The idea of white grapes in rosé may come as a surprise to some. Surely not! Yet the blending of red and white grapes has a long history, and the practice is still used for many rosés.
Making wine with red and white grapes is an ancient tradition. Olivier de Serres, an agriculturalist in the late 16th century, recommended planting five or six varieties in the vineyards to offset the risk of crop failure or disease, resulting in different combinations of grapes every year. The grapes would be harvested together, at various levels of ripeness, then crushed together and co-fermented.
The practice of blending white grapes in red wines has continued in regions such as the Northern Rhône (Syrah and Viognier), Rioja (Tempranillo and Viura), and Tuscany (Chianti DOCG allows blends of Sangiovese and other red grapes to include the white varieties Trebbiano and Malvasia, among others). The small proportion of white varieties is credited with softening harsh tannins. In the Northern Rhône, producers claim that Viognier helps fix pigmentation, creating deeper-colored red wines. Rather than Marsanne and Roussanne, Viognier is used because producers prefer the floral notes it gives to the wines. The style has also been adopted in Australia, where co-fermented Shiraz-Viognier blends are popular.
Elsewhere, co-fermentation remains rare, largely because most winemakers feel early blending is too risky and eliminates the opportunity to adjust the wine through later blending. Different ripening times can also cause concern. Field blends are increasingly uncommon; especially since phylloxera hit, mechanization has encouraged single-pass harvesting, rewarding consistency and single-variety planting.
For rosés made with a blend of red and white grapes, however, the blending still starts in the field.
Rosé wine, despite its historic links to co-fermenting red and white grapes, has been left behind in the discussion of this practice. In recent decades, research on rosé production has focused on gentle pressing and minimal skin contact of red grapes to create delicate pale pinks. But the conversation about the role of white varieties in rosé has almost ceased, replaced by fears over cheap white wine being blended with a little red to make rosé. This led to an outcry in 2009 when many rosé producers from Spain, France, Italy, and Switzerland voiced their opposition to the European Commission’s proposal to lift the existing ban on blending white and red wines. Xavier de Volontat, then president of France’s Association Générale de la Production Viticole, stated, “The European Commission’s proposal is unacceptable. The rosé producers have invested a great deal of time and effort over recent years in the development of a noble product of clear high quality that has been enjoying tremendous success.” Jean-Jacques Bréban, then president of the Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins de Provence and of the Provence trade federation, claimed, “What the Commission is proposing amounts to tricking the consumer, encouraging counterfeiting and drifting towards wine-growing and oenology of an industrial nature, which we reject!”
The ban was maintained, and still rosé made in the EU cannot be a blend of finished red and white wines—though red and white grapes can be blended at any time until the wine has completed fermentation. Pink Champagne and other sparkling wines are the most famous exceptions to the ban. There is also a little-known clause in the ban that allows for appellations that make only rosé, such as Tavel, to blend different varieties after fermentation. Meanwhile, in countries such as New Zealand, producers are successfully making rosés with white varieties—Sauvignon Blanc, for example—and the addition of a very small proportion of red wine to give color (but no tannins or structure), creating pink wines that show the main character of the white variety.
Yet confusion continues as to whether rosé can or cannot be made by blending red and white wines. Many seem unaware that even with the EU ban, blending red and white varieties together before fermentation is finished is permissible. In an article for Somm TV , Nicole MacKay sums up the simplified version of the winemaking: “Contrary to some beliefs, rosé is not a combination of red and white wine. . . . Rosé wine incorporates skin contact, namely from red varieties, into the winemaking.” In The Real Review, Huon Hooke suggests, rather contentiously, that blending red and white wines to make rosé has been done in Provence—but does not say by whom. The Vinovalie collection of co-operatives in southwestern France was fined for illegally blending red and white wines and bottling the result as rosé in 2012.
Many focus on how uncommon it is to add white grapes. Per Karlsson, for example, states on his website, “All rosé is made of red grapes. Sometimes, but very rarely, it is done on a blend of red and white grapes.”
Some of this confusion is understandable. The percentage of white grapes permitted is easy to misinterpret. Most AOC regulations mandate the percentage planted in the vineyard, not used in the wine itself. The final maximum percentage of white grapes can be an average across all of an estate’s vines. But many still think this percentage refers to the blend of the wine.
