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Skin Contact Kaleidoscope
– 2021 Top 50 Winemakers Feature

Wines Of Now
20 April 2021. Words by YGOW. Images by James Morgan.

Over the last decade or so, the winemaking practice of keeping white grape skins in contact with fermenting juice – just like making red wine – has changed the wine landscape like few other developments. While drinkers may be split on the merits of some of the more extreme examples – with fervent advocates and detractors on both sides of the fence – there’s no denying the styles have entered the public consciousness, and they’re here to stay.

From wines with deeply amber hues to components adding complexity to blends, makers in the 2021 Young Gun of Wine Top 50 are using skin contact on white grapes to great effect, including Andrew Wardlaw (Edenflo), Dan Graham (Sigurd), Sam Berketa (Alpha Box & Dice), Jayden Ong (Moonlit Forest), Ryan O’Meara (Express Winemakers), Luke Growden (Year Wines), Matt Purbrick (Minimum) and Stuart Dudine (Alkimi). Tasting notes appear at the end of the article.

Kevin McCarthy’s 2008 ‘Claudius’ is often hailed as the bellwether wine for skin-contact whites in this country, but he actually debuted the style the year prior, albeit in a somewhat less-intense way. The inspiration for the wine came during a visit to the legendary Joško Gravner, who was resurrecting traditional winemaking practices in his native Oslavia, Italy, and making some very influential wines that were, and still are, about as leftfield as it gets.

That 2008 was more in the intense Gravner mould, while McCarthy’s winemaking training kicked in while fermenting the 2007, seeing him pull it off skins after a week, panicking at the direction it was taking. That lesson of patience and being hands off was learnt quickly, with the subsequent wines diving deeper into skin contact.

Kevin McCarthy at a Young Gun of Wine Deep Dive blind tasting of Australian skin contact whites. Photo by James Morgan.

It’s worth pausing over the important if perhaps slightly tentative statement that first wine made, with Max Allen, an avid but measured advocate of the avant-garde, calling it “one of the most revolutionary wines ever produced in this country.” The project was never going to get universal approval, though, with James Halliday not even writing a review of the 2008, simply according it a score that suggests technical faults.

While the die had been cast, it’s fair to say that the ‘Claudius’ was a little before its time, starting an important dialogue but being far from a commercial success. While producers and drinkers in Europe were beginning to embrace the inclusion of skins for white wines, the practice would take some time to catch on here. But catch on it did, with wines from early adopters like Abel Gibson (Ruggabellus), Tom Shobbrook (Shobbrook) and Brendon Keys (BK Wines) now firmly entrenched in wine drinker’s psyches.

It’s hard to imagine that given the primitive practices and equipment in the early days of winemaking in this country that skin contact wouldn’t have been a common feature of many wines, but with the technological advances that came in the 20th century, white wines were cleaned up, and some would say, sanitised. Indeed, it was a standard and unshakeable mantra that tannin in white wine was a bad thing, something that needed to be fined and filtered out before bottling. It was seen as a fault, and this was taught at university and rigorously policed by wine judges.

But skin contact had previously been used as a purposeful means of adding complexity and texture, perhaps most famously by the great Jack Mann in the 1930s, when he was developing Houghton White Burgundy. It is also widely used in places like Germany and Austria to intensify flavour, though the impact is a far cry from the often ginger-spiced, grippy and cloudy skin-contact whites that we have grown so accustomed to. It’s reasonable to say that those wines owe a fair debt to the traditional wines of Georgia, where they have been maturing white and red grapes on skins in amphora throughout an 8,000-year winemaking history.

“Skin contact whites are an absolute gem. I love them, from the oxidative whites to more moderate styles using partial skin contact, like my wines. Skin-contact ferments offer so many choices to blend with. I love the savoury aspect and the phenolics that can add depth and structure to a fruit-driven, brighter style of wine.”
Skin contact white wines come in a spectrum of hues. Some have no colour tint, whilst others can be deeply amber colour. Photo by James Morgan.

“Skin contact whites are just so unique and we’re still finding our way in both the vineyard and winery to get the most of them as a style,” says Sam Berketa, head winemaker at McLaren Vale’s Alpha Box & Dice. “There’s so much freedom to explore what white varieties can do when they’re fermented on their skins. In terms of drinking, they sit in a really nice area between rosé and dry red, which means you can drink them chilled or not, and they don’t feel super heavy or difficult to drink. It’s the go-to wine style in our house.”

Today, while it would be fair to catalogue ‘orange’ and ‘amber’ wines in the one grouping, so many wines are now being made where skins are used to complex an assembly that may also have a decent proportion of traditionally pressed juice, or indeed where the skins are managed so that the classic marker of grippy tannin is far less obvious.

