Rioja ‘rosados’ and ‘claretes’ are taking markets by storm

Summer is just around the corner, so it’s time to stop thinking about red wines for a few months and begin to savor whites and rosés.

Given the explosion of sales of red Rioja it can be easy to overlook what’s happening with white and especially, rosé. In the short time since Inside Rioja last explored rosé in Rioja, a lot has happened.

At that time I wrote:

Rioja actually produces two styles of pink wines: rosado and clarete. At first glance, the difference is merely color, with rosado a medium reddish pink and clarete a very pale orange.

 At the end of the article was a comment about some possible changes:

I was also surprised to see a bottle of Muga rosé with a much paler pink color than in the past. Maybe clarete or at least pale orange-tinted rosés have an international future.


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Benchmarks-the old (Mateus rosé from Portugal) and the new (Pure from Provence)

 There have indeed been changes here, but first, let’s review how pink wines in Rioja have traditionally been made. One style, called rosado, is vinified with tempranillo and/or garnacha with skins in contact with the juice for a few hours to extract color but no skin contact during fermentation. The other is clarete, where both red and white grapes are fermented with the skins, producing a very pale pink wine. The regulations of the Rioja DOC require that at least 25% of a clarete blend must be made from red grape varieties so a clarete could have as much as 75% of white grapes.

Originally, claretes were made mainly in the upper valley of the Najerilla river in Rioja Alta around the villages of San Asensio, Cordovin, Badarán, Azofra and Alesanco. This style has become so popular in northern Spain that clarete lovers just ask for “un Cordovin”. The area around the Najerilla valley celebrates its relationship with clarete by organizing a ‘Batalla del clarete’ that takes place on a Sunday in the second half of July in San Asensio.

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A clarete from Bodegas Ontañón (Photo: Tom Perry)

Today we can say that pale orange tinted rosés and clarete are gaining in popularity both in Spain and internationally. Probably the first sign of change came as a consequence of the increase in worldwide sales of rosés from Provence with their characteristic pale pink color.

Sales of Provence rosé (Source:  Wine Market Review based on statistics from French Customs)

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Rioja wineries wanted to take advantage of this increase in demand for very pale rosés but were forbidden from doing so because the Rioja Regulatory Board defined rosé as having higher color intensity. It took some time before wineries were able to get the definition changed. Today, the rule for the minimum color intensity of a Rioja rosé is .1UA/cm, measured as the sum of A420+A520+A620. This allows very pale rosés to be made.

For the non-tech minded, basically it’s using photospectrometry to measure the wine’s capacity to absorb light at three wave levels: 420, 520 and 620 nanometers. A lighter intensity will have a lower number and vice-versa. For example, in Rioja, the minimum color intensity for a red is 3.5 UA.

Now, Rioja rosés are available from very pale pink to light red to meet demand in different markets. Some wineries like CVNE and Barón de Ley make more than one style.


(Photo:  Tom Perry)

There’s a huge range of rosados and clarets from Rioja in the marketplace. Try a pale rosé, a clarete and a darker-hued rosé. I’m sure you’ll love the comparison!






Rioja’s rocking rosés

Even though Rioja primarily produces reds, it wasn’t always so. The Najerilla river valley, known for its pink wines, provides a fascinating glimpse of Rioja’s history and current winemaking techniques.

Rioja actually produces two styles of pink wines: rosado and clarete.  At first glance, the difference is merely color, with rosado a medium reddish pink and clarete a very pale orange.  However, the two styles are made differently. Rosados are vinified like whites, except for short contact with the skins to extract a little color, while clarets are vinified like reds, with red and white grapes fermented together with the skins. According to Ezequiel García, El Brujo , the legendary 82-year old former winemaker at CVNE and Bodegas Olarra, the name clarete comes from the fact that in Rioja Alta and Alavesa there were traditionally more white grapes than red and both colors were found in the same vineyard.  When a particular vineyard was harvested, both the red and white grapes were dumped into open lagos or closed vats and fermented with the skins.  The fermented juice was a pale red, called clarete.  CVNE used to label this red wine as clarete. I’m not sure, but perhaps the British term for red Bordeaux – claret – coming from the French clairet has a similar origin, although today, claret refers to red Bordeaux and clarete in Rioja, to a very pale, orange tinted rosé. This color is referred to as ‘ojo de gallo’ or rooster eye.

