Amber, Orange, Skin-macerated, Skin Contact, even Alternative White; there are as many descriptions for white wines which have spent time on their skins, as there are colours in the wine themselves. Add a range of varieties, blends and degrees of tannin and the winelover has to pick an uncertain path through the maze to find a wine suited to his or her taste.
It will come as some reassurance that Cathy van Zyl MW, Christian Eedes, Tim James and I found the overall quality of the 29 skin-macerated white wines we recently tasted, is good. Those 29 represented 19 producers and, at the time I thought pretty well covered what is available; just two days later I discovered the Joostenberg, so will allow I may have missed more.
Go back just ten years when interest for these wines among South African winemakers was just starting. Craig Hawkins, then at Lammershoek, (now at Testalonga, his and his wife, Carla’s own winery) was the first to experiment, his interest piqued after tasting the skin-macerated wines of an Italian producer. This inspired him to search for more, eventually coming across those from the heartland of the style in Fruili/Italy, Slovenia and Georgia (Simon Woolf’s Amber Revolution traces the history of these wines; I reviewed it here). Hawkins’ first attempt was a chenin blanc left for five weeks on the skins, but he acknowledges one has to ‘ .. determine the level of extraction which gives the most pleasure in the bottle.’
Pleasure is what we all seek in a bottle of wine; skin-macerated white wines are no different. If there were a few in the lineup which failed on the pleasure rating, it was, as Tim noted, from having too much dry tannin lending an unwelcome austerity, a feature intensified by the generally low alcohols (four came close to 14%; Springfontein Dark Side of the Moon, Richard Hilton The Ancient, Bosman Fides and Dragonridge Cygnus; 11%-13% was the norm). In notes he sent me, Craig concurs; ‘a lot of skin contact whites for me are too extracted now, which takes away too much of the fruit and purity of the vineyard and soil.’ While these wines are anything but fruity in the sense we think of traditional young white wines with their primary aromas, the successful ones have fruit to balance the tannins and freshness. Because of the lack of primary fruit, the aromatics in wines such as El Bandito Sweet Cheeks from Muscat d’Alexandrie, Richard Hilton’s The Ancient Viognier and Maanschijn Muscat de Frontignan Grenache Gris blend appear more concentrated and exotic. Something borne out by Craig, who loves the increased muscat aroma in his Sweet Cheeks from maceration. Christian noted the most successful examples are those offering such new aromatics and flavours without losing all varietal character. That said, chenin blanc once again shows its versatility with Jurgen Gouws’ Intellego Elementis 2016, Jasper Wickens Chenin Blanc 2017 and Johan (Stompie) Meyer’s Mother Rock Liquid SkinCheninBlanc 2017 getting general nods of approval.
It was no surprise when the subject turned to whether these wines reflect terroir or their character is determined by winemaking. For Cathy, the latter seemed to dominate in some but in his notes, Craig claims the increased spectrum of flavours originate in the vineyard, so intensify the expression of terroir but agrees over-extraction can dim a sense of place.
At this early stage of skin-macerated whites, the curiosity factor is likely more of a drawcard than any particular thoughts of terroir, or of ageing, which we can’t imagine would be of measureable benefit.
A change of mindset with regard to the purpose of these wines would be helpful. White wines are often consumed as an aperitif, reds (with their tannins) reserved for the meal. But is there any reason why tannined whites shouldn’t make just as suitable partners with dinner? More to the point, both Jasper Wickens and John Seccombe (Thorne & Daughters) confirm how popular their wines are in Japan, where the umami factor make the wines and food complementary partners. The Japs are such hipsters, they enjoy Jasper’s unfiltered chenin in its shook-up cloudy state! (He exports all these wines to Japan, where 600 bottles sold in two weeks!) ‘The Japanese work on a simple rule,’ Craig confirms; ‘either you like it or you don’t. You don’t find many huge, woody, alcoholic wines there, it just doesn’t suit their food.’
