It’s not so long ago that the mere idea of grape tannin and skin-derived colour – let alone a hazy appearance – in white wine would have winemaking lecturers and show judges frothing at the mouth in horror. Noticeable grip in white wine was seen as a fault, a failure of process. Not that it’s not inevitable that some phenolics will be present in most white wine at some stage, no matter how minuscule, but the common modern wisdom was that the perceptible elements would be removed by a fining agent to ‘clean up’ the wine, with filtration polishing any rough edges. Today, the script has had a new chapter added, with a big payoff in terms of texture and flavour complexity. Wines with the faintest of complexing grip to those that are made like red wines with ample chew and deep colour, and everything in between, are now an accepted part of the wine landscape.
White wines of consistently brilliant clarity without any traces of grape-derived grip – which mainly comes from the skins and seeds – are a relatively modern thing. A wine that has been made without fining (loosely, an agent used to bind to tannins or proteins to remove them) or filtration can still be bright and clear, but many will also have some kind of haze and, depending on how they’re made, some traces of grape tannin.
Modern presses are very sensitive pieces of kit, and grapes can be pressed ever so gently, or just used to draw off the free run juice through spinning the chamber to use the weight of the grapes to take off the least phenolic juice. Historically, this would not have been possible, and whites and reds would have been more or less fermented the same way.
In ancient times, red and white grapes would have been fermented as whole bunches or roughly de-stemmed and likely crushed to some degree to release juices and sugar to come into contact with naturally occurring yeasts to ferment more readily. As the wine ferments, the berries break down and more juice is liberated until you are left with wine and skins, seeds and stems. This would then be relatively easy to press manually to extract any more wine from the marc (leftover skins etc.).
That process for white grapes survives to this day uninterrupted (although it had begun to fade until somewhat of a renaissance relatively recently) in Georgia, which lays claim to some 8,000 years of winemaking history. There, qvevri (amphorae) are used for fermentation and maturation and are often buried in the ground for natural thermal regulation. White grapes can spend various time on skins, but for the famous Georgian ‘amber’ wines that maceration can run to many months.
Wines made in that frame emerged in our market when a general interest in natural wine (note that natural wine is not a style but rather any wine made from organic grapes with no additions or subtractions bar a little sulphur, but sometimes none) grabbed the attention of many during the last decade. Those orange/amber wines are intense and certainly not for everyone, whether from Georgia or Italian icons Radikon and Gravner, from Friuli, or closer to home, but the idea of skin contact with white grapes took hold, and it hasn’t loosened its grip, if you pardon the pun.
Right place, right technique
“I’ve become slightly obsessed with skin-contact in all our winemaking and finding the right balance of not too much, just the right amount, is an incredibly rewarding process,” says Matt Purbrick of Minimum Wines, whose foray into skin-contact wines began with his Short Runs series. That range was created as a means of experimenting with different approaches, including skin contact on whites and eschewing filtration, with some of those processes now a component of the core range.
“Just like I am a much bigger fan of the savouriness and complexity of reds over rosés on most occasions, whites without at least some skin contact these days just feel to me like there's a gaping hole in their nuance and expression. Like leaving the house without pants on or something… Something's just missing."
The climate in the Goulburn Valley is “borderline Sicilian”, says Purbrick, which he says is ideal for the reds they make but more of a challenge for whites. “At the beginning, we were trying to make quite delicate whites. But in the end, we have simply succumbed to the explosiveness they want to bring and now pick a little earlier for more natural acid, opt for more skin contact and much more malo in there to soften and weave in complexity.”
A classic reinvented
Like Purbrick, Peta Kotz works in a warm region, calling the Hunter Valley home. The emblematic white variety of the region, if not the most planted (chardonnay gets that honour), is semillon, and it is generally picked early at low alcohol and fermented in steel at low temperature to preserve freshness, building complexity with bottle age. For Kotz, she picks in the same ripeness frame, but building detail of both flavour and texture happens in the winery rather than the cellar.
“I aim to express semillon in more of a textural style,” Kotz says, who makes a skin contact wine, but she also makes one where there is a more subtly grippy, textural element, with basket pressing pulling out more solids with the juice. “The basket pressed wine sees time in neutral oak with a bit of lees work to gain texture and weight; the skinsy one is more about the phenolics driving the texture, as well as full malolactic on both wines.”
