Wine Gets Some Skin in the Game

Wine Gets Some Skin in the Game

 Contributed by Vicki Denig
in WineSearcher
Maceration is an everyday practice for reds, but more white wine producers are now using it.


Common in red winemaking, the idea of extended skin contact
is now on trend for whites, too.

Over the last decade, skin-contact wines have seen a renaissance like never before.

Not quite red, not quite white, and most definitely not made from oranges, these skin-macerated whites can offer the best of both worlds in the realms of texture, flavor, and quality – though not all skin-contact wines are one in the same. Grape varieties, regions, and vinification styles of these grippy wines fall all over the flavor profile spectrum.

From a winemaker’s perspective, the reason for diving into this style of winemaking is equally varied. For some, regional history, consumer interest, and simple curiosity have been the starting points. For others, saving stagnant fermentations and moving things along in the cellar were the driving force. Though regardless of the why, the how-to, learning processes, and consumer responses are equally varied. Six industry professionals around the globe have weighed in on their experiences with this unique style of vinification, here.

Honoring history – more than skin deep

In Sighnaghi, Georgia, American winemaker John Wurdeman made his first skin-contact white wine at Pheasant’s Tears back in 2008 to honor regional history.

“From the beginning, we wanted to offer unapologetically Georgian wines that were respectful of the heritage here, as well as distinct and different from international wine styles,” he says. Wurdeman notes that historically, most Georgian white wines were made with some level of skin contact. Today, the practice has since become synonymous with the country’s vinification regimen.

“From my experience Georgia is one of the only countries where orange/amber wines are the most common and celebrated style, but it’s not the only place,” he says, citing Spain and Italy as other countries that widely use this practice. “Though in Georgia, the process is unique, as it remains the dominating and most desirable style for Georgian supras [feasts] wines. Later, we realized many of our most coveted clients gravitated to putting orange wines on their lists, as it was distinctly Georgian!”

Wurdeman’s original skin-contact Rktasiteli spent three months on the lees with partial stem contact. Since then, the winery has experimented with varying maceration levels and indigenous grape varieties. Curiosity reigns For some, curiosity was the impetus. In Austria, Christina Netzl made her first skin-contact white wine back in 2015. “I was really fascinated by the different styles,” she says, adding that her extensive experience with red-wine production helped push her to experiment even further. Netzl chose to work with macerated Chardonnay, as she found that non-macerated styles from the region could at times be “a bit too sweetish or boring”. Netzl notes that she does not follow one strict regimen with her skin-contact whites, as every vintage is different and therefore brings different needs to the table. For Netzl, the normal maceration time generally falls between three and six weeks.

In South Australia, James Erskine of Jauma winery felt inspired to give skin-contact winemaking a go after tasting Stanislao Radikon’s iconic wines back in 2010.

“At the time, consumer interest was near non-existent in Australia,” he says, citing his curiosity as enough of a reason to give the practice a whirl. Today, Erskine uses destemmed Chenin Blanc, Muscat, and Arneis to craft his skin-macerated whites in a barrel-fermented, non-oxidative style (he places the head back on the fill with juice before fermentation). “If you want a juicy wine, the skin contact is shorter, about 10 days,” explains Erskine, explaining that longer macerations will add texture and heighten aromatics.

For others, the impetus for skin-contact vinification was found in the need to kickstart struggling wines. Tracey Brandt of Donkey & Goat Winery produced her first skin-contact white from Roussanne back in 2007, after sluggish native fermentations were slowing down operations at the winery. Like Erskine, Brandt notes that there was really no consumer interest for this style of wine back in 2010, though things have certainly changed over the past decade. Today, Brandt makes  a full range of 100-percent destemmed skin-contact “white” wines that see 4-16 days of contact each. (Stems are not included, as Brandt notes that stems increase pH and reduce natural acidity.)

Skins: pros and cons

According to Netzl, one of the drawbacks of creating skin-macerated wines is that it requires more winery space and time, though the results are worth it. “Due to the tannin structure, the wines are more stable concerning oxidation,” she explains, which helps with the preservation of the wine.