“Skin contact whites are an absolute gem,” says Dan Graham of Sigurd, in the Barossa Valley. “I love them, from the oxidative whites to more moderate styles using partial skin contact, like my wines. Skin-contact ferments offer so many choices to blend with. I love the savoury aspect and the phenolics that can add depth and structure to a fruit-driven, brighter style of wine. I feel this has been the greatest benefit to creating the Sigurd white blend, which each year is such a pleasure to make, as you never really know what you will get with the upcoming season.”

For Graham, this focus on the season is critical. “You cannot really go into each year and say: ‘Yeah, I do 100 per cent skin contact with destemmed skins and punch downs.’ You just can’t expect to get the same result as the year before. For instance, dry years I probably use much less skin contact, as just pressing it firmly can really build a wine, but in cooler and wetter years, like 2017, you could do everything at 100 per cent and still have room to move.”

“There’s so much flavour locked up in the skins of grapes. You can see it when you work with red varieties or just simply by chewing the skins of the grapes themselves. There’s tannin there, and it’s important to consider the overall structure the skins will impart, but there’s also spice and unique savoury flavours that add so much.”

Berketa has inherited the role of fashioning one of the country’s oldest skin-contact whites, ‘Golden Mullet Fury’. That wine was first made in the 2009 vintage, two vintages after Kevin McCarthy’s first ‘Claudius’, but Berketa, who started at AB&D in 2015 – after having worked with McCarthy at Quealy Winemakers for two harvests – maintains that the style is now very much his own, with the composition and approach having changed substantially over the years.

“For me, skin contact with whites isn’t really about adding something to white wine,” says Berketa. “l see it as a completely different category, as different from white wine as red is from rosé. There’s so much flavour locked up in the skins of grapes. You can see it when you work with red varieties or just simply by chewing the skins of the grapes themselves. There’s tannin there, and it’s important to consider the overall structure the skins will impart, but there’s also spice and unique savoury flavours that add so much.”

Edenflo’s Andrew Wardlaw began experimenting with skin contact somewhat tentatively, saying his approach was “shy”, with 24 hours the longest exposure of juice to skin that he had tried. “When I met Dan Graham and saw the expression of his art,” he says, “I realised that you could push this to fully ferment to dryness on skins.” That led Wardlaw to leaving riesling on skins for 180 days, but he now opts for 24 hours to complex his more classic varietal expression, while he carefully shapes components for his more skinsy white blends.

“I press off my semillon, riesling and gewürztraminer at different stages throughout the fermentation,” says Wardlaw, “some after cold maceration sans alcohol around day two or three, some half dry and some fully fermented, as traditionally done with reds. I like to keep a certain percentage fresh to blend back over full skin contact, or vice versa.”
Luke Growden employs skin contact for his ‘Noodle Juice’, with grillo getting whisked off after 24 hours and the arneis component staying on skins for four months. “I find there is this midpoint with whites on skins where they just look hard, whereas if you press early or go longer you can get the best results, for phenolics, complexity, interest et al.”

“I press off my semillon, riesling and gewürztraminer at different stages throughout the fermentation,” says Wardlaw, “some after cold maceration sans alcohol around day two or three, some half dry and some fully fermented, as traditionally done with reds. I like to keep a certain percentage fresh to blend back over full skin contact, or vice versa.”

In McLaren Vale, Luke Growden employs skin contact for his ‘Noodle Juice’, with grillo getting whisked off after 24 hours and the arneis component staying on skins for four months. “I find there is this midpoint with whites on skins where they just look hard, whereas if you press early or go longer you can get the best results, for phenolics, complexity, interest et al. In terms of managing tannins, being as gentle as possible helps. All our ferments are wild, so they are generally a little bit lower and slower. Everything is manual, we don’t use pumps and all movements are by gravity.”

That approach is a given in Wardlaw’s lo-fi winery, where there’s no temperature control and just rudimentary equipment. But that lack of tech is quite intentional, and fermenting and maturing whites on skins couldn’t fit any better with his philosophy.

“What don’t I like about skin-contact whites!” he declares. “We can make them exactly as reds with open fermenters, no tanks, ambient temperature, no chilling, basket pressing straight to oak on full lees to accentuate their charm and age as long as wanted, sans sulphur. When in bottle, they match an incredible amount of cuisine. They’re aromatic yet oh-so robust. Our ‘Lemon Krush’ and ‘Quincy J’ look swimming after being open for four to five days, making them ideal to pour, age or drink young.”

While there may have been robust debate about the merits of skin-contact whites in the early day, their place is now firmly and rightfully established, with the growing experience of makers evolving their offerings into an ever more complex, balanced and detailed kaleidoscope of wine.

The wines

Photo by James Morgan

2020 Edenflo ‘Lemon Krush’ Eden Valley Semillon Chardonnay $33

There’s a light haze to this, with a luminous yellow hue. This is intensely aromatic, but not obviously so, with classic varietal flavours a faint consideration. There’s lemongrass, quince paste, lemon lozenge, mandarin peel, yellow cherry tomato, a brush of bracken, grassy herbs and a malt and stalk skinsy character, which carries on the palate with a slippery, chalky saline texture. Acidity snakes through the slip and gentle grip of texture, refreshing and lightening. There’s ample at play here, but also a real sense of restraint, with none of the elements lost to the dominance of another.

