Clarete vs. rosé – an interesting contrast

Rioja holds a number of surprises for visitors to the region.  As I explained in an earlier post, one of the most popular styles of red Rioja, cosechero, is hard to find outside of northern Spain.  Another well-known style, popularly referred to as clarete, isn’t even defined under Spanish wine law.  It looks like a lightly colored rosé, tastes somewhat like a rosé and is officially classified as a rosé, but there are differences.

The major difference is how clarete is made. Rosés are vinified like whites, that is, the juice ferments without the skins (the color comes from macerating the skins in the juice before fermentation begins).  Clarete, on the other hand, is vinified like a red, with the presence of the skins during fermentation, although for only a short time.

I’m not sure of the origin in Spanish of the word clarete, but it’s possible that it’s related to ‘clairet’, a term used in the past in Bordeaux to describe a red wine with little color (and which the British call ‘claret’ to describe Bordeaux in general). 

Claretes are always made by blending red and white grapes, traditionally garnacha and viura, while Rioja rosé is usually vinified exclusively from red varieties.  Clareteland is an area of Rioja Alta around San Asensio, Hormilla, Badarán, Azofra, Cárdenas and Cordovin (see map below). San Asensio calls itself ‘la capital del clarete’ and celebrates a ‘clarete battle’ every June in which townspeople spray one another with thousands of gallons of the stuff, followed, of course, by a big meal. Spaniards have a thing with throwing food and wine around  (the most famous of these events are the wine battle in Haro here in Rioja and the world-famous tomatina in Buñol near Valencia). I often wonder why the Rioja Consejo Regulador doesn’t promote more of these as a means of dealing with oversupply!

I’ve never seen a clarete outside Spain, but it’s a staple in bars in Rioja, the Basque Country and Cantabria on the north coast of Spain.  Clarete seems to dominate in bars while rosé is more popular in restaurants, supermarkets and wine shops.

Inside Rioja tasted a Rioja clarete and a popular rosé.  Here are my tasting notes:

Murillo Viteri 2008.  12,5% (clarete)

Color:    light salmon.

Nose:    floral, minty.

Palate:   very light mouthfeel, fresh and fruity, with a little tannin

Marqués de Cáceres 2009.  13,5% (rosé)

Color:   medium pink.

Nose:   strawberries, floral

Palate: medium body, reminded me a little of strawberry chewing gum

I thought the Murillo Viteri was uncomplicated, fresh and really easy to drink, a great quaffing wine on its own. Marqués de Cáceres was a more ‘serious’, nuanced wine that will go well with food, and is, in fact, a staple of restaurant wine lists all over Spain.  It’s widely available all over Europe and the USA, too.

Probably the major problem keeping clarete from having  wider consumer appeal is its color, which looks oxidized (which it definitely is not) and could remind you of the color of last night’s mostly empty glass of red that you fill with water to remove the dregs from the bottom of the glass.  If you can accept the color, you will discover what a pleasant, uncomplicated, easy to drink wine it is.

The next time you visit Rioja, order a glass of clarete in a bar.  You won’t be disappointed!


Dealing with borders

One of the most difficult things a potential visitor to Rioja has to deal with is the fact that the wine district is located in three different regions, or comunidades autónomas as they’re called in Spanish:  La Rioja, Álava and Navarra. These are like states in the USA, or länder in Germany – regions with a high degree of local autonomy.  And, as we all know, where there is autonomy, there are regional governments eager to promote the beauty and other attractions of their particular region.

This poses no problem for locals, who drive back and forth across the Ebro every day with scarcely a thought about entering and leaving La Rioja, Álava and Navarra.  It has, however, been the source of some confusion for tourists, who have heard about Rioja wines for years, only to discover that there is no single source of information about accommodations, restaurants and tourist attractions in the area.  In addition, since grapegrowing and winemaking are major sources of employment (and tax revenue) here, the three regional governments work hard to promote ‘their’ Rioja as if the others didn’t exist.

Sometimes this regional focus borders on the absurd, such as holding two harvest festivals, international wine tastings featuring only Riojas from one region and ‘wine bus’ tours that stop at the border.  This is especially confusing because it’s been a tradition for wineries to buy grapes and wine from all over Rioja. For the regional governments, however, the location of the winery is the key.

The Rioja Regulatory Council has worked very hard to bring these regional elements under one umbrella.  In fact, one of the most important accomplishments of the current president, Víctor Pascual, has been to convince the governments of Álava, La Rioja and Navarra to invest in brand Rioja. 

While I’ve always defended the idea of a single, unified PR pitch for Rioja wines, regional autonomy is a fact of life, so today I’m going to point you to the wine tourism websites of La Rioja (roughly speaking, the area south of the Ebro river) and Rioja Alavesa (most of the area on the north bank of the Ebro west of Logroño).

Both the Rioja Alavesa Wine Route and the La Rioja Tourism websites contain a wealth of information about wine villages, wineries, accommodation, restaurants and other attractions that will help wine tourists make the most of their visit to our region.