Consumer interest in skin-contact whites has grown in the past decade.
© Donkey & Goat Winery

Wurdeman notes that the skin-contact whites offer the best of both worlds: the freshness of white wine and the backbone/structure of a red wine. He notes that this unique marriage of character traits renders these wines extremely versatile on the table, making them perfect matches for Georgian, Mexican, Thai, Vietnamese, Greek, Lebanese, and other cuisines. “I can’t think of any real drawbacks except if it is quite tannic it can take a few years to have the tannins integrate well in the rest of the wine.”

Brandt notes that skin contact can encourage a stronger fermentation, which, as Wurdeman mentioned, adds texture and savory notes to a wine. “However, terroir purists may feel that skin contact masks the expression of terroir, and depending on varietal and length of contact, the two styles can be as different as night and day,” she explains. For Erskine, vinification is simply vinification. “[With skin-contact winemaking], there are really no extra challenges or benefits or risks, it’s really just like making a red wine. Do everything by taste, numbers are irrelevant,” he says.

Getting under the skin

Milan Nestarec made her first skin-contact wine in 2009, after returning from Slovenia and Italy. After four years of making it for personal consumption, Nestarec commercially launched the wine in 2013. She found that after years of experimentation, local Czech varieties, such as Neuburger, worked best. Though for Nestarec, phenolic ripeness is more important than maceration time. “In 2009, we started with six months of maceration. Now the length of our maceration is 4-5 days maximum, and we shorten it every year,” she says, acknowledging these changes as a direct reflection of her family’s ever-changing palates. “Less is more in this regard. We want to make wine that is more elegant, drinkable, and with good energy. That is important to us.”

Though in her opinion, skin-contact winemaking isn’t a forever affair. “As my vineyards age and so do I, I think I will use skin contact less and less,” she reveals, citing a quest for more elegance and harmony in her wines, which can often be lost in overly macerated wines.
Additionally, she reveals that nature dictates the end game. “In 2020, we made a minimum amount of macerated white wines, as the vintage was simply not suitable,” she says. “You can project a lot of things in your head, but nature has the last word. If you understand and respect it, you win.”

Consumer feedback

Netzl reveals that at first, her skin-contact wines were not at all well-received by her family. “I run the winery with my parents, and at the beginning, they didn’t like the wine at all – they thought it was a shame to vinify good grapes as such!” However, a few short years later, Netzl notes that they became fascinated by the wines and the science behind it. “It took a few years for people to embrace our skin contact and pet-nat wines, though it wasn’t really negative feedback, just confusion,” explains Erskine, liking the experience of tasting a unique flavor, such as fish sauce, for the first time. Brandt has found that in general, the feedback has been positive, though of course she can’t please everybody. “I’d say we have far fewer negative responses to skin-contact wines, but of course they are not for everyone,” she says.

In 2019, New York-based sommelier Doreen Winkler founded Orange Glou, the industry’s first skin-contact exclusive wine club. “Orange wine has deeper flavors, texture and is just more fun and delicious [than other wines] if you get the good stuff,” she explains. Winkler notes that the style may not be for everyone, but reveals that she has turned many people onto orange wines who are all now hooked. In curating the club’s selection, Winkler selects skin-contact wines from all over the world made from a diverse array of varieties and maceration times.

Wurdeman recalls that in the beginning, conservative markets were “quite startled” by his skin-contact wines’ uniqueness. “Sarah Abbott, a great Master of Wine from London once said: ‘Orange wines of Georgia are not the mean sisters of whites, but the introspective cousins of reds’, and I think she is right on,” he says, declaring that preconceptions about wines can often interfere with genuine aesthetic experiences.

“If we don’t see amber wines as a rustic version of whites, but rather as light, refreshing kin of reds, it changes our perspective,” he says. “Now it’s definitely a hip and very celebrated style – somehow the ancient has become cutting edge again.”