Côtes de Provence rosés are based on varying proportions of Cinsault, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Syrah, Tibouren, and Cabernet Sauvignon (all black grapes) along with the white varieties Clairette, Sémillon, Ugni Blanc, Verdejo, and Rolle. All Provençal appellations and dénominations de terroir (identified geographic regions) but Côtes de Provence Fréjus allow white grapes in the rosé. White varieties are typically allowed to compose up to 20% of the encépagement. This is the key word: encépagement here refers to plantings, and white varieties designated for rosé can make up to 20%. If there are several rosé cuvées and a limited number of white wines, some rosés may have no white varieties. Others may have a higher percentage. If less than 10% of a white variety is added to the blend, it is often not included in the list of varieties at all, making it that much harder to identify rosés produced with a blend of varieties. Additionally, the increased focus on Rolle for white wines in this region has led to a decrease in plantings of other white varieties, reducing the range of white varieties used in rosé.
Bandol is an exception within Provence. While the same rule of allowing up to 20% of the white plantings (Bourboulenc, Clairette, and Ugni Blanc) to be destined for rosé is in effect, regulations also mandate that their percentage in the final blend must match the percentage planted. Damien Roux, owner and winemaker of Domaine Marie Berenice, notes that while there is a growing interest in white wine, producers are faced with a logistics dilemma. If more white vines are planted and the fashion for white wines declines, he will have too many white varieties, and the rosés can only absorb so much in the blend. La Bastide Blanche is one of the rare Bandol estates that acknowledges the use of white varieties in its rosé. Wine director Stéphane Bourret uses some of the juice of young vines for freshness and some of the final pressing of his later-harvested Clairette, which has too much structure for the white wine but adds weight and complexity to the rosé. He acknowledges that the use of white grapes helps keep the wine’s color lighter and allows him to macerate the Mourvèdre a little longer for greater depth of flavor. The blending is carried out during fermentation, and he adjusts throughout the process. Because Clairette and Mourvèdre generally ripen within the same week, they are co-fermented, resulting in better-integrated flavors.
Winemaker Laurence Berlemont, founder of the Cabinet d’Agronomie Provençale, which provides a wide range of winemaking services, explains how she works with white varieties in rosé: because the varieties generally ripen at different times, they are usually not harvested together and are therefore not co-pressed and co-fermented. (Mourvèdre and Clairette are an exception.) Blending can occur at any time before the wines have finished fermenting. Some of Berlemont’s clients prefer co-pressing and co-fermenting to marry flavors and structures. Some select a portion of the grapes to co-ferment, while others blend as late as possible, prioritizing balance. White varieties are added for reasons such as lowering alcohol and adding fresh acidity. As such, different yeasts are employed.
Black grapes used for rosé need to be harvested earlier than those used for red wines in order to retain freshness and acidity, but if harvested too early, they can give slightly greener fruit notes. Less-than-ripe fruit can be balanced by yeasts that emphasize the fruit character, with extra notes of strawberry, peach, or grapefruit, but the addition of white grapes can impart an essential freshness. Fruit and weight can also be enhanced by the addition of white varieties, as they can undergo maceration without contributing extra color. Producers of Provence rosé will also macerate white varieties at a cold temperature to further increase the fresh fruit character. Berlemont makes an interesting rosé in Var Coteaux du Verdon IGP, in the far north of Provence, at Bomont de Cormeil, with Syrah, Viognier, and Rolle; the first two varieties were originally planted because of the similarities this corner of Provence has to the Northern Rhône. Percentages vary from year to year, but the floral Viognier notes complement the dark fruit character of the Syrah. Mathieu Meyer, the technical director at Château Galoupet, notes that Syrah in the blend can be too heavy, and that by co-fermenting with Rolle, the fruit becomes fresher. He explains, “Rolle in the assemblage gives us yellow fruit notes and a nice freshness. Combined with Syrah in the press, we also get notes of fresh red fruits.” The combined wine, called Syrolle, also develops better in barrel.
Rosés with a slightly higher proportion of white fruit often have a creamier, weightier character. Unsurprisingly, white varieties in rosé are not used to stabilize color but may be used to reduce color intensity. Most of the producers who use a significant percentage of white wine in their rosé are aiming for premium wines, which are often fermented or aged in wood, or both. Calculating the percentages allowed can be complicated, and the Côtes du Rhône syndicate offers clarity on its website with a calculator that helps producers identify the percentage of each variety that can be included in a blend.
Tavel is completely different, as white varieties are included among the principal varieties. The three Grenache grapes—Grenache Noir, Grenache Gris, and Grenache Blanc—together or singly must be more than 30% and less than 60% of the plantings. In practice, this means that a Tavel rosé could be made from white varieties only, but the extended maceration of Tavel would result in a pale pink, skin-contact “white.” Richard Maby, winemaker at Domaine Maby, says, “Due to the very liberal approach to color in the appellation, where the wines range from salmon pink to red, the addition of white grapes is never for color and only for freshness and lowering alcohol.” For him, Grenache Blanc brings desirable aromatics; Piquepoul, if harvested very late, can bring perfumed citrus notes; and later-harvested Clairette contributes floral notes. Co-fermenting is difficult because of different ripening times. In some years, Grenache and Syrah ripen together, while Clairette and Mourvèdre sometimes coincide. Both red and white grapes undergo the same extended maceration. (Tavel rosés can undergo maceration periods ranging from 12 hours to a week—meaning that in Tavel, rosé and skin-contact white wines overlap.) Château de Manissy makes its Cuvée des Lys expressly for the US market, adding more Clairette to the blend to impart a creamier richness while maintaining freshness.
