A “skin-contact” white wine is a white wine that has had extended contact with grape skins.
While red and rosé wines always spend time on skins—this is where these wines get their color and tannin—during the maceration and fermentation process, typical white wines do not. When white-wine grapes are pressed, only the juice is fermented.
In essence, skin-contact white wines are white wines that are made like red wines. Often known as orange wines due to their color, skin-contact whites started trending in a big way more than a decade ago thanks to niche international importers and regional wine-trade associations spreading the orange-wine gospel to the wine trade in major cities across the U.S.
When orange wines began hitting restaurant lists—curated by sommeliers who loved obscure, or different, wines—in cities like San Francisco, most of the wines being introduced to, drunk by and trending amongst the wine geeks of San Francisco were from countries like Austria, Italy—particularly within the Friuli-Venezia region—and Slovenia. Later, there were more from countries around the world including the U.S. and, primarily, California.
However, it was Georgia where the first known orange wines were made, a thousand or more years ago, and stored in large, clay, amphora-like vessels. Interestingly, many producers today that produce orange wines/skin-contact white wines follow suit by aging their wines in amphorae, or clay vessels, though many also opt for neutral oak or cement.
So what are skin-contact white wines like? And what are they … skin-contact wines or orange wines?
First, not all skin-contact white wines are orange wines, but all orange wines are skin-contact white wines. What does this mean? Not all white wines that receive skin contact turn orange or are as deep in color. The level of color and tannin a wine achieves depends on how long it spends on the skins, the varietal of the grape and—to an extent—the vessel, in relation to oxidation.
To keep things simple, most prefer to use the term skin-contact white now, as this is more accurate in many cases, as well as less confusing.
Second, there are aromas, flavors and components found in skin-contact white wines that are uncommon in traditional white wines. The additional time on skin results in higher tannins and stronger, deeper fruit notes, as well as a fuller body, texture and greater complexity. Ripe stonefruit, orange peels and white flowers are common descriptors of skin-contact white wines. This added complexity means that the wines are also more versatile when it comes to pairing them with a wider variety of foods.
Taste for yourself, starting with the following eight fantastic and unique local wines.
Wines With Skin in the Game
Bannister Wines Ribolla Gialla, bannisterwines.com
Idlewild Cortese, Fox Hill Vineyard, idlewildwines.com/wines
Joseph Jewell Pinot Gris, josephjewell.com
Kivelstadt Cellars Wayward Son Orange Wine (Roussanne), kivelstadtcellars.com
Pellegrini Skin Contact Chardonnay, pellegrinisonoma.com
Two Shepherds Skin Fermented Vermentino and Skin Fermented Pinot Gris, twoshepherds.com