It’s certainly a departure from classic Hunter expressions for both wines. They are also quite different from each other, but they share an unmistakable kinship. “The phenolic tension is important in both styles,” says Kotz. “They both still maintain varietal characteristics, but the basket pressed one has more of a subtle chew, and the full skins has a lot more depth and weight. I choose to not fine or filter to let the wines be more expressive and so that textural elements shine through.”
Sam Renzaglia works at his family’s eponymous winery in the O’Connell Valley, Bathurst, alongside his father, making classically styled wines from the French varieties that are heroed in this country, such as shiraz, chardonnay, riesling and cabernet sauvignon, but he also has his own range in the portfolio, which allows him to experiment, including with Italian varieties and varying degrees of skin contact, from a whisper to full immersion.
“We are fairly new in the space of macerating white grapes,” says Renzaglia. “We’ve dipped our toes in the water a number of times with different varieties, such as gewürztraminer and riesling and have ended up focusing on vermentino as the grape we are most enthusiastic about macerating.”
With Renzaglia sourcing grapes for his di Renzo range from across the Central Ranges, he has a little more varietal freedom. “First and foremost, we are keen on vermentino as a grape in the Australian wine landscape; it’s a variety that’s versatile in its stylistic expression and grows excellently in hot, dry climates. …It wasn’t so much our desire to make skin contact wine that drew us to vermentino but our desire to work with vermentino that drew us towards skin contact.”
Horses for courses
In South Australia’s Mount Benson, Anita Goode works with a raft of climate-apt, so-called alternative varieties – many Italian – which she plants in small trial plots to make micro batches of wine before committing more deeply. Trialling winemaking techniques is a natural extension of those plantings.
“For me, you look at the variety and you look at what it can give you,” she says. “You look at how you can exploit it, and what texture you can build in that wine that works best with the aromatics for the outcome you want. Some grapes you can put a bit of tannin and structure in place, and there are some others where it would just be out of place in the wine.”
That combination of working with a climate-apt variety and experimenting in the winery yielded exciting results, says Renzaglia. “In macerating vermentino, you can build enormous amounts of saline, earthy, savoury complexity alongside the beautiful ripe orchard fruits and floral nuances. Today, we are fermenting and maturing vermentino on skins, half pressed, and half kept as whole berries. We ferment and mature for around seven months on skins in 1,000-litre amphora and the wines build complexity through this process, particularly when picked with good ripeness.”
That’s a long time on skins, but the result is very different to what one might expect, with it being a far cry from orange/amber wines. “The most interesting thing of all for us is that vermentino doesn’t pick up any colour through this whole process,” says Renzaglia. “Our skin contact wines could pass as any other white wine after spending seven months on skins. It’s very interesting.”
Make them blush
In Margaret River, Rich Burch and Nic Bowen make their Mon Tout label as an adjunct to their work at Burch’s family winery, Howard Park. Built on experimentation to varying degrees, skin contact plays an increasing role in their thinking, but it’s something they apply judiciously.
“We look to skin contact to add another textural element to our wines,” says Bowen. “It is a spice in our spice rack. At this stage, none of our wines are solely skin contact, as we feel that is not in tune with what we are trying to achieve with our style, which are textual yet fresh and balanced wines.”
Like Goode, the use of skin contact is very much dependent on variety, says Bowen. “It’s a great tool for drawing additional flavour from the skins, especially in varieties without a huge amount of flavour compounds in the juice. For example, I find pinot gris juice to be quite neutral…. But when you crush and hold the juice in contact with skins prior to ferment, you extract another range of exotic rosewater and spice elements that expand the aromatic potential, along with a big rosy colour.”
“For example, I find pinot gris juice to be quite neutral…. But when you crush and hold the juice in contact with skins prior to ferment, you extract another range of exotic rosewater and spice elements that expand the aromatic potential, along with a big rosy colour.”
Bowen notes that further exposure to the skins during fermentation builds weight and texture, enriching the mid-palate and contributing a floral lift. Left for longer, and the wine can become waxy and bitter. Left for around a month, though, and it can soften because the tannins oxidise and precipitate out. “At this stage they are usually quite oxidatively, microbially and cold stable, so minimal additives are required to ensure longevity. It is a method we have trialled and understand its impact, and we choose to apply it as required to build complexity and reduce further stability processing.”
