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!