As the Rosé craze of 2017 winds down and we put some of our tired hashtags to bed for the winter, there’s another color of wine edging its way into our conversations. Like Rosé, its production relies on the manipulation of skin contact during fermentation, or maceration, but the similarities end there.
An Immortal Technique
In modern white wine production, the grapes are pressed before fermentation, ensuring that the juice has minimal contact with the tannins and phenolic compounds in the skins. This produces the light, crisp white wines we are accustomed to. But white grapes weren’t always processed this way. Thousands of years ago in the Caucasus, now the country of Georgia, white grapes were fermented whole, skins and all, in clay jars called amphorae, and the tannins and color compounds in the skins produced wines with a range of colors from pink to deep amber.
Lately, vintners around the world have been rediscovering the potential of macerated white wines. The flavor compounds, aromatics, and tannins that previously wound up on the compost heap now add a new dimension to some of our most beloved white grapes, such as Pinot Blanc, Rotgipfler, Zierfandler, and even Grüner Veltliner. By fermenting these traditionally white wines on the skins, winemakers are (re)discovering some of the hidden potential of these varieties. Often referred to as “orange wine,” and sometimes dismissed as trendy or a passing fad, skin-contact whites are nevertheless starting to show up on wine lists and in retail stores in ever-increasing numbers.
Wine With Attitude
One of the most transcendent experiences of life is a good meal paired with the perfect wine, and macerated white wines are incredibly versatile in this regard. You wouldn’t normally think to pair a Pinot Blanc or Grüner with beef ribs or lamb curry, but the tannic backbone and intensified aromatics imparted by skin contact allow these wines to stand up to hearty fare that would otherwise overpower these delicate varieties.
Macerated white wines often show more like reds in practice, not only pairing with stout, rich foods, but also benefiting from the normal red-wine protocols of decanting and cellar-temperature service. Indeed, the following examples can often be substituted for your favorite red wine when you’re looking for something a little different.
Enter Burgenland (The 37th Chamber)
Claus Preisinger is always experimenting, he’s kind of like Circo Vino’s very own mad scientist/alchemist. His “Edelgraben” vineyard, near Lake Neuseidl, is a special plot of chalky limestone soil where he grows varieties outside of Burgenland’s standard fare of red grapes like Zweigelt. Here, Pinot Blanc vines flourish in the unique soil, and Claus ferments the grapes from these vines on the skins in traditional clay amphorae. Bottled without filtration, the resulting wine is ineligible to bear the vineyard’s name, so it is labeled “ErDELuftGRAsundreBEN,” a bit of trickery designed to outsmart the label police. Exotic aromas, thick fruits sharpened by phenolics, and and floral overtones make this an experiment worth repeating.
Variety: 100% Pinot Blanc
Vineyard: “Edelgraben” single vineyard site, chalky limestone
The Sounds of Science
Farther south, in the Thermenregion, the brothers Reinisch have been dabbling in skin-contact white wines since 2013. Mad scientists in their own right, they are always wanting to try out something new, and a macerated version of the region’s treasured native grapes seemed natural. Using the rare indigenous varieties Rotgipfler and Zierfandler, along with a dash of Traminer, Reinisch’s Auf der Maische brings structure and power to this cherished Austrian blend. Michael and his brothers credit Auf der Maische’s skin-fermentation for capturing the true aromatic nature of these varieties.
2014 Auf der Maische
Varieties: Rotgipfler, Zierfandler, Traminer
Vineyard: 30-year-old vines, limestone and brown earth conglomerate
Alcohol: 13.0%, Acid: 5.8 g/L, Dry
West of Vienna, in the famed Wachau, Peter Veyder-Malberg has cooked up his own skin-contact wine. As we have come to expect from him, he has brought his unconventional philosophies and tactics to bear on this new project. Peter has over 15 years of red wine making under his belt, and while his Wachau operation has focused exclusively on white wines, extended maceration was always in the back of his mind. Noticing all the aromatics present in the discarded pomace of his Grüner Veltliner pressings, he decided to vinify a small batch of Grüner using the red wine process and fermenting fully on the skins. He was emphatic in his aim to not produce a funky, unfiltered “orange wine,” rather, he wanted Alter.Native to be a “precise example of an alternatively produced Grüner, which shows the hidden potential inherent in this variety. Just because it is known for its spiciness and fruity character does not mean that it cannot be much more.”
Variety: 100% Grüner Veltliner
Vineyard: Löss over primary rock
Analysis: Alcohol: 12.7%, Acid: 5.3 g/L, Sugar: 1.0 g/L
Vienna boasts its very own tradition of wine culture. The only major city in the world with vineyards in it, Wien is home to Weingut Hajszan Neumann, helmed by the brilliant Fritz Weininger. Fritz is an expert on the regional specialty Gemischter Satz, Wein’s traditional co-planted field blend. Sometimes containing over 15 varieties, Gemischter Satz takes on some remarkable characteristics when macerated. Hajszan Neumann’s Gemischter Satz Natural spends 5 months spontaneously fermenting on the skins, and is bottled unfiltered. The result is a unique expression of this cherished blend, combining the character of Viennese heuriger tradition with the ancient practice of maceration to produce a wine that is incredibly balanced.
Varieties: Grüner Veltliner, Welschriesling, Weissburgunder, Riesling, Traminer
Vineyard: Clay and chalk over shell limestone
Analysis: Alcohol: 14.0%, acid: 3.2 g/L, Sugar: 1.7 g/L
Winemakers in the U.S. are beginning to explore the potential of macerated whites as well. Sand-Reckoner Vineyards, helmed by math geek Rob Hammelman in Willcox, Arizona, has released their first-ever “orange” wine, as we Americans are wont to call it. Rob harvested a small plot of Roussanne from the high-elevation “Chiricahua Ranch” vineyard, fermented it on the skins for 40 days, and aged it on the lees in neutral oak for 10 months. The result is 2016 Orange Roussanne, a medium-bodied, fresh, minerally wine with chamomile tea, coriander, and mandarin orange notes. Rob’s focus on quality and attention to detail, evident in every Sand-Reckoner wine, has resulted in a stunning debut for Arizona on the ever-expanding stage of macerated white wines.
2016 Orange Roussanne
Variety: 100% Roussanne
Vineyard: Single vineyard “Chiricahua Ranch,” elevation 4500 feet
Analysis: Alcohol: 13.5%, Acid: pH 3.75, Dry
Don’t Call it a Comeback
“Skin-macerated white wines have always been there,” says Michael Reinisch. Recognizing both the ancient heritage of this technique and the potential for its future on the world stage, he stoically sums it up for us: “It’s an amazing addition to the world of wine.”
The recent renaissance of white grape maceration is shaking up the wine scene, and there may be a bit of a bandwagon effect, with new examples seeming to appear every day, and the jury is still out on whether this off-color style will ever gain full acceptance in the collective wine consciousness. But it all comes down to personal preference, really. Looking for something offbeat and unique to go with dinner? Ready to try something new? Or old? Skin-fermented white grapes might be just the thing to get us out of the rut by providing a real Alter.Native (thanks, Peter) to the age-old question, “Red or White?