How Orange Wine Is Changing Australian Wine Culture | Wine Enthusiast
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How Orange Wine Is Changing Australian Wine Culture

No wine demonstrates Australia’s flourishing artisanal winemaking scene better than skin-contact white wines. Commonly referred to as orange wines, the winemaking process leaves white grapes in contact with their skins anywhere from a few days to months or even years, resulting in a wine style that’s generally more tannic, richly flavored and textured than a typical white. The technique has, in the space of a decade, gone from divisive outlier to an important part of Aussie wine culture.

While integral to the ancient winemaking cultures in areas like the Republic of Georgia and, later, Slovenia and Northeast Italy, skin-contact whites didn’t take hold in Australia until the early 21st century. Mornington Peninsula producer Kevin McCarthy is credited for crafting Aus’s first so-called “skinsy white” for his label T’Gallant in 2008. But it was the rise of natural wine, a movement closely associated with orange wines, that would ignite broader interest in the style. The Natural Selection Theory group exploded onto the scene with a 2010 skin-contact Semillon aged in 900ml wax-sealed ceramic eggs. The group no longer exists, but the three surviving members, Anton van Klopper, Tom Shobbrook and James Erskine, still produce skin-contact whites today under their own labels.

Producers like Ruggabellus and BK Wines were also early pioneers, as was Glen Robert, who, with winemaker Andrew Scott, has been experimenting with skin-contact whites since 2011 under their label La Petite Mort. The wines, which may undergo 150 days—or more—on skins, ferment in wax-lined Georgian qvevris buried underground. LPM’s rich amber-hued wines are some of the most unique and evocative in Australia.

AU’s skinsies can be made from a plethora of grape varieties. The wines vary as vastly in color as they do in style. Flavors range from vibrant, fleshy and fruit-forward to rich, savory and flecked with salted nuts, damp hay and beeswax, gripped by pithy tannins. Richer styles are best drunk just slightly chilled, and often benefit from aeration. More oxidative styles can survive—and even improve—in the bottle for several days after opening.

“Aussie producers, I feel, have always been pushing the boundaries in skin contact,” says Dave Geyer, of Geyer Wines and Yetti and the Kokonut in South Australia. “It’s across the whole country,” he adds. “As a wine style, with varied applications and the ability to utilize any variety from any region…skin-contact whites are here to stay.”

Bottles to Try

Brash Higgins 2019 CHN Willamba Hill Vineyard Chenin Blanc (McLaren Vale); $36, 95 Points. Native yeast, a touch of skin contact and some barrel ferment make this amber-hued wine an intense and wild bottling. Heady aromas of honey, freshly laid hay, red-apple skins, frangipani and wet stones lead to a palate that delivers on its promise of richness, but is also vibrant with crunchy acidity and an intriguing texture. The flavor is long and complex, with a mineral, saline finish.

Yangarra 2019 Roux Beauté Roussanne (McLaren Vale); $60, 94 Points. It takes a dedicated winemaker to work with the notoriously erratic Roussanne, but Pete Fraser nails it. A vibrant honey color, the nose is rich and savory, like crème brulée, amaretto, seashell, raw beeswax and damp hay, with gentle stone and citrus fruit at the back. The palate is an exercise in balance between texture and acidity, both locked in a beautiful dance. A little more flavor depth wouldn’t hurt here, but overall this is top example of Roussanne.

La Petite Mort 2019 VMR Qvevri (South Eastern Australia); $43, 93 Points. This Rhône-style white blend sees a whopping 161 days on skins. The color of a flaming orange sunset, the aromas are wild and rich, evoking rice, oat, mint, aniseed and tarragon, overlaid by honeycomb, preserved lemons and dehydrated peaches and pineapples. The palate is fresher than anticipated, although acidity creeps in amidst the skins-y tannins and intense minerality. More sum-of-its-parts than easily dissected, this is a treasure for those adventurous drinkers looking for something far outside the typical Aussie wine canon.

Yetti and the Kokonut 2019 Mt Savagnin (McLaren Vale); $39, 93 Points. A slightly hazy, honeycomb color, this wine is frighteningly easy to drink. With aromas of red-apple skins, citrus blossom, butterscotch and wet stones, it’s delicate and well-integrated. In the mouth, tangy acidity buoys a creamy texture and concentrated orchard fruit and honey flavors. Drink well chilled with everything from creamy, salty cheese to roast fennel.

Punt Road 2021 Airlie Bank Gris on Skins (Yarra Valley); $25, 92 Points. Because Pinot Gris falls in the white wine category, this is technically an orange wine. But it’s the color of ballerina slippers. It sends out a firecracker of aromas: ruby grapefruit, wild strawberry, cherry juice and heady florals like hyacinth or jasmine. There’s a pith and skins bite to the palate, giving it a medium weight. There’s balance and refreshment. It’s a versatile food wine that could pair with an entire multi-course summer meal.

Cullen 2020 Amber Wilyabrup Sauvignon Blanc-Semillon (Margaret River); $35, 90 Points. This vintage of Cullen’s skin-contact Sauvignon, Semillon blend needs to air in glass or decanter to open up. When it does, it offers both herbal and honeyed characters alongside lemon peel and nectarine. A pithy bite adds interested to the palate, as does the zingy acidity and citrusy finish. Refreshing but with enough weight to be quite food friendly (goat cheese comes to mind as a potentially tasty pairing).

This article originally appeared in the August/September 2022 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!