Orange wines are undoubtedly becoming more prominent worldwide, but in the Terra Alta wine region in northeast Spain, skin-contact white wines—produced throughout Catalunya and known locally as brisat—hold historical importance.
For centuries, the brisat technique was the predominant way to produce white wine in the region. As new ideas came into vogue and modern winemaking equipment became available, winemakers shifted towards fresh, youthful white wines. Though historical, the tannic, savory brisat wines didn’t fit neatly into the Terra Alta DO’s parameters of wine classification.
But more recently, local producers have revived brisat wines in a more elegant, finessed style. To honor the tradition and capitalize on orange wine’s growing popularity, Terra Alta officially recognized these skin-fermented wines as part of its DO in its 2022 bylaw revisions. The category, officially known as Vi Brisat, is the first and only official designation for skin-contact white wines in Spain. Here’s a look at the history of these wines, what the new designation means for producers, and what to expect in wine markets beyond Spain.
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A Historic Past of Skin-Contact Winemaking
Francesc Ferré, one half of the brotherly duo that makes up Celler Frisach, says brisat wines are found throughout Catalonia. The brothers lacked modern equipment in their 80-year-old cellar when they began producing their own estate wine in 2009, but that didn’t deter them. “The reason we started making brisat is because we didn’t need the technology,” he says.
In fact, the brisat method of winemaking was born out of a lack of resources, dating back to a time when equipment like presses, destemmers, and tanks did not exist. According to the Terra Alta DO’s specifications, novelist and poet Joan Perucho and artist Pablo Picasso knew of Terra Alta’s brisats in the first half of the 19th century. Farmers seeking to make wine for home consumption put whole bunches of white grapes in large, underground, concrete tanks (some as large as 10,000 liters) called trulls. The grapes, most commonly the phenolic Garnatxa Blanca, would ferment on the skins until completely dry.
“The process is a fermentation the same as red wine, and this is the origin of the brisat wines in Terra Alta,” says Ferré. “The orange wines in Georgia [are] the same.”
Over time, modern winemaking techniques entered the region—local winemakers like Ferré call wines that are directly pressed after harvest “virgin” wines—but many producers prefer to incorporate varying levels of skin contact, carried out in vessels besides trulls, in their white winemaking. Celler Frisach, for example, makes three brisat wines, each with varying amounts of time on the skins.
The Need for a New Category
Though the brisat wine tradition was never abandoned in Terra Alta—or in Catalunya as a whole—with no official designation for this category, brisat wines have fallen under the DO’s white wine definition. All wines in Terra Alta DO are subject to a tasting panel assessment before they can carry the DO label. “I think there have been some examples of wines being disqualified organoleptically because it didn’t fulfill the criteria of the white wine specifications because it was a brisat wine,” says Rafael de Haan, who runs Herència Altés along with his wife Nuria Altés.
The couple, who founded their solar-powered winery in 2010, make two styles of brisat: a rich, phenolic style, and a fresher style with less skin contact. This winemaking tradition also muddied the definition of what was considered a white wine in the region. “It created a little bit of confusion in the market because obviously if you buy something labeled as a white wine and it’s orange, it may not meet your expectations,” says de Haan.
Noticing that more producers of all sizes in Terra Alta have begun producing brisat wines recently—a result of the region leaning into larger demand for orange wine, and better understanding of ways to make finessed skin-contact wine—in late 2021, the regulatory council of the Terra Alta DO decided it was time to implement new bylaws. “[Brisat] is a historical type of elaboration in the Terra Alta,” explains Jordi Rius Gironés, the secretary for the Terra Alta DO. “They have always been wines with a lot of power in the mouth, intense color, and high alcohol levels.”
However, today’s brisat producers are taking a new approach to brisat. “Recently, with the use of new, less aggressive processing techniques, a new generation of these wines has been introduced,” says Rius Gironés.
Wines labeled Vi Brisat must be made from a minimum of 85 percent Garnatxa Blanca, Macabeu, or a blend of both, and the must is required to ferment either partially or fully with the skins. According to Rius Gironés, they must “oscillate between straw yellow and amber” in color; show vegetal and botanical notes on the nose; and may present a “slight oxidation” on the palate.
International Perceptions of Terra Alta Brisat
Rius Gironés says creating an official category for orange wine allows the DO to capture the orange wine wave while offering them something authentic from the region. “From our point of view, linking a [signature variety like Garnatxa Blanca] to a production area—and if we add to it a different and indigenous elaboration—helps to position a production area worldwide,” he says.
However, orange wine can still be a tough sell in some markets. “The challenge that [the orange wine] category faces is that it’s often bundled up into the natural wine category, which can put a lot of people off,” says de Haan. He says natural wines are often perceived to have funky flavors, but the team at Herència Altés—which follows the guidelines outlined by the organization VinNatur, an international organization of winemakers that conducts research and educates members on low-intervention practices—produces wine with a clean profile.
“We see the brisat category starting to open up to regular wine drinkers who, hitherto, would not choose an orange wine as they either don’t understand what it is, or think it likely to be a natural wine with the risk of strange, unclean flavors,” adds de Haan. “That is why it is so important to debunk the myth that orange wines only fit one particular style.”
Eric Clemons, the owner of import and distribution company Coeur Wine Co., however, has his doubts. “I don’t think it will have much impact, to be honest,” he says. “Skin-contact wines have become more and more popular every year without any [DO or AOC] creating official labeling terms, so I fail to see how it will help.” Although he doesn’t believe we’ll see more brisat wines from the Terra Alta DO wines hit the market, as he thinks many making the style will prefer to skip the DO accreditation in general as they haven’t needed it up to this point, he does think we’ll see more skin-contact wines without denominations stateside.
But even if DO-sanctioned orange wines have a small impact on international markets, it could have bigger ramifications domestically. René Barbier Meyer, the co-owner and winemaker of Clos Mogador and Venus La Universal, makes four brisat wines from different appellations in Catalonia, and sees production increasing, especially in Tarragona and Penedès.
“It’s growing very fast,” he says. “And now the next steps are for the appellations to put the brisat concept on the label. I think it’s interesting to have the same concept for all the appellations.”
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Shana Clarke is a wine, sake, and travel writer, and the author of 150 Vineyards You Need To Visit Before You Die. Her work has appeared in Saveur, Fortune, NPR, Wine Enthusiast, and Hemispheres. She was shortlisted for the Louis Roederer 2020 International Wine Writers’ Awards and ranked one of the “Top 20 U.S. Wine Writers That Wineries Can Work With” by Beverage Trade Network in 2021. She holds a Level 3 Advanced Certificate from Wine & Spirit Education Trust and is a Certified Sake Sommelier. She will always say yes to a glass of Champagne. Learn more at www.shanaspeakswine.com and follow her @shanaspeakswine.