Taking the plunge
Goode notes that she also does skin contact on their entry-level sauvignon blanc because you get more flavour from the skins, but says that the phenolic impact on the wine is minimal, depending on how long you leave it. “I hadn’t done full fermentation on skins. I’d done pre-fermentation on skins but not a full fermentation with skin contact,” she says, noting that it was a particular trial planting that saw her take the leap.
The push into turning the phenolics up came in part from the inspiration of making malvasia istriana with a nod to the traditional styles from the Istrian Peninsula, namely Croatia, Slovenia and the Italian region of Friuli, but it was more than that, with experimentation across a few years from a smattering of trial vines before her first vintage came online to see what was possible.
“I’ve been experimenting on tiny, tiny volumes for a few years now and looking at the way that variety expresses its aromatics and its phenolics and the mouthfeel and structure it can give you. I was only getting 80 kilos of grapes, and I was making it in my shed at home in carboys and things like that… and looking at what a skin contact parcel looked like, what a clean juice parcel looked like, what a cloudy juice parcel looked like.”
The result was a mix of full skin contact and also pressed juice on solids fermented in ceramic, with the latter providing front palate body and weight. “When you add the phenolic skin contact portion, you get a more complete palate,” says Goode.
Here to stay
That’s echoed by Purbrick, who sees the complexity of winemaking, including malolactic fermentation and skin contact, acting as ballast against the naturally expressive nature of his fruit, layering up the structural profile and bringing in more detail.
“Just like I am a much bigger fan of the savouriness and complexity of reds over rosés on most occasions, whites without at least some skin contact these days just feel to me like there’s a gaping hole in their nuance and expression. Like leaving the house without pants on or something… Something’s just missing.”
Whether building layers of subtle grip with phenolics and preserving the texture by bottling un-fined and unfiltered, to going all in with long macerations on skins, the inclusion of that chewy textural element that was once derided is here to stay. From classically pure and crystalline wines that eschew phenolics through to orange-hued ones of considerably assertive tannins, and an endless stream of variations in between, the most exciting thing is that our drinking possibilities are now a whole lot richer.
2022 Vino Intrepido ‘A Pound of Flesh’ Vermentino
Nagambie lakes, 11%, $34.99
A vibrant lemony yellow with a slight haze and a little sediment, this is clearly a skinsy offering but it’s not pushed to the extreme. Rather, it’s pitched in a light, briny, crisp and fresh zone, and with a clear intention to match with food. Flavour notes include lemon leaves and pith, sharp golden apple, cape gooseberry, dried ginger and a dusty mineral-like overlay. The palate runs at an equally fresh clip, enhanced by the low alcohol, making this a sapid, refreshing wine, with a neat tug of savoury apple-skin grip sheathing the acidity. But there’s plenty of intense varietal flavour here, too. Can’t help but think of calamari with a good squeeze of lemon or pasta vongole.
Ámbar is a pretty easy word to translate without much knowledge of Spanish. And once done, the amber tag leads one down a clear path that this is an orange wine of sorts, with the suspicion firmly endorsed by the colour. Pinot gris spent 45 days on skins as whole bunches to make this, and you can see the herbal accents from those stalks meshing with subtle bitter aperitivo notes of orange rind accented with rosewater and brown spices, though it all takes place in a subtle and decidedly elegant way. The wine is also brilliantly clear with a peachy pink colour, rather than being tawny, and it drinks that way, bright fresh and gently saline, an exercise in refined savoury detail, both in flavour and structure.
2022 White Gate Wine Co. ‘Ramekin’ Old Vine Amphora Semillon
Barossa Valley, 11%, $34
This is made from fruit off 90-year-old vines that was picked early and fermented in amphora, staying on skins for a month. No fining or filtering here, so a golden haze greets the eye, while notes of lemon pith, green pineapple, golden apple and subtle notes of barley sugar and spice. Light on its feet, this has zip and skinsy chew in equal measure, a dusting of brown spices carrying through on the finish.
2022 Mon Tout ‘Long Play’
Mount Barker/Porongrup, 12.5%, $33
This is a blend of pinot gris and gewürztraminer made with a portion on skins in ceramic eggs, and the rest in old oak, with riesling fermented cool in tank filling out the blend. This prettily aromatic, with notes of musk, lime pith, rose petals, old fashioned lemonade, apple blossom and pear skin, but it does all that with a light touch, without ever becoming too exotic or pungent. Rather, it is fresh and refreshing, with a lightly chewy tannic grip and a moreish lemon barley water dryness. Light to middling in weight, the balance of savouriness and flavour intensity is astutely pitched.