Ezequiel García 'El Brujo'

Ezequiel García ‘El Brujo’

While production of rosado is larger than clarete in Rioja, the latter has quite a following, especially in northern Spain.  In Bilbao, people often ask for ‘un cordovin’ referring to the village in the Najerilla valley where much of Rioja’s clarete is produced.  Other well-known clarete villages are Badarán, Cárdenas, Azofra and Hormilla.  San Asensio however is the best-known place for clarete and the town even celebrates a clarete battle near the end of July.

San Asensio's 'batalla del clarete'

San Asensio’s ‘batalla del clarete’

Clarete was traditionally made with the white varietal viura and the red garnacha, a variety that used to be abundant in the valley.  One of the claretes I saw in a wine shop, from Hormilla, had 70% viura, 20% tempranillo and 10% garnacha.  Rosado, on the other hand, is almost always a blend of red varietals: in Rioja, tempranillo and garnacha, or 100% tempranillo. The regulations of the Rioja DOC require that at least 25% of a rosé or clarete blend must be made from red grape varieties so a clarete could have as much as 75% white juice.

Left, a Rioja rosé.  Center and right, claretes.

Left, a Rioja rosé. Center and right, claretes.

The clarete style is gaining popularity. Several producers are labeling their wines as such, a surprise to me because I didn’t think the name was officially allowed by the Rioja Regulatory Council, but since the end of 2011, it is.

I was also surprised to see a bottle of Muga rosé with a much paler pink color than in the past.  Maybe clarete or at least pale orange-tinted rosés have an international future.

A Rioja labeled 'clarete'

A Rioja labeled ‘clarete’

Wine battles in La Rioja (the healthy kind)

In La Rioja, celebrations often include spraying participants with wine.  These are not manifestations of some atavistic warlike trait, but rather acts steeped in tradition.

In La Rioja two of the most important events of this kind are the Haro wine battle, celebrated on June 29 and the clarete battle, held on July 25 (Saint James’s Day – Santiago, the patron saint of Spain) or on the following Sunday.

The Haro wine battle probably began in the late 19th century during a pilgrimage to a spot on a hill overlooking the Ebro in honor of St. Felices de Bilibio, a hermit in the 6th century who lived in these hills.  During the meal, the pilgrims, no doubt under the effects of copious amounts of alcohol, began to throw wine at one another.

Today, thousands of locals and tourists gather in the main square of Haro early in the morning where they walk or ride up to the site of the battle.  After celebrating Mass, the battle begins.  20,000 liters of wine are sprayed by the participants from squirt guns, wineskins, buckets and industrial sprayers until the participants, who arrived dressed in white, are drenched in red wine.

The clarete battle in San Asensio began much later, in 1977 during a meal organized by one of the peñas (social clubs) that liven up festivals in most Spanish towns and cities.  Here, between 25,000 and 30,000 liters of clarete are sprayed around by the 1,300 residents of the village, joined by over 4,000 partygoers from other parts of Spain and abroad.

During other local festivals, large groups of young people gather in the main square waiting for the rocket signalling the beginning of the festival to be shot off.  After the rocket, the revellers throw flour, wine and eggs at one another.

The food fight par excellence, however, has to be the tomatina, held in Buñol, a village in the province of Valencia, where tons of ripe tomatoes are unloaded by dump trucks and thrown by the villagers and outsiders at one another.

I see this as a healthy way to let off steam and to get one in the mood of the local festival, a week of dancing, eating and drinking that takes place in every village, town and city in Spain.

Given the current state of our economy, a little escapism like this has to be a good thing!

Photo:  the clarete battle of San Asensio.  Photo credit:  La Rioja

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!