The flavour-packed skin of grapes and why it matters

Stanners Vineyard is an artisanal, family-owned and operated winery located near the village of Hillier in Prince Edward County. Try its Pinot Gris Cuivré for a good skin-contact wine. (Photo: Remi Theriault)

Stanners Vineyard is an artisanal, family-owned and operated winery located near the village of Hillier in Prince Edward County. Try its Pinot Gris Cuivré for a good skin-contact wine. (Photo: Remi Theriault)

Most wine grapes’ characteristics and colour come from the skins. Grape pulp houses sugars, water and acids, but it’s the thin protective layer that gives the grape its true character. Tannins, volatile aromatic compounds and bitterness all come from the skin. And upon it? Blooms of yeast, the inoculant for fermentation, can be found on the skin itself.
Red and white grapes may spend some time macerating with their skins after being crushed. The varietal, alongside the winemaker’s choices, will determine how long the skins are in contact with the juice. Early on, at colder temperatures and prior to any alcohol formation, the extraction process will be slower, gradually speeding up as the vigours of fermentation heat up the mixture. The creation of alcohol will exacerbate this extraction. Deciding when to remove the juice from skins depends on the winemaker’s goal.
Notably, almost all reds will see skin contact: this is where, for the most part, they derive colour. In a few rare cases, the pulp is also red and, as such, the juice when initially pressed will also be red. These varietals are known as teinturier grapes. Alicante Bouschet, Marechal Foch and Saperavi are the most common, though they are still rarely seen. On the flip side, Blanc de Noirs Champagne is a white wine made out of Pinot noir and Pinot Meunier, two red grapes that see zero time on their skins, making a white wine from red grapes.
Rosés are typically a lightly pressed red, and not often a blend of red and white wines. Rosé Champagne is an outlier, as some red will be blended in post-fermentation to add colour. In table wines and sparklings outside of Champagne, a short maceration time will give colour and complexity, ideally without introducing too many tannins, as the aim is to create a lighter, more delicate style that may be lost behind too much tannic grip. Light reds often ride the line between rosés and reds: don’t expect to see a Pinot Noir on skins for too long. It’s about finding that delicate balance between the textural grip and the volatile oils and compounds in the skin.
There is often a misconception that white wines don’t see any skin contact and this is true for some bottlings. Italian-styled Pinot Grigios tend to have no time on skins, but they’re also picked early to retain a high acidity and low alcohol. In essence, their very being aims to create a neutral, approachable “house white” style. A little skin contact can go a long way in providing more body, texture and truer iteration of the grape and winemaker’s intentions.
If the white winemaker decides to extend skin contact to more than a few days, the wine will take on even more of those colour compounds, tannins and skin characteristics. Depending on the varietal, these wines might turn orange. Some, such as Stanners Pinot Gris Cuivré turn a veritable copper, as the Pinot Gris grape is more pink-hued than the green most white grapes tend to be.
Extended maceration into the realm of orange is typically reserved for highly aromatic grapes with thicker skins and higher acid. Flavours of Orange Pekoe tea, dried white flowers, nuts and tropical fruits tend to abound, though texturally the wine will be closer to robust red than most whites. The acidity is important as it’ll help keep the tannic grip in check, while the higher aromatics provide more depth to the finished wine. Grapes such as Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc are typical.
Recommendations: Groupe Soleil wine agency carries a plethora of Blanc de Noir Champagnes from artisanal growers throughout the region. Stanners Pinot Gris Cuivré is available from the winery in Hillier, Prince Edward County, or is available on its website at
Classic orange wine producers worth seeking out are Pheasant’s Tears (from wine agent All the Right Grapes) and from Gravner (The Living Vine).

Tristan Bragaglia-Murdock likes pouring wine at Fauna almost as much as he likes writing about it, drinking and making it.

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Category: Delights

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Tristan Bragaglia-Murdock manages the wine lists at Jabberwocky and Union 613.

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