Dear Friends of Flatiron,
Last week we embarked on a journey through symbiotic pairings with umami-rich foods. For shellfish and crustaceans, flor is the way for me, but what about the “deeper” umami flavors found in things like black olives or in gamey meat dishes and heavily spiced legumes? The answer for me is skin-contact wines. Join me as we delve deeper into these persimmon-hued beauties and what makes them the perfect partners for some of the most notoriously challenging food pairings.
Called either orange, amber, skin-contact or ramato, these are wines that are made by fermenting grapes normally made into white wines on their skins. Just like over steeping green tea, which leads a darker and not-so-green beverage, keeping the grape skins in contact with the juice yields a deeper color in the resulting wine. In turn, these wines display the floral, citrus and orchard fruit qualities of white wines, but the textural qualities and savory notes of reds. They are perfect umami-pairing wines because they amplify the inner sweetness of meats like pork and lamb as well with cheese and mushrooms while also being able to stand up to bold spice flavors in Indian, Mexican, Asian and Caribbean cuisines.
Don’t, however, be fooled into thinking that skin-contact wines are a recent trend. The way these wines are made has been practiced continuously for over 10,000 years. Fermenting white wine grapes on their skins to achieve a deep rusty amber color is standard in the Republic of Georgia where the oldest evidence of winemaking can be found. In 2015, I was fortunate enough to go on a wine trip to Georgia and was astounded by the cuisine. Gooey cheese filled breads, fenugreek-tinted meats and vegetables take center stage along with sauces thickened with ground walnuts and mushrooms submerged in garlic and butter. I quickly discovered on this trip that the best pairing for these types of foods is the traditional amber skin-contact style of wine that Georgia is known for.
We recently got in the 2016 Kisi from Doqi, located in the Kakheti region. A combination of golden plum, dried apricot, chrysanthemum and hazelnut are given depth and texture from the tannins imparted from the prolonged skin-contact and from the mineral notes of the clay vessels the wine is fermented and aged in. I drank a bottle of this with some chaat I got from Indian Paradox, a fun and authentic street food inspired restaurant on Divisadero and Haight. The interplay of sweet, salty, sour and spicy of the food are echoed in the wine and bring out the more subtle spicing underneath the more dominating flavors.
What is tradition in Georgia is avant-garde to the rest of the world. Skin-contact, orange, amber. Whatever you choose to call these wines, the name seems always to fail to fully capture what the wine itself expresses. Legendary wines have risen from Georgian-inspired techniques like those from Josko Gravner and Radikon. But they were just the beginning. Skin-contact wines can now be found all over the world and from grapes that have historically never been vinified in that way. The 2017 Marsanne from Oakstone Vineyard by Purity Wines is one such wine. It is a full and rich, ginger-colored wine full of lush flavors of macerated orange peel, walnuts and Indian spices. A wine like this sings with exotic flavors and is possibly the only truly great wine pairing I’ve ever had with spicy jerk chicken.
As wine styles across the globe become more and more diverse it’s clear that the idea that some foods just don’t go with wine is false. Something as ancient and omnipresent as wine has a place at the table with every flavor. Tastemakers just might not have found the right style yet. But lucky for us, winemakers are an adventurous bunch who are happy to try just about anything. Skin-contact style wines are only one of the newest trends to gain popularity, but all signs indicated that there is much more excitement to be expected in the future.