Orange and skin contact wines are all the rage right now, having emerged from the vinous wild west of Central Europe, namely Slovenia and Georgia, into the public conscience. Wines from the likes of Radikon have become the darlings of natural leaning sommeliers and wine importers world-wide in recent years, however the processes behind the production of these wines still remains somewhat misunderstood outside of these circles.
Skin contact is the process by which colour is extracted from grape skins. Some varieties are naturally high in anthocyanins, and typically produce deeply coloured wines when treated traditionally, examples include Shiraz and Malbec, whereas others such as Pinot Noir and Nebbiolo are lighter. These compounds play an important part in the stability of a wine, and have antioxidant effects. Typically a red wine producer will seek to extract these anthocyanins/colour pigments through a variety of techniques including pre-fermentation cold soaking, warmer fermentation temperatures, extended post-fermentation maceration as well as more rigorous pressing.
Treating white and pink skinned grapes in this manner is what provides us with many of these fascinating orange wines available right now. There are very few rules here, with producers varying skin contact times from hours to months, and the decision of whether to ferment on skins (as with red wines) or press off prior to fermentation (as with traditional white wines) varying considerably. Certain varieties are better suited to these techniques, these tending to be the less overtly aromatic varieties such as Pinot Grigio/Gris, Falanghina and Chenin Blanc, as aromatic compounds can easily become volatile when fermented in this manner.
Traditional European producers and the more vanguard New World winemakers will use a variety of vessels for the fermentation and maturation of these wines, ranging from old oak barrels and concrete tanks through to clay amphorae and ceramic eggs. It’s fairly common to get a different explanation from each user as to the benefits and functionality of each.
The best skin contact and orange wines combine freshness with savouriness and moreish complexity. Textural by design they ally phenolic grip (sometimes powdery, sometimes grainy) with body, intensity and exotic fruit and floral character. Some of the best we’ve been sipping recently include…