In the Spain of the Middle Ages, centuries before the country’s boom of barrel-aged reds, there was a pink wine drunk in copious amounts called clarete. Over time, it fell to obscurity and those who aren’t Spaniards or scholars of obscure wine may not have heard of this historic style. And yet, while this sounds like the start of a vinous fairy tale, there’s a surprise twist: These are wines you can buy today for around $20 — and you’ll be thrilled that you did.
Bodegas Honorio, Lias Finas Clarete, Cordovin, Rioja
Clarete is the flagship style wine of Bodegas Honorio in Rioja and what defines the family winery. Clarete has a long tradition in the Cordovin province of Rioja and winemaker Honorio Rubio celebrates and preserves its legacy. There are three tiers of Honorio wine collections, and the Lias Finas Clarete, made of 60 percent Viura and 40 percent Garnacha, is part of the limited- edition, small-production series made biodynamically. Average Price: $16
I recently tried my first clarete, the Finca Torremilanos Ojo de Gallo from Ribera del Duero. It had ripe red cherry aromas with orange peel and a touch of lime. It was fresh and juicy with tart acidity and a subtle tannic grip. I was completely enamored. My fellow American, James Dillman, sommelier at Michelin-starred Spanish restaurant Casa Mono in New York City, is also new to this elusive juice. For him, tasting the wine for the first time brought a “complexity that I’ve never experienced before.”
Native to northern Spain, primarily Ribera del Duero and Cigales, clarete is a wine that exists within its own distinct category. It’s not a red, a white, or a rosé — it is clarete.
While the wine resembles a light red or dark rosé, it’s made in a way that’s not quite either. Clarete is a blend of red and white grapes. The grapes tend to be grown on old vines, and the juice is co-fermented on its skins like a traditional red wine. Typical clarete varietals are Tempranillo and Viura, but Garnacha, Bobal, Albillo, Malvasia, and other grapes can also be part of the concoction.
To those not versed in clarete, it presents an intriguing — even exotic — style that many wine drinkers can appreciate, especially fans of rosé, chillable reds, skin-contact whites, and glou glou styles. But the thing about clarete is it’s not just another quaffable rosé-like field blend. It’s treated like a more serious wine, carefully fermented for structure and aged in barrel or on its lees for complexity.
“You get some texture from it as well, you get a little of those tannins sometimes, too, from it depending on how long it macerates, which is really cool to see on a rosé,” Dillman says.
Elizabeth Gabay, MW, author of “Rosé: Understanding the Pink Wine Revolution,” elaborates on the many appealing dimensions of clarete. “It has weight, it has a little bit of tannin that you could hold together with a little bit of oak,” she says. “With Ribera del Duero and Cigales being high-altitude vineyards, they often have that lovely fresh acidity.”
Gabay also emphasizes the unique character of the white and red grape blend. In addition to the tart red berry notes from the red grapes, “one thing that makes them quite interesting is because they often use Albillo that gives it a little bit of floral character, which is rather nice,” Gabay says. “The range of grapes is enormous that they can use, so there are a lot of different styles.”
Clarete’s Deep Roots
Clarete is widely speculated to be the original pink wine, long before the term rosé was thrown in the mix. “There’s no way of absolutely proving which style was first,” Gabay says. “It is open for interpretation and it’s my interpretation that clarete was the original.”
While the exact origins of clarete are unknown, early history points to a peasant wine made in small, underground wineries dating back to more than 1,000 years. Its lore is largely a word-of-mouth legacy surrounding this style of wine that used to be ubiquitous in northern Spain and parts of France.
Whether or not it was clarete’s place of origin, clarete is the original wine of Spain’s Ribera del Duero, says Vicente Peñalba, an owner of Finca Torremilanos, Ribera del Duero’s second-oldest winery, founded in 1903. “People didn’t use to produce red wines in this region,” he explains. “They used to blend red and white varieties in order to make light red wines for people to drink.”
Dating back to the 12th century, there are some 10 miles of underground wineries that have been documented in Aranda de Duero, the Ribera del Duero province where Finca Torremilanos is located, Peñalba says. Each underground cellar, or lagar, was where winemaking families would press, blend, ferment, and age all the red and white grapes they had co-fermented in large 1,000- to 2,000-liter barrels. These were easy-drinking, fresh, and light wines meant to be consumed all within their current vintage to make way for the next year’s harvest.
Clarete wines are also interesting from a viticultural perspective. Each family made a signature wine from a specific blend of grapes. These grapes didn’t just get fermented together; they were actually co-planted together, which was a common growing practice before the Industrial Revolution.
Clarete in the Modern Day
Clarete wines languished in the mid-20th century as Spanish wine regions looked to capitalize on market trends, focusing on big reds. In the early 1980s when the Ribera del Duero appellation was officially established, the push for big red wines was so strong that white wine production wasn’t even allowed under the appellation’s regulations. This sparked the removal of a lot of old white grape vines. “They took out some that were 80, 90 years old, and they were great vines, but they took them away to plant Tempranillo,” Peñalba says.
These days, clarete is enjoying a small comeback, with spectacular examples produced across northern Spain, including Ribera del Duero, Rioja, Navarra, and with the most concentration in Cigales. “I think more winemakers right now are taking that risk of making what they actually want; making something that they want to drink,” Dillman says. A perfect example of this is Peñalba’s family’s Finca Torremilanos Ojo de Gallo. “My brother created this wine because it was an opportunity to bring us back to our origins,” says Peñalba. After all, clarete was the first and only wine made by Finca Torremilanos in its early days. And after all these years, it continues to surprise and delight.