The Skeleton Wine Key: Helping You Unlock the Secrets of the Bottle
If, when you go out in search of a beverage, you drift towards the wine list and, you may have noticed recently in probably more than one place, something new in those wine lists. There is always red, white, sparkling, dessert, but wait, does this say skin contact???
Did I see Orange wine? What is orange wine? This latter nomenclature is referring to the color of the wine, not the citrus (this wine is still made from grapes). The name for this fast evolving and spreading style of wine may be called more aptly “skin contact maceration”. Which begs, of course, the question: skin contact? And, where exactly is this headed?
To answer the former requires a trip to the basics, or as Aristotle would suggest, let’s begin at the start.
Grape Skins in Wine Making
Relatively speaking, the process of making white wine is drastically different from that of red wine. One major difference is that in white wine, the fermentation of the juice occurs sans skins. The grapes are pressed, the pomace removed, and not until then is fermentation allowed to begin.
Not so with red wine, where the skins continue in contact with the juice throughout this process which may last a few days, or a few weeks, even months. (Note! Skins provide pigment and the structure of tannins).
When white wine is made in a manner more aligned with red wine production (such as orange wine), we get a wine with a fairly distinct character: different flavors, more bite, mouthfeel and body. It also lends itself to be drunk either cold or closer to room temperature, and yes, I would say, orange.
If you think you have never had tannins and you’d rather stay out of dodge, it’s probably too late. If you enjoy drinking tea and do it often you most likely have experienced the disappointment of over-brewing it. That very aggressive taste that dominated your palate when you drank it? Brought to you by Tannins!
Behind the Orange Wine Trend
In a nutshell, Voilá orange wine! This latest trend hitting wine menus across cities, and populating the internet with the usual social media presence, including an abundance of articles that have been posted late this year; some that I read are imbued with prematurely formed opinions and/or lacking efficacy in really shedding light on the subject for the dilettantes and neophytes out there.
But before we get too far claiming a novelty has been born, it should be no surprise that this “spanking new trend” is actually quite old. Surprisingly old, in fact! Some place it more than 6000 years back in human history. The geographic origins (oranges???) have been narrowed down to what is modern day Georgia, in the Caucasus.
Orange Wine Characteristics
The first time I had orange wine, it was a bottle of one of Josko Gravner’s wines, ten years ago at the St. Regis, NY. A dear friend of mine and wine aficionado brought in this bottle for the sommeliers at Adour to try. Josko is a pioneer of the orange wine rebirth, which goes beyond the color of the liquid and the hype of those who drink it.
At the time, my impression was that the color of the wine or the use of skins was not the most notorious character. It was the flavor of clay, imparted by the amphora that Josko uses and buries in the ground of his winery, when the wine is ready to ferment. It was also a warmth that was difficult to describe, or understand, or ignore.
It was intriguing, memorable, and crafted with minimal interference that gave it a sense of purity.
History of the Skin Contact Maceration Method
It turns out the ancient Georgians might have understood fermentation even better than we did not two centuries ago.
Temperature control is known as a modern advance in oenology, which in fact, André Tchelistcheff brought to the burgeoning California wine industry as recently as the mid twentieth century. By being buried in the ground, the wine is kept at an optimal cool temperature, in the bosom of the earth, naturally taming and controlling the heat produced by fermentation. The shape of the amphora, called qvevri, does impart some character to the wine, but also helps filter away the skins when the wine is ready. Some producers bottle it directly from its clay vessel, although typically, they are finished by a short amount of aging on wood barrels.
So what we have here is not just a beverage that’s trending and hipsters fiend for. It is a philosophy that the approach and method of production of this style of wine has spawned. As a social trend, it is part of a much larger one that is obsessed with digging souvenirs from our ancient human past, and turning them into consumable goods, satisfying our craving to try something wild and distant, yet very much ours (remember “Midas touch” by Dogfishhead?). Something I would call Anachronic Nostalgia. But that is not so for people like Josko. He grew up in rural Georgia washing amphorae and hanging around his father’s labor and love for a wine style that could be the longest living tradition in our history, but which brings back something more personal to this particular wine-maker that begets perhaps, his passion.
Give Orange Wine a Try
I cannot say frankly that I love this style of wine; much less that it is a crowd pleaser. But I do like some of them, and I enjoy the minimalist approach, the use of non carbon-based resources, the honesty that keeps things very fresh, and the coming across shockingly exciting, most peculiar nuances, and/or completely unexpected food and wine pairings.
Something I found slightly off putting was the fact that the character of the grape had been completely changed. A gewürztraminer that typically exhibits a very perfumey bouquet with strong hints of lychee, was more like sherry and wet clay. I normally scoff at wines that do not retain the grape varietal character but, perhaps it is time to discover another expression of the fruit. Find your sense of adventure and maybe, without trying too hard, you too will come across skin contact. Salúd!
Food & Wine Pairings at OCI
At Oregon Culinary Institute, our students explore a variety of wines in the culinary world.
Our Culinary Arts and Hospitality Management AOS Degree includes courses such as Oenology & Viticulture and Wine Regions of the World.
If you’re excited by types of wine making methods like skin contact maceration and how the resulting flavors and characteristics pair with food, enroll in culinary school to explore more!