Just when you thought you’ve figured wine out, a new style of wine hits the scene and it’s time to catch up or you’ll be left behind. Enter: skin-contact wine. You may have noticed a new category listed on your favorite restaurant’s wine list, or an unfamiliar array of wine colors on the retail shelves. Don’t fret! Skin-contact wine, which is commonly referred to as “orange wine,” has been around for centuries but really became mainstream in the last decade. So what made this rare, ancient way of making wine the most asked for wine over the last few years? Was it the growing presence on trendy wine lists and retail stores? It doesn't matter! Skin-contact wine is here to stay.
Here’s the cliff notes on skin-contact wines
Don’t be alarmed when you hear the terms skin-contact and orange wine being used interchangeably. When it came to brand marketing, the term “orange wine” won the popularity contest and the rest was history. Wine professionals prefer to use the term skin-contact because “orange wine” creates a whole slew of confusion: First, the wine is not made from oranges, it’s made from white wine grapes, and second, it has a range of colors outside of orange so the name can be quite misleading.
Any wine that has color—think rosé or red—gets its color from the maceration process. That’s when the grape juice and skins are fermented together for an extended period of time. When making a red wine, maceration can take anywhere from a week up to six months to complete. Similar to red wine, rosé is made by leaving the pressed red grape juice in contact with the red grape skins. The primary difference is less maceration time when making rosé—typically six to 12 hours. When this same maceration technique is used with a minimum of one day to several months using white grapes, a skin-contact or orange wine is produced.
What to expect from a skin-contact wine
No skin-contact wine is the same, but what never changes is the uniqueness of this style of wine. But the reality is, there’s something about skin-contact wine that does not appeal to everyone. It’s like the cilantro of wine. The birkenstocks with socks of wine. It’s a bit polarizing for some. But those who love it, love it in excess. Skin-contact wines always keep you guessing. Each time you take a sip, the flavors can be wildly different.
It’s important to not serve skin-contact wine too chilled. The texture and tannin structure can be a bit aggressive if you drink it too cold, similar to drinking a tannic red wine too chilled. And much like a red wine, skin-contact whites could use a little time in a decanter.
Keep your eye out for these
2020 Celler Pardas "Pell a Pell" Xarel-lo, Penedes, Spain Made in the same region as Cava, Pell a Pell literally translates to skin to skin. It’s the ideal wine for those who are starting to dabble in the world of skin contact. 100% Xarel-lo, 15 days skin contact and unfiltered/unfined. You’ll immediately taste notes of citrus pith, pear, and apple cider. It has an undeniable flavor reminiscent of an olive oil cake. Pell a Pell is also a classic example of why the term “orange wine” doesn’t always work: this wine is a light golden yellow color, similar to an aged chardonnay.
2020 Delinquente “Hell” Arinto, Riverland, Australia These Australian rule breakers have taken a stab at making wine with the Arinto grape, commonly found throughout Portugal. The wine is firefly yellow in color; somewhat glows in the bottle like a high school science experiment. It’s a wine that’s easily identified as an “orange” wine when it’s poured in a glass. The first sip will make you pucker like the first time you had a lemon head, then that screaming acidity is softened by notes of banana and nectarine juice. But here’s the kicker, it finishes with nostalgia—straight up Dole mixed fruit cup juice, the pineapple, cherry, and pear blend. Nothing about this skin-contact wine is polarizing. It’s fun and wildly refreshing.
2018 Gustavshof Orange Chardonnay Trocken, Germany For those of you who say you don’t like chardonnay, this might have you eating your words. It’s brick orange color will immediately have you questioning everything you’ve ever known about chardonnay. Typically the longer the grape skins are in contact with the juice, the darker the wine will be. And if we’re judging this book by it’s cover, this wine has had a very long maceration period. This dark hued gem tastes like a fall spiced concoction. Once the wine has opened up after a few minutes in a decanter, an assortment of flavors burst out of the glass to create a complex glass of wine. It’s savory and floral with notes of golden raisin, orange zest, sugar cane, fall spice and vanilla.
2019 Askaneli Brothers Red Horn White Wine, Kakheti, Georgia For over 8,000 years, Georgia has been making wines in oval shaped clay vessels called qvevri, also known as amphora in other old-world wine making regions. These vessels produce the Georgian amber wine that is growing in rapid popularity. Askaneli Red Horn is 100% Rkatsiteli aged three months with its skins. Beautiful yellow-orange in color with a texture that feels like oversteeped black tea on the palate, this wine has notes of baking spice, pink peppercorn, under-ripe peach, and firm tannins.