is long. One of the most surprising aspects of skin-contact whites are their tannins, something associated typically with red wines and some rosés. Skin-contact whites with months-long macerations can be quite full and roughly textured.

Many skin-contact white wines are more rustic than sleek, but rough wines are far from the rule. Depending on the winemaker and techniques like barrel and bottle aging, skin-contact wines can be well-structured and earn serious praise among traditional-style wine lovers.

Taking a closer look at skin-contact white wines / Getty
Taking a closer look at skin-contact white wines / Getty

Are skin-contact wines natural?

Skin contact is a technique above all. It can often involve less intervention, and most skin-contact wines are bottled with visible sediment or can even appear cloudy. So, while nothing inherently dictates a skin-contact wine be “natural” (a word that carries its own ambiguity), they do tend to fall somewhere on the natural wine spectrum.

The use of skin contact and low-intervention winemaking in white wines has become more common throughout the world. No longer is the style limited to Eastern Europe or parts of Italy. American producers like The Scholium Project and Channing Daughters have become well known for making wines in this style, while counterparts from Chile, South Africa and Australia are also achieving acclaim.

The Beginner's Guide to Natural Wine

As winemakers continue to experiment with new grapes and seek innovative ways to showcase them, a period of maceration is a handy tool to extract additional aromas and flavors. Short macerations from 12–24 hours can do a lot aromatically for a white wine, and it may not affect its color at all, depending on the grape.

Jody Brix Towe and Emily Towe, co-winemakers at J. Brix Wines in California, make a Pinot Gris called Nomine Amoris that’s fully fermented on the skins, a process that took 16 days for the 2018 vintage.

According to Jody, the appeal of making skin-fermented wines is the distinctive flavor that can be coaxed from the grape.

White wine being pressed on skins / Getty
White wine being pressed on skins / Getty

“There’s so much more texture and flavor in the wine because the skin just gives it so much more than when you direct-press and take away all the unique parts of the skin,” he says. “Especially with Pinot Gris, there’s so much spiciness in the skin that you lose if you do. [Leave] it on the skins, you get to pick up all the great flavor.”

Although we know the grape for producing straw-pale table wine, Pinot Grigio (a.k.a. Pinot Gris) is a pink-skinned grape that can make blush-hued rosés as well as the red-orange tone of Nomine Amoris. However, not all skin-contact wines result in such striking colors.

Recently, J. Brix made a Riesling with seven days of skin contact. The juice was tasted each day, and the process was halted when the extraction was thought to be right. Despite a week on the skins, Emily says that the resulting wine “might have a little more color, but you wouldn’t look at it and think it was an orange wine.”

Wine in all bottles, shapes, sizes and colors / Getty
Wine in all bottles, shapes, sizes and colors / Getty

How should you pair skin-contact wines?

Skin-contact whites have exceptional potential for wine and food pairings. They occupy a middle ground between the orchard fruit flavor of white wine, and the texture and intensity of red wine. These contrasting characteristics work well with foods that often struggle with other wines.

Since there’s such variation in how skin-contact wines can taste, it’s hard to generalize without knowledge of where the wine came from and the grape used to make it. However, most skin-contact whites are excellent with a variety of cheeses. Being compatible with both ripe and mild types, they are a good choice if you are serving many types of cheese but only want to serve one wine.

The extra bit of flavor in skin-contact whites is also an advantage with spicy dishes, and they’re one of the best wines to pair with coconut curry or jerk chicken. They’re also great with earthy vegetarian mains like spanakopita or lentil stew.

Whether you call them orange wine, amber, ramato or something else, skin-contact wines have come into their own as a category, and they show no signs of slowing down. As more producers embrace this technique, these one-time oddities are rapidly becoming an important part of the fine-wine canon.

Published on July 10, 2019
Topics: Wine Basics


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