2021 Sven Joschke Wine Wolf Foundation ‘Touch of Dutch’ Semillon
Barossa Valley, 12.1%, $36
This is made to honour the memory of Lotte Wolf, Sven’s good friend and the person who inspired him to pursue a career in wine. There’s a coolness to this, but also a generosity. Notes of cut herbs, cape gooseberry, lemongrass and a smoky note lift on the nose against a backdrop of citrus curd. There’s a barrel component to this, which is set off against the bright fruit, a gently creamy mid-palate and generosity of texture that is supported by a fine line of acidity, appealing salinity and a gentle crunch of pithiness.
This is pitched at the classic Hunter Valley level of ripeness for semillon, clocking in under 11% alcohol, but it’s a long way removed from those steely styles, with a gently textural feel and a burr of phenolics giving this an ever so gentle tug of grip. Green herbs and lemon flesh are moderated by an overarching mineral feel, with that pithy drying palate providing a moreish refreshment while also cloaking any sharpness of acidity that one might normally expect.
Nearly 90 per cent vermentino, with the balance sauvignon blanc, this was made from a mix of whole berries and pressed juice, with a portion staying on skins for seven months. There’s a slight haze to this, and an almost smoky lift on the nose with hints of stone fruit, green melon, citrus curd, mint and a briny sea spray edge, along with subtle notes of vanilla bean and an earthy savouriness. Considering the time on skins, this is only gently grippy, but still apparently so, taking that briny note onto a saline and gravelly mineral feel across the palate.
2022 Gonzo Vino ‘Get a Grip’ Vermentino
Riverland, 12.2%, $60
There’s a hazy appearance here, with notes of grapefruit and lemon pith, custard apple, golden apples, lemongrass, gingery spice and a hint of curry leaf. That haziness hints at some chewy texture, which is apparent on the palate, but it works to savoury refreshment rather than overt grip, a pleasing sourness closing out. This is going to be great with food, but it’s a handy beverage wine for those that love the skinsy gear.
2022 Minimum ‘The Colossus of Harry’ Skin Contact Sauvignon Blanc
Goulburn Valley, 12%, $36
Part of the ‘Short Runs’ range, this is skin-contact sauvignon with no fining or filtering and a low sulphur addition. There’s a gentle haze to the eye, with notes of pickled ginger, preserved lemon, matcha and blackcurrant leaf and cool ripeness berries on the nose. A serene but notably skinsy grip on the palate adds freshness to the cool fruit profile and crunchy acidity, with flavour tumbling through the chewy finish.
2022 Wangolina ‘Seasons’ Malvasia Istriana
Mount Benson, 13%, $50
This sees half the fruit fermented on skins, while the other half is pressed to a ceramic egg. After 17 days and completed fermentations, they were blended together. The skin contact is clear to see on the nose, but it doesn’t dominate, adding savoury notes and gentle flashes of spice, sitting over cool ripeness stone fruit, chamomile and dried apple. There’s the characteristic grip of skins, but it’s a gentle tug that complexes and makes the wine more interesting in respect to both flavour and texture, with a gentle slip of saline texture woven in.
The long prophesised ‘riesling renaissance’ has been stalled for some time, never quite gaining the momentum that many had – perhaps hopefully – forecast. Well, in the hands of makers both experienced and somewhat newer to the scene, riesling is once again sharing more of the spotlight. The 2022 Young Gun of Wine Awards features Rieslingfreak, Kenny Wine, ChaLou and Galafrey, whose wines tell this story.
Today, classic styles are still a strong part of the riesling market, but Australian riesling has diversified. Greater regional representation, gentle tweaking of traditions and a strong spirit of adventure are seeing riesling cast in many new lights. Belinda Hughes (Rieslingfreak), Koen Janssens (Bink Wines) Louis Schofield (Worlds Apart Wines), Jordan Hein (Moorak), Andrew Kenny (Kenny Wines), Kim Tyrer (Galafrey), Nadja Wallington and Steve Mobbs (ChaLou) are all exploring the grape’s possibilities.
Is orange the new white? Well orange isn’t even the current orange, with skin-contact wines made from white grapes – often called ‘orange’ or ‘amber’ wines – presenting in an array of hues, from a resolutely autumnal auburn, through luridly carrot-juice saffron to a decidedly classic green-tinged and crystal-clear appearance. And, as our recent panel…