australia, austria, skin contact wines, slovakia, slovenia, yarra valley -

skin-contact wines

White wine is almost always made the same way. The grapes are pressed to gently extract the juice which is fermented with the skins removed (they can be used for grappa, added to a compost pit, or put back in the vineyard as organic matter: waste not, want not). This is to produce fresh, crisp, clear wines.

There are exceptions. Because Riesling is never aged in new oak, the grape juice is often left in contact with the skins overnight to add structure and texture to the wine without interfering with the aromatics. Sauvignon Blanc sometimes has a short period of skin contact, as it enhances the aromas.

But there are more extreme examples of skin contact, where extended maceration adds color, tannins, and aromas. Often called orange wines, even when they're not orange, skin-contact wines can get mixed up with the natural wine movement or seen as for wine geeks only. But it's a practice which has been done for millenia; completely removing the skins is a much more modern development. Georgia, where, alongside Armenia, winemaking was invented 6,000 years ago, is famous for its amber-colored white wines due to extended skin contact. This was historically performed to prevent oxidation: a much purer alternative than adding pine resin for retsina in Greece or spices in regions such as Alsace. Winemaking has moved on a long way in the last 60 years, but Georgia has maintained its traditions.

For much of the twentieth century, Georgia was locked away under Soviet communist rule. That hindered the wine industry, but it also meant that traditions were maintained. Likewise in Slovenia, which was part of Yugoslavia and has a long history of skin-contact wines. On its independence in 1991, winemakers in neighboring Italy were excited to discover these wines and started to make their own versions, feeling they represented the purity of the grape variety better than modern winemaking.

In turn, this has influenced winemakers across the world as well as helped promote traditional wines from former Communist countries. In the past, blackpoolmatt's wine club has had a skin-contact wine from Slovakia, golden in colour with a light tannic structure—other than that, it tasted just like a very good, medium-bodied white wine should.

I've now got into the club a fantastic Sauvignon Blanc from Austria, which also has a short period of skin contact. Weingut Gross is a producer located in the foothills of the Alps in a region called Südsteiermark, just across the border from Slovenia. In fact, they make wine in Slovenia too, showing how these winemaking traditions across central Europe transcend borders.

Another wine new to the club is "Amber" by Ben Haines. This comes from Victoria, Australia—these old traditions have traveled around the world. It's a very unusual wine in how it's made. It's 70% Sémillon, which receives four weeks' skin contact; 10% Marsanne, which receives six weeks' skin contact; and 20% Roussanne, which is aged in old oak for six months. Think of it as kind of like a white wine, even though it isn't; kind of like a rosé even though it isn't; kind of like a red wine, even though it isn't. This is a wine which appeals to many different types of drinkers due to its color, structure, texture, and deliciousness.

And that's the joy of skin-contact wines: historical and contemporary winemaking practices all in one bottle which reflect the grape varieties, the region, and the people behind the wines.