Skin Contact Is How Wines Get (or Don't Get) Their Color

Last week's post on our Pinot Grigio Nation reminded me of the first time I visited a winery, when I was 20 years old. I was a senior in college at U.C.L.A. (majoring in Italian), and I made a road trip to northern California with some European friends to visit the wine country. During a tour of the Sebastiani winery, I asked the guide whether or not you could make a white wine from red grapes. Appearing annoyed by my inquiry, he swiftly responded, "No, you can't. White wine is made from white grapes; red wine is made from red grapes."

If you've been following along here at Wine Time, you know that he was wrong. In fact, one of the world's most famous and recognizable white wines is made from red grapes: The primary grape used in Champagne is Pinot Noir.

Of course, there's another, even more ubiquitous, white wine made from red grapes, Pinot Grigio, like the one recently launched in the U.S. market by actor-cum-winemaker Drew Barrymore.

How does a winemaker deliver a white wine from red grapes?

Answer: By separating the grapes from the skins after the juice is pressed from the bunches.

Wines get their color from the anthocyanins and polymeric pigments in the grape skins.

If the juice and skins are separated after pressing, even a highly tannic, thick-skinned grape like Cabernet Sauvignon will produce a white wine.

If the skins of red grapes are macerated in the juice for a limited period of time, a rosé wine can be produced, like the rosés from Mourvèdre and Grenache produced in Bandol, France, or the vin gris made in Burgundy from Pinot Noir.

If the skins are macerated in the juice for an extended period of time, a very dark wine can be obtained, as in the case of Shiraz from Australia.

I'm still looking (unsuccessfully) for a bottle of Drew Barrymore's wine in Texas. But gauging from the photo I've seen on her importer's Web site, I gather that her wine -- produced using a red grape, Pinot Grigio (yes, it's a red grape; see above) -- has been made with no skin contact.

Why is Pinot Grigio generally vinified in this manner? Answer: Because the world's most famous producer of Pinot Grigio -- you don't need me to tell you the brand -- changed the course of history when it began aggressively marketing "white" Pinot Grigio to Americans more than 30 years ago.

For the brave among us interested in tasting a skin-contact Pinot Grigio, there are a few available in the Houston market, including the Tommasi Pinot Grigio Ramato (i.e., copper-colored) for under $15 at Spec's and the Bressan Pinot Grigio Ramato for around $42 at the Houston Wine Merchant.

I'm eager to ask Barrymore how/what she feels about skin contact and will report back just as soon as I hear from her. Stay tuned...

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