Skin Contact Whites — White Wine For The Red Wine Drinker
There are some people that will not drink white wine. Either they had a bad experience with a Chardonnay that tasted like dirty old foot, or almost got their soft palate burned by a searing Sauvignon Blanc. It doesn’t matter if it’s 90 degrees out; it’s red wine or nothing! Others are more ambivalent towards white wine, but would much rather feast their palate on a rich and complex red. For those of you that love red wine, I’d like to introduce you to skin contact white wines.
For thousands of years, white wine was produced in the very same way as red wine, using open top fermentors, with extended time on the skins and lees (dead yeast). These “orange wines”, of what we now call Eastern Europe, were wild in many ways: unpredictable, nutty, tannic, and zero shelf life. But, since the 1940’s, however, white wine production has gone through a major transformation. Cleaner and better controlled environments, pressing juice out of grapes, cold temperature fermentation, fining and filtering, and stainless steel have become the norm. There are many benefits to this modern winemaking style, such as more vibrant, food friendly wines, creating some predictability in how a wine will turn out, and a longer shelf life. But, there’s also something very exciting about the wildness of skin contact whites. They have a life to them that you don’t get out of your everyday Sauvignon Blanc. They have the complexity, nuttiness, structure, and body to go with the vibrancy of acid.
Skin contact whites use the same principles in making a red wine. The juice and the skins soak together, sometimes for upwards of a month. Winemakers can choose to ferment the wine in either closed stainless steel or cement vats, which control the process somewhat. Or, they can get all jiggy with it and ferment exactly as they would a red wine in open top fermenters. The process oxidises the wine, creating a hazelnut quality on the finish and caramelized color, also known as “orange wine”. In either case, the tannins, earthiness, and floweriness are emphasized when macerating (fermenting wine on its skins) white or red wine on its skins. In whites, you’ll get a structure and texture like red wine while still having the grace and femininity of white wine. Consequently, these wines are some of the world’s most versatile food wines — going with everything from fish, to pork, to even beef.
It is the more aromatic whites that work best for skin contact. These floral notes mix really well with the richer notes that a winemaker achieves through the skin contact process. Here are four or my favorite whites. Click on the link to see where you might buy a bottle or twelve.
This type of wine is extremely rare in Portugal. My guess is that Mr. Mendes is seen as a bit of an odd bird in those parts! I love the grace and acidity of Alvarinho (also known as Albarino in Spain). They are really graceful, and fragrant as a warm spring day when made well. Mix that with a full month on the skins, and four months on the lees, and you get a truly exciting wine. Notes of honeysuckle, peach, pear, and chalk. The cucumber water-like texture, beautiful pear fruit, and subtle, food-loving tannins will seduce you.
Now, this part of the world is where “orange wines” start to become a little more normal! I got a great education about “orange wine” and indigenous varietals at Oakland’s own A Coté restaurant. Jeff Berlin has got an amazing wine list there. This wine comes from a family owned winery, making wine since 1592! It is organically certified, comes from the Vipava valley, and has seven days of skin contact. It really feels like you’re drinking something vibrant and full of life when you try this wine. Its notes of fennel, gardenia, cider, pastis, smoke, and honey make you forget you’re drinking wine for a second. On the palate it comes across as dry, richly textured, and smoky, with a nice acid backbone, and subtle tannins.
Winemaker Stephen Hagen is truly dedicated to holistic farming, using red clover as a cover crop, and compost to fertilize. He literally still tends the vineyard rows with horse and plow. The Willamette Valley in Oregon is known for two varietals world wide. Wine aficionados love the Pinot Noir, but the oft forgotten Pinot Gris is also world class. He lets the skins macerate for thirty-six hours in some neutral oak, and leaves the wine on the lees for five months. I love this wine so much, with its notes of hibiscus tea, rose hip, lavender, lemon blossom, mandarin fruit, and ocean-like minerality. It’s textured with layers of apricot fruit, and has orange-like acidity.
Jared and Tracey at D&G in Berkeley are some of my favorite people in the business. I love their dedication and stubbornness of making an old world style of wine, despite a lot of California still pining for Napa Valley wines. You can get a glass of this wine at Revival Bar & Kitchen in Berkeley. Almost fifty percent of the wine is left on the skins for about seven days. I feel like this practice goes so well with their philosophy of picking early (yielding drier, more acidic wines) to create a truly complex food wine. Think melon, peach, and caramel on the nose. It is textured, has structure, and acid on the palate, with pronounced tannins. Go for it! Pair it with the heartiest of dishes.
Cheat Sheet of Recommended Skin Contact Whites:
- Anselmo Mendes Alvarinho 2014, “Contacto”, Vino Verde, Portugal
- Batic Pinela / Rebula (Ribolla Giala) / Zelen 2014, Slovenia
- Antiquum Farm Pinot Gris 2015, “Aurosa”, Willamette Valley, Oregon
- Donkey & Goat Vermentino / Grenache Blanc “Sluice Box” 2014, El Dorado
It is impossible to know everything about the world of wine. Let’s keep learning.