I hope that this information, as well as Inside Rioja will make your trip here as enjoyable as possible.

2009 Rioja harvest ‘very good’

 The Rioja Regulatory Council has just announced that it has given a ‘very good’ rating to the 2009 harvest.

The Council explained in a press release that 273,3 million liters of wine from the 2009 harvest were approved by tasting panels in Rioja and consequently granted ‘Denominación de Origen Calificada’ status.  1,8 million liters were rejected by the tasting panels.

How does this procedure work?  After the wineries have vinified grapes from the harvest, samples are collected by the Council’s inspectors, normally after malolactic fermentation is complete.  Each sample represents a batch of no more than 100.000 liters of wine.  The samples are tasted blind by a rotating panel of winemakers and other expert tasters from the region and are also analyzed by one of the three official laboratories in Haro, Laguardia and Olite.

If a sample is judged to be of inferior quality, the producer is allowed to appeal and the sample retasted.  If accepted after the second tasting, it officially becomes Rioja.  If not, it has to be sold off as table wine.

Among others, the parameters measured by chemical analysis are

  • Alcohol
  • Tartaric acid
  • pH
  • Volatile acidity
  • Total SO2 (sulphur dioxide)
  • Color index
  • Total polyphenol index

This is probably Greek to most people, so I’ll try to provide some insights about the most significant data.

First of all, the average level of alcohol in the wines analyzed from the 2009 harvest was 13,8% and the total polyphenol index was 59,71.  Both of these values are the highest of any vintage in the last ten years.  In the case of alcohol level, it indicates that grapes were very ripe when picked (the more sugar in the grape, the higher the potential alcohol in the wine) and confirms a trend toward ‘bigger’ wines.  It will probably be hard to find any Rioja from 2009 with less than 13,5% alcohol, a controversial state of affairs at a time when the market seems to be evolving toward elegance rather than power.

The total polyphenol index of almost 60 is a good sign, as it can vary from 36 to 80, and the higher the number, the better.  Polyphenols such as resveratrol in red wines have been touted for their antioxidative (anti-aging) properties in cells.  It might be worthwhile for wineries to advertise the fact that their red wines are high in polyphenols, and although the anti-drinks lobby will probably not allow them to say anything about this on the label, talking about it on the winery’s website is probably OK.  Any help a brand can get in these tough economic times is bound to be good.

The average pH of the 2009 wines was 3,72 – also the highest in the last ten years.  Because wine is acidic, (i.e. with a pH of less than 7, with 7 the pH of water, and more than 7 alcaline, in principle, a pH of 4 or more is a sign of a flabby wine. A pH of around 3,60 for a red is probably better.

 For a Rioja vintage to be classified ‘very good’, the sum of the samples analyzed and tasted as ‘excellent’+‘very good’ + ‘good’ must be equal to or greater than 70% and the sum of ‘excellent’ and ‘very good’, equal to or greater than 35%.

The Council also has a downstream process where samples are taken from the market, that is, from wine shops and supermarkets around the world, which are analyzed.

I believe that this rigorous analytical and blind tasting process as well as consistently high quality has given Rioja enormous credibility as a wine region.

For your information, the ratings since 1998 have been:

 1998:  very good                  2004:  excellent

1999:  good                          2005:  excellent

2000:  good                          2006:  very good

2001:  excellent                    2007:  very good

2002:  good                          2008:  very good

2003:  good                          2009:  very good

Photo credit:  Rioja Regulatory Council

The New York Times praises Rioja ‘crianzas’

Rioja has struggled to become a mainstream wine in the USA.  We currently sell about 8 million bottles there, a much lower number than our two leading European markets (after Spain) – the UK, where over 31 million bottles are sold and Germany, with almost 19 million bottles. I think the main reason is that consumers in the USA are used to identifying wines by grape varietal rather than region and Rioja doesn’t fit that mold.

It was satisfying, therefore, to read in the ‘Wines of The Times’ column of the New York Times on March 31

that Eric Asimov, the NYT’s peripatetic wine writer, has called Rioja ‘crianza’ one of the wine world’s finest values following a panel tasting of 20 brands of ‘crianza’.

Asimov has long been a fan of ‘traditional’ Riojas, especially Viña Tondonia, which he has featured several times in his column. He once again shows a strong preference for the light, silky elegant style of Rioja, which he calls “unlike wines made anywhere else in the world”.

I’ve gone on record many times in favor of this style of Rioja which has sadly fallen out of favor against the oaky ‘in your face’, 14% fruit bombs that have been made popular by the New World.

Another eminent wine blogger, Alder Yarrow, creator of Vinography, has also come out in favor of less oak in Spanish wines.  In a recent interview in Snooth he was asked what wine trend he thought (or hoped) was almost over.  His answer was “the winemakers of Spain abusing their beautiful wines with egregious amounts of new oak”.

I hope Asimov’s kudos and Yarrow’s remarks inspire other wineries in Rioja to return to a lighter, more balanced, elegant style which goes so well with food, even fish.  I for one will continue to drink them and I hope you will, too!