Across the Rhône in southwestern France, the options change significantly. Here, far more Gris varieties enter the blend. Languedoc AOP rosés are based on Grenache, Mourvèdre, and Syrah but may also include a far greater range of white varieties than Provence. The principal varieties used are Bourboulenc, Clairette, Grenache Gris, Rolle, and Viognier. Gérard Bertrand talks of his blending for Clos du Temple, in which “the old vine Cinsault, Grenache, and Syrah give the structure. Mourvèdre brings the final touch, enhancing the wine, and the Viognier contributes to the complexity of the cuvée by its aromatic notes.” Corbières has recently changed its rules, increasing the amount of Grenache Gris to 50% of plantings and reducing the amount of white varieties to a maximum of 10% of plantings. Pays d’Oc IGP allows for 100% varietal wines, and its rosés can, in principle, be made completely with the Gris varieties Grenache Gris, Pinot Gris, and Sauvignon Gris. Grenache Gris in particular contributes an interesting texture. Antoine Robert, a winegrower at Domaine La Provenquière, unusually uses Sémillon, which had been planted in the 1990s, in the estate’s premium Pays d’Oc IGP white and rosé. Chosen for its round mouthfeel, white floral character, freshness, and balancing pale color, the variety has become emblematic of the estate.
Outside southern France, pink wines that traditionally include white varieties are claretes, clairet, and Schiller. In Bordeaux, clairets and rosés follow subtly different rules. White grapes are allowed in wines labeled rosé but not in those labeled clairet. In non-clairet rosés, white grapes must be under 20% of both plantings and the final blend.
In Spain, some producers in the northern appellation of Cigales DO, one of the oldest rosé-producing regions in Europe, make claretes. Though the DO was established recently, in 1991, the vineyards in Cigales date to Roman times. During the Middle Ages, rosé wines called aloque, meaning “to throw together,” were sold to the Spanish court and in cities including Valladolid. The main varieties in Cigales are the red grapes Tempranillo (70% of plantings) and Garnacha, and the white grapes Viura and Albillo, traditionally co-planted and co-fermented. Bodegas Sinforiano makes a range of claretes. Its premium wine, Quelías, is made from old vines, with the white varieties dominating: 50% Albillo, 10% Verdejo, 30% Garnacha, and 10% Tempranillo. Extended cold maceration and lees aging result in a wine that has a creamy weightiness, with intense red fruit and a serious, more complex structure. Winemaker Ruth Sierra de la Gala uses Albillo to provide acidity and an impression of round sweetness, and Verdejo brings aromas of fruits and white flowers, which balance the red fruit notes Tempranillo contributes to the rosés.
Sierra de la Gala also makes a very traditional clarete, called Líala, with red and white grapes from two small plots, co-planted between 1920 and 1930. The field blend includes the red varieties Garnacha Tinta, Garnacha Tintorera (Alicante Bouschet), and Tempranillo, with the white varieties Verdejo, Garnacha Gris, Palomino, Albillo, and Godello. These are harvested, macerated, and fermented together in Spanish wood bocoyes (large barrels), and the wine is subsequently aged on the lees for eight months. As the red and white varieties are blended before fermentation, blending to adapt to vintage variation is more complicated. For some of Sierra de la Gala’s wines, the percentages used were historically based on the varieties already planted in the vineyards. Sinfo, for example, a simple, vibrant wine, includes around 70% Tempranillo, 20% Verdejo, and 10% Albillo because these were the grapes available. New plantings are made to match the required percentages.
The claretes of the neighboring Ribera del Duero DO are similar to rosés but by definition are made from co-fermented red and white grapes. One of the best examples is the oak-fermented Pícaro del Águila, made by Jorge Monzón at Dominio del Águila. A Portuguese version of claretes is palhetes, made with a maximum of 15% white varieties. At Morgado do Quintão, in the Algarve, old vine Negramole (red) and Crato Branco (white) are used. Portal das Hortas, made in Vinho Verde, includes Touriga Nacional and Avesso, a white aromatic variety, while the XXVI Talhas Palhete do Tareco, made in the Alentejo, is composed of a field blend of the red varieties Aragonêz, Trincadeira, and Tinta Grossa and the white varieties Antão Vaz, Roupeiro (Crato Branco), and late-ripening Diagalves.