See Edenflo’s website for purchase enquiries.

2020 Edenflo ‘Quincy J’ Eden Valley Gewürztraminer Riesling Viognier $33

There’s a real aromatic lift to this, with talc, red floral notes, blood orange, dried apricot, poached peach, pickled ginger, rhubarb and quince with a distinctly spicy lift. The palate is layered, with sappy and viscous texture layered up with skinsy and chewy grape tannin that cleans and brightens rather than being noticeably grippy. There’s plenty of flavour, with texture and structure shepherding it all into a harmonious whole, pulling all the buoyant flavours into focus.

See Edenflo’s website for purchase enquiries.

2020 Alkimi Zero Additions ‘Whole Bunched’ Yarra Valley Marsanne $30

With a hazy apricot appearance, this lifts brightly from the glass with notes of freshly crushed red apples, orange peel, a tangle of bunchy spice and herbal notes, with hints of fresh ginger, orange-juice poached rhubarb and cassia. This is again bright and vibrant on the palate, with the characteristic chalky, slippery dryness of stalk/skin ferment, the wine opening out into a grippy fan of flavour, with tart cider apple skin and cloudy apple juice closing out.

See Alkimi’s website for purchase enquiries.

2020 Express Winemakers ‘L’orange’ Great Southern Riesling $32

This is unsurprisingly orange in colour, something like apricot jam. This is lifted and spicy, with plenty of bright and pure flavours of yellow and orange citrus, accented with a smoky hop and herbal lift. There’s a brambly thatch of wild skinsy notes on the palate, with plenty of grape tannin giving this a fair bit of grip through a structured and quite linear palate, making this a really strong food style.

See Express Winemaker’s website for purchase enquiries.

2020 Minimum ‘The Colossus of Harry’ Central Victoria Sauvignon Blanc $32

Hazy luminous yellow to look at, this lifts out of the glass with notes of lemon barley water, white pear and dried white peach, with gently spicy skinsy notes very much a seasoning, rather than the main feature. There’s a gentle pear-skin grip and tension, with fluffy texture cushioning, acidity a gentle but meaningful affair. Texture is the keyword, with a moreish quality to the subtle tannin and matter left from not filtering, giving this a charming amount of texture and presence.

See Minimum Wines’ website for purchase enquiries.

2020 Year Wines ‘Noodle Juice’ McLaren Vale Grillo Arneis $25

Strikingly hazy wine, with a warm yellow hue. This is buoyantly bright on the nose, with lifted aromatics of smashed golden apples, lemon and grapefruit pith, with a burr of gingery spice filling out the back. This is engagingly vibrant, with skins adding plenty of detail, but never veering into herbal or ruggedly grippy territory. In fact, the palate has a chalky mineral feel, lending it the gentlest grip, with that ginger note kicking up in the back, like juice pressed from a young ginger root. This is distinctly quaffable, being so seamlessly crafted, but it’s got ample interest, too.

See Year Wines’ website for purchase enquiries.

2020 Sigurd White Blend $34

Very present aromatically, there’s a distinct lift of muscat fruit through spice and floral notes, but then a savoury waxy note chimes in, adding complexity, along with wild herbs, dried mint and sage, green tea, dried orange peel and a hint of feijoa against a backdrop of apples and pears. This is bright up front, with a gentle slip to the texture, and ultra-fine skinsy tannins coiling into the acidity, a grapefruit note coming in through the finish. A textural, layered and complex wine that is fresh and savoury at the same time.

See Sigurd’s website for purchase enquiries.

2019 Alpha Box & Dice ‘Golden Mullet Fury’ Adelaide Hills Semillon Riesling $30

Deeply golden apricot in colour, this has intriguing aromas of candied orange and yellow citrus peel, quinine/wormwood, smoky hops, yellow stone fruits, ginger juice and some brown spice notes. The palate is viscous and richly flavoured, but it is pulled into savoury tension by skinsy tannins, which direct the flavour and texture without ever feeling gruff, pops of crystallised ginger accompanying through the palate and finishing super fresh with a lingering note of preserved lemon and ginger.

See Alpha Box & Dice’s website for purchase enquiries.

2019 Moonlit Forest Mornington Peninsula Pinot Gris $28

This is a skinsy style, with a colour reminiscent of Turkish delight. The nose has a threading of smoky herbal spice and white pepper set against notes of cranberry, guava juice, Campari and redcurrant jelly. There’s a prettiness and poise here, with plenty of flavour pick up from the skins, but it’s veering towards white wine territory in feel, with the grapey tannins cradling the gentle texture and giving the palate line and freshness without intruding.

See Jayden Ong’s website for purchase enquiries.

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