The roots of rosé are firmly planted in Spain. Long before Ribera del Duero put its focus on Tempranillo, the local rosé called clarete was front and center. In fact, some say rosé got its start in all of Europe, including France and the Iberian peninsula.
But whether in Spain or France, pale red wine actually got its start centuries before. When the Phoenicians and Greeks were making wine in 300 BC and 600 BC respectively, they didn’t have the time or the inclination to wait for grape skins to leech color into the juice during extended maceration nor did they have the know-how to do so. Instead, they made the wine and drank it with almost no time in between the make and the drink. Speculation is that the quick fermentation probably meant the color of the wine they drank was tinged with pink and not much more.
Enter Ribera del Duero in Spain’s Castilla y León. For centuries, vineyards in these areas were effectively field blends (many still are). Bush vines of red and white grapes grew side by side and were harvested at the same time. The grapes were bundled and fermented together resulting in a pale red wine. That wine was christened clarete (clar-ET-tay) – the name likely a nod to Bordeaux claret which, when it was first made, was also light in color owing to its brief one- or two-day maceration period.
This method of co-fermentation became the standard winemaking style in these regions and no less, set the stage for Spanish rosé today.
One of the preeminent wine producers in Ribera del Duero is also one of the earliest clarete makers in the region. Bodega Finca Torremilanos is the second oldest winery in Ribera del Duero (after Vega Secilia) and makes a clarete in the traditional style called Ojo Gallo or literally “rooster eye.” For this wine, the winery co-ferments the region’s Tempranillo together with Garnacha, Bobal, Monastrell, Viura, Albillo, and Malvasia. Because most of the grapes are red, the wine is darker than many rosés. You might even be tempted to call it a light red. The fact it comes from vineyards 80 to 180 years old located at an altitude of about 1,800 feet and is aged in neutral barrels on the lees for nine months means this is a wine whose characteristics say “clarete.” This is a modern wine with the distinct flavor of history.
Goyo Garcia Viadero, renowned winemaker in Rua in Ribera del Duero, employs natural winemaking methods when making his wines. In the case of his clarete, he uses a style that harks back to the claret tradition in France. Rather than co-fermenting Tempranillo with white grapes, his is entirely Tempranillo. The grapes are macerated just briefly – again like the original French clarets – and the resulting wine is red. This is Garcia’s definition of clarete. To the wine drinker, this is a great example of a natural clarete with historic precedence.
Indeed, color is not a tell-tale of a clarete since it comes in every shade including peach, pale copper, pale to deep salmon, pale to dark pink, and pale to medium ruby. The aromas and flavors range from fruity and floral to citrusy, cranberry cocktail, fruit punch, and even dried fruit, all with balanced acidity. Sometimes clarete will have a noticeably round texture and mouthfeel; other times it’s light- to medium weight, refreshing, and indisputably quaffable. Light but perceptible or even light-plus tannins may also be apparent, and no matter its color or tannin level, clarete often has surprising complexity.
Interestingly, Ribera del Duero clarete almost became a thing of the past when winemakers in the region decided to focus exclusively on red wine. They ripped out many of the white grapes in their vineyards – the ones previously used for either clarete or blending – and planted the prized Tempranillo instead. Now, as both a nod to tradition, the natural winemaking movement, and to the ever-expanding rosé market, clarete is making a bit of a comeback in the region.
What’s in a name?
In addition to clarete, in Spain you will find bottles labeled either rosé or rosado. These essentially mean the same thing. The wine is made mostly or entirely from red grapes, and the resulting wine color is usually pale pink or salmon to slightly darker pink or even very light red. It’s up to the winery and to some extent the region to determine whether they want to call their wine rosé or rosado. That said, the word rosado is generally recognized as the classic word for Spanish rosé, though again its use is employed at the winery’s discretion. It is not an official designation.
As with rosés everywhere, the specific shade of pink in Ribera del Duero rosés and rosados comes about in one of two ways. “Direct press” is the method that usually results in lighter-hued wines. Here, the red-skinned grapes remain with the skins for just a short time to pick up a little color before they are pressed.
The other method, called sangrado in Spanish or saignée in French, meaning “to bleed,” is one in which a portion of juice is bled off from the tank after a certain number of hours or days of skin and seed contact. The idea is to keep the skins and juice in contact with one other just long enough for the juice to pick up color. The remaining juice is used to make red wine. This method typically produces darker wines than those made using the direct press method.
The use of either method is a juncture in the story of Spanish rosé that separates one winery from another and even one region from the other. Some wineries designate certain vineyards exclusively for their rosé production while others do not. That’s when the sangrado method is put into play as these latter wineries have effectively designated some of their same red grapes for both styles of wine. Some say that by using the sangrado method, the grapes and juice left in the tank after sangrado has taken place will be more concentrated. This makes sense given the fact the skin to juice ratio will have increased. In turn, the resulting red wine theoretically will have greater intensity.
Rosé in Rueda
Ribera del Duero isn’t the only region in Castilla y León that makes rosé. The contiguous Rueda region makes it too. Although known primarily for the exceptional white Verdejo grape, Rueda also grows red grapes. Tempranillo is the primary varietal in the region, but Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, and Garnacha are also Rueda DO-approved red grapes. As a result, wineries there make both still and sparkling rosé.
Just as in Ribera del Duero, in Rueda rosés whether sparkling or still, must be made from at least 50 percent of the authorized red varieties. Some sparkling rosés may earn a special “Gran Añada” designation, which indicates that a period of at least 36 months has passed since the first bottling of the wine until that same wine is disgorged – the step in sparkling winemaking when the temporary cap is removed and replaced with a cork, readying the wine for market. A Gran Añada must also include the vintage year.
Rosé exports climb
Spanish rosé is not just consumed in Spain and the rest of Europe; it is also Europe’s number one rosé exporting country. This is true despite the fact France consumes and makes more rosé than any other European country. According to a 2021 report by Rosé Wine World Tracking, Spain commanded 41 percent of the rosé market in 2019. Italy is the next-highest rosé exporter, and France is third. All together, these three countries make up two-thirds of the global rosé exporters. So, while it may appear that Italian and French rosé take up the lion’s share of store shelves, Spanish rosés/rosados actually have the edge.
Setting the table
No matter what you call it, the rosé wines of Ribera del Duero and Rueda are a magician’s wand at the Spanish table. They love grilled lamb, chicken, and fish – sardines especially; tapas of all stripes – patatas bravas or stuffed pequillos in particular – spicy foods, grilled vegetables, and of course cheese and Spanish jamón. Paella and gazpacho are also perfect rosé companions. Simply put, if it’s on the Spanish table or for that matter, any other, it’s time to open the clarete, rosé, or rosado. Better yet, why not open all three?
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