In Germany, rosé must be made solely with red varieties, but an exception was made for the three historic wine styles Rotling, Schiller, and Badisch Rotgold, to allow for the blending of red and white grapes. Badisch Rotgold has the strictest rules on the varieties used, specifying Grauburgunder (Pinot Gris) at a minimum of 51% of the blend and Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir) at a maximum of 49%; the grapes are pressed and fermented together.
Many producers will not mention the inclusion of white varieties in supporting literature or tasting notes, but private conversations reveal that far more winemakers than initially apparent include white grapes in their blends for acidity, freshness, and reduced color intensity. The law of 2009 seems to have fostered a negative attitude toward this practice, which also raises questions about the identity and definition of rosé.
In examples where the white varieties are acknowledged, and where the percentage is substantial, their role in the blend is significant. Used well, white varieties can result in more complex and interesting rosés. Harvesting dates are important, with earlier-harvested grapes contributing acidity and freshness and later-harvested fruit providing breadth and richness. Varieties such as Clairette, Viognier, Pinot Gris, and Albillo lend aromatics. Acidic varieties, such as Ugni Blanc, can enhance freshness, a major benefit in increasingly hotter vintages.
Including white varieties also allows for greater maceration of red grapes without making the rosé darker. Extended maceration of red varieties appears to be used rarely, however, and many rosés with a higher percentage of white grapes offer more white wine character and fewer red fruit notes. There is potential for more winemakers to show confidence with extended maceration of the red grapes to create a distinctive rosé profile. Extended skin contact for white varieties, on the other hand, is used to increase weight and enhance texture.
Rosés made with red and white varieties are a remnant of historic tradition but also an opportunity for innovative winemaking that allows for greater diversity in style. The conversation taking place about the practice, however, leaves much to explore.
Château d’Esclans Côtes de Provence Garrus 2020: 55% Grenache and 45% Rolle. Fermented and aged for 11 months in 600-liter barrels, one-third each new, one-year use, and two-year use.
Château La Martinette Côtes de Provence Reflets d’Argens 2017: 40% Grenache, 40% Cinsault, and 20% Rolle. Fermented in 500-liter barrels and aged for eight months on the lees and six months in bottle.
Château Miraval Côtes de Provence Muse de Miraval Old Vine 2021: Primarily Grenache and Rolle, with some Cinsault and Syrah (previously equal parts Grenache and Rolle). Fermented in tulip-shaped concrete tanks and aged in demi-muids and concrete.
Domaine des Aspras Coteaux Varois en Provence Les Trois Frères 2021: 40% Grenache, 40% Cinsault, and 20% Rolle.
Château Galoupet Côtes de Provence 2021: Primarily Grenache, with Tibouren, Syrah, and Rolle. Fermented and aged in demi-muids.
Domaine La Bastide Blanche Bandol 2017: 47% Mourvèdre, 28% Cinsault, 11% Grenache, 8% later-harvested Clairette, and 6% Ugni Blanc. Short maceration for the Grenache and Cinsault; malolactic fermentation is blocked.
Château de Manissy Tavel Tête de Cuvée 2019: Grenache, Clairette, and Cinsault. Co-fermentation in old barriques or demi-muids, with malolactic fermentation and no filtration.
Domaine Maby Tavel Libiamo 2019: 50% Grenache Blanc and 50% Cinsault.
Clos du Temple Languedoc Cabrières 2021: Cinsault, Grenache, Syrah, and Viognier. Fermented in tank and concrete, and aged for eight months in oak and acacia barrels of various sizes.
Domaine la Provenquière Pays d’Oc Cuvée Signature 2021: Syrah, Grenache, and 20% Sémillon. The Syrah and Grenache are co-fermented. The Sémillon is harvested two weeks later, pressed, and added to the Syrah and Grenache to restart the fermentation.
European Federation of Origin Wines (EFOW). “White wine mixed with red does not make rosé!” May 26, 2009. http://efow.eu/white-wine-mixed-with-red-does-not-make-rose/.
Hooke, Huon. “Rosé in red and white.” The Real Review, July 18, 2018. https://www.therealreview.com/2018/07/18/rose-in-red-and-white/.
Karlsson, Per. “How do you make rosé? Facts and fails.” BKWine Magazine, May 26, 2016. https://www.bkwine.com/features/winemaking-viticulture/make-rose-facts-fails/.
MacKay, Nicole. “The Best Red Grapes for Making Rosé Wine.” Somm TV, June 10, 2021. https://mag.sommtv.com/2021/06/grapes-in-rose-wine/.