My own, more Western dish of roast chicken went particularly well with Jurgen’s Elementis, while Richard Hilton’s The Ancient with its intense flavour and structure is a good match for lightly spiced dishes and pork. Untried but I suspect the Mostert/Suddons Smiley Spesiale (chenin) with its nutty character find a match in mature hard cheese.
Craig Hawkins was instrumental in helping the Board draw up guidelines for Skin-macerated whites and Alternative White (and Red) Wines, classes which were introduced in 2015. The only difference between the two is that the skin-macerated whites have to remain on the skins for a minimum of four days. Full malo-lactic fermentation and a maximum S02 of 40ppm help avoid dodgy wine or one killed with sulphur. Even now, this hasn’t eliminated the problem of wines being failed, some on numerous occasions, which, apart from anything else, is costly for these small volume producers.
Craig: ‘For a few years it (certification) was quite simple, but what we’ve found is the wine producers remain constant but the Wine & Spirit Board and SAWIS tasters/panel are changing. For them it’s just a job to tick a box with what they believe is correct because that’s what the mandate says. Today, the people involved are completely different from those seven years ago, the result being we’re still having the same issues within the same categories we came up with because the education of the panels has not improved.’
That’s one side; the other lies with the producers. The list below shows very few indicate on the label, (where the wine is labelled), whether the wine is skin-macerated or Alternative White. If the wines are to be better understood and accepted, the relevant category should be declared on the label.
It was gratifying that the idea of this tasting was enthusiastically received by all the producers approached and I thank them all for participating. We found it an interesting experience, each of us finding pleasurable wines – even if we wouldn’t necessarily want to drink them every evening.
Perhaps an idea to see developments in these colourful whites in two or three years.
PARTIAL SKIN-MACERATED VARIETAL WINES
Rousseau Grace Sauvignon Blanc Semillon 2018 CONTROL NO SKIN CONTACT
Craven Wines Clairette Blanche 2017
JH Meyer Mother Rock Force Celeste Semillon 2017
Skinny Legs Semillon 2016
PARTIAL SKIN-MACERATED BLENDS
Blackwater Blanc 2017 chenin palomino clairette (unlabelled & as yet uncertified)
Avondale Cyclus 2014 roussanne viognier chenin semillon chardonnay
Springfontein Dark Side of the Moon 2015 chenin pinotage chardonnay
Elemental Bob My Cosmic Hand White chenin semillon viognier roussanne verdelho
FULLY SKIN-MACERATED VARIETAL WINES
Springfontein Skins Agleam Daredevils’ Drums 2017 sauvignon blanc Skins macerated white
Dragonridge Cygnus 2015 chenin blanc
Dragonridge Aldebaran 2017 chenin blanc Alternative white
Intellego Elementis 2016 chenin blanc Skin contact
Jasper Wickens Chenin Blanc 2017 Natural skin-fermented
JH Meyer Mother Rock Liquid Skin Chenin Blanc 2017 Alternative white
Smiley Spesiale 2017 chenin blanc
Testalonga El Bandito Skin 2017 chenin blanc 10 days skin maceration
Baby Bandito Stay Brave 2017 chenin blanc Macerated for 11 days
Môrelig Skin Macerated Chenin Blanc 2018
Elemental Bob Retro Chenin Blanc 2016
Maanschijn Spin Cycle 2017 verdelho
Bosman Fides Grenache Blanc 2017 Skin macerated
Thorne and Daughters Tin Soldier 2017 semillon gris Skin fermented
Jasper Wickens RooiGroen Semillon 2017
Raised by Wolves Rooi Groen Semillon 2016
Fram Grenache Gris 2017
Maanschijn Easy Tiger 2017 grenache gris
Richard Hilton The Ancient Viognier 2017 Skin macerated
Craven Pinot Gris 2017
El Bandito Sweet Cheeks 2017 Muscat d’Alexandrie 11 days skin contact
FULLY SKIN-MACERATED BLENDS
Maanschijn Muscat de Frontignan Grenache Gris 2018