Tannin in white wines. I guess this isn’t something many of us consider often if at all. Tannins are a red wine issue, the thinking goes; yet white grapes also have tannins and more wines are being made to reveal their grippy little teeth. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised as many winemakers are now focusing more on texture – a welcome trend if ever there was.
Every wine has texture, of course, but in the main, everyday unwooded whites, still in the majority, offer little more than fresh, fruity acids. There’s nothing wrong with that; it’s a straightforward style to be enjoyed in youth rather than aged, dissected and contemplated.
Texture doesn’t derive just from grape tannins: lees contact, malo-lactic fermentation and oak are other sources, maybe there are more.
Where the tannins in white grapes differ from those in red is in the absence or lesser amounts of anthocyanins, which provide the red colour, although skin contact on varieties including pinot gris, semillon gris and gewürztraminer can leave a pinkish-beige hue. This is certainly true of Mick & Janine Craven’s Pinot Gris 2015. This spent between eight and 10 days on skins, subsequently being transferred to older oak. Tasting it a while ago, I noted it is almost light pinot noir in colour, gently fragrant but much more emphatic when it comes to flavour and dry, grippy finish. Elegant – yes; wimpish, like most local pinot gris – most definitely not.
Not all skin contact whites take on a distinctive colour. Craig Hawkins’ Testalonga El Bandito 2015 from chenin spent even longer on the skins – four weeks, but this is water white with a green tinge. Pretty much like a white that’s been immediately removed from its skins, as is the fruit which shines through with great purity and freshness. Despite its great delicacy, the tannic grip is evident.
As with tannic reds, skin contact whites show at their best with food, especially those where the fruit is less obvious.
John & Natasha Seccombe’s Tin Soldier is a good example. Made from semillons blanc and gris, the fruit sourced from both Franschhoek and the Swartland, the 2015, which I tasted as a barrel sample recently, has a definite orange hue. In this unfinished state, I found it savoury, densely textured and bone dry. It may gain more aromatics once bottled.
Currently, neither skin-contact whites nor orange wines are official categories, so have yet to be defined. That doesn’t stop them finding their way onto labels; for instance, Bosman Family Vineyards Fides from grenache blanc has the possibly confusing Orange white wine on the front label. Delicious it is too.
Older vines too seem to produce more structured wines even without skin contact. The latest L’Avenir Single Block Chenin Blanc 2014 draws fruit from a vineyard planted in 1972. Partially fermented in French and Acacia oak, which does impart some tannin, there’s a textural density from the concentrated fruit but also delightful chenin purity.
So far so much tannin, but lees contact also adds to texture, enchancing flavour at the same time. Weight, mouthfeel, richness – take your pick – these all accrue from time on the lees. With too much stirring or battonage, the wine can become soupy, spoiling the fruit.
This is certainly not the problem with the Seccombe’s Thorne and Daughters Rocking Horse 2014. A multi-regional blend of chenin, roussanne, semillon and chardonnay, it has it all in the texture department: freshness, lees richness and tannic grip (only the semillon was fermented on skins), each beautifully harmonised with the others. A wine well worth putting aside for a few years.
We tasted the previous vintage as well; it was blended from the same varieties but in different proportions with roussanne taking the lead. Much more oxidative and richly savoury, for me it lacks the textural layers of the currently available 2014. I was left feeling that this white wine is much more like a red wine in structure.
A colleague told me about a recent red wine tasting in which all the most expensive labels were lined up; his face told me before he did that the tasting proved a disappointment. Over ripe fruit, over oaking, lack of complexity and little likelihood of the wines ageing were among his comments.
We put so much store and high price tags on our red wines, only to be so often disappointed for these very exaggerations.
It leaves me wondering is white the new red?