Note: This tip originally appeared in the Nov. 15, 2018, issue of Wine Spectator, "Thomas Rivers Brown."
Proving that great wine knows no political borders, producers from northeastern Italy's Friuli–Venezia-Giulia region and western Slovenia's Primorska region have put the combined area on the map as an epicenter for distinctive bottlings of white grape varieties made with the technique of extended skin contact.
"Skin-contact wines," is how Saša Radikon terms the versions he makes at his family's winery, where he assumed ownership following the death of his father, pioneer Stanko Radikon, in 2016.
White wines made with skin contact were collectively dubbed "orange wines" in the early 2000s, due to their often deeply hued orange or amber coloring. It's a misnomer, although Radikon grudgingly admits, "Even if it's not necessarily nice or accurate, people can quickly understand what you're talking about."
The wines are made from white grape varieties using the red wine production technique of extended maceration of the grape skins, and sometimes stems, with the juice during fermentation. For standard white wine production, the grape skins are separated from the juice prior to fermentation, almost immediately after pressing.
The period of skin contact ranges from hours to days to months, depending on the producer, fermentation times and other factors. The technique promotes the extraction of tannins, flavor compounds and color. The results can be dramatic, amping up body, texture and structure, as well as intensifying flavors, aromas and color.
For my exploration of skin-contact wines I reviewed 50 releases from 11 producers, focusing on bottlings available in the U.S. market from wineries in Friuli–Venezia-Giulia and Slovenia. Although examples of skin-contact wines exist from regions around the globe, it was the efforts of producers in Friuli and Slovenia that first brought these idiosyncratic bottlings to the forefront in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Leading the way were Stanko Radikon and contemporary Josko Gravner, both located in Friuli's hilly Collio DOC. They watched in dismay as the region turned to industrial winemaking techniques to increase production in the 1970s and '80s, which, to their tastes, stripped the character from the wines. Radikon and Gravner sought alternate methods to find more expression in their bottlings. They found themselves looking back—way back. The process of macerating white grape skins with the juice dates back 5,000 years, to what is now the country of Georgia (versions from Georgian winemakers are also worth seeking out).
"It is just a very practical state of things, this way we used to produce wine," says Saša Radikon of his father's decision to make wine via skin contact, as his grandfather had many years before. "And my father started to think of this." At 95 points, Radikon produced one of the top-scoring wines of this report, the long and intriguing, exotically spiced Venezia-Giulia Slatnik S Label 2015, a blend of Chardonnay from the Slatnik vineyard with (Tocai) Friulano.
The S Label line (including a Pinot Grigio) is Radikon's personal project, created to provide an introductory skin-contact example; the juice spends roughly 10 days macerating on the skins, then ages in large oak for a year and a half. Comparatively, the winery's fragrant 2009 Venezia-Giulia Jakot and the chalky 2009 Venezia-Giulia Oslavje spend almost four months macerating before four years of aging in large oak casks.
Gravner produced the other 95-point wine of this report, the 2003 Venezia-Giulia, a single-variety Ribolla (Gialla) harvested from vineyards planted in 1919 and 1950. The wine fermented for 10 months in buried clay amphorae, or qvevri, with half of the volume on the skins. (After a visit to Georgia in 2000, Gravner embraced the local technique of fermenting in qvevri for all his wines.) The wine aged until 2010 in large Slavonian oak barrels before bottling (magnum only) and subsequent aging for another seven years prior to its release in 2017. Unofficially called a "selection" by the winery, it is only produced in exceptional vintages.
"Preserving newly born wines on the skins is like having a newborn with his mother: They benefit from each other," muses Mateja Gravner, who works with her father and sister Jana at the family estate.
Skin contact feeds the resulting wine's tannic structure. As with red wines, this acts as a natural preservative—part of the reason the ancient Georgians made wines via skin contact. And because of these preservative effects, many producers of these wines add little or no sulfites at the completion of winemaking.
"Previously, we produced clear wines by using filtration," says Jure Štekar, a young winemaker from Slovenia who moved his family winery's winemaking to skin contact about a decade ago. "But I don't want to sulfur [my wines], and using skin contact allows this." Štekar's zesty Rebula Primorska 2016 is an affordable introduction to the skin-contact category.
In addition to the decision of many skin-contact vintners to limit the use of sulfites, other practices common among these producers include farming organically, relying on the skins' natural yeasts to initiate fermentation and using conventional methods—such as settling or racking—to remove natural sediment in the wine, or not filtering the sediment at all.
"At the beginning it was difficult to work in this new way," says Stefano Novello of Ronco Severo, a Friuli-based winemaker who saw the examples of Radikon and Gravner and converted production to skin contact in 1999.
"I lost all my customers when I made the change. I didn't know how to do it; we were used to a much simpler vinification. My family kept telling me I was wrong," Novello recalls. "The bank was telling me the same thing," he deadpans, though his recent releases, all outstanding and including the firm and finely meshed Ribolla Gialla Delle Venezie 2014, prove that he found his way.
Even today, with more than two decades of collective experience, producing skin-contact wines is not an exact science.
"It's very difficult to apply a rule for this production process," says Mateja Gravner as she explains some of the typical practices used at the winery. "It makes us think that all the rules we started with may not be true, and maybe there are other things to question."
The grape varieties best-suited to skin contact are typically those that are naturally high in acid. The backbone of acidity found in the resulting wines works in tandem with the tannic structure provided by the skin contact to create a firm, fresh frame.
As a category, skin-contact wines shine brightest when enjoyed with a meal, where the vibrant acidity and lightly chalky tannins offer a counterpoint to the richness of the food pairing. Overall I enjoyed the intense concentration, purity of fruit flavor and richly spiced character I found in many of the versions with a longer period of skin contact; yet compared to standard white wines, even those with shorter maceration times offered a tempting richness.
Skin-contact wines may not appeal to everyone. But they are worth seeking out for their distinctive character and diversity. These are wines to think about, speaking loudly of a winemaker's ability to harvest the very best fruit possible and to transform it into something more.
"In this moment, when everything is so fast—too fast—this is a way to take your time and go back to your origins," says Novello. "Sometimes to go forward you have to go back, my father always said. [These wines] take you back, to the grapes, to the soil."
Wines to try
Radikon Venezia-Giulia Slatnik S Label 2015 (95 points, $35)
Ronco Severo Ribolla Gialla Delle Venezie 2014 (91 points, $30)
Movia Brda Lunar 2013 (94 points, $45/1 L)
Jure Stekar Rebula Primorska 2016 (90 points, $22)