The Beauty of Making White Wines from Red Grapes

Holding up the glass, the wine is a clear and pale yellow color. The bottle said it was Pinot Noir but the wine is not red. That is because the red grapes were vinified white resulting in some beautifully elegant wines with incredible texture. So intrigued with the white Pinot Noirs and white Cinsault that I have been drinking lately, I wrote about the beauty of making white wines from red grapes in the Napa Valley Register and share here.

To make a white wine, green-skinned grapes are pressed, and the skins are removed. If the skins are left with the clear juice for a period, the wine becomes an “orange” or “amber” wine. To make red wine, red grapes are pressed and left with the skins and seeds for a length of time. To make a rosé wine, the skins only remain with the juice for a few hours so that they impart only a little color. But what about removing the skins from pressed red grapes to vinify a red grape to white wine?

Making white wine from red grapes is a common practice with sparkling wines. For example, a Blanc de Noirs sparkling wine is made like a white wine but with red grapes, such as Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.

While vinifying red grapes to white wine for sparkling wines is common, finding still wines is less common. But recently I have been drinking some red wines vinified white and have been enamored.

I have enjoyed the Tolenas Winery Eclipse White Pinot Noir from the Suisun Valley, the Two Shepherd Blanc de Cinsault Ancient Vine from the Bechthold Vineyard in Lodi, and the Domaine Carneros Pinot Clair White Pinot Noir from Carneros. There is something about the texture of these wines that stands out. And it had me wondering why we do not see more still white wines made from red grapes.

The Beauty of White Wines Made from Red Grapes

So, I reached out to TJ Evans, the Pinot Noir winemaker at Domaine Carneros to find out what inspired him to make a white Pinot Noir. He told me that in 2008, he was in Oregon visiting Jim Prosser of J.K. Carriere Wines, a winemaking colleague of his. Jim had been playing around with making white wine from red grapes. TJ was curious and thought he would try it as well. And, for the last 14 vintages, TJ has made a white Pinot Noir 10 to 12 times.

But the question is, “Why mess with a good thing?” As TJ explained, “You do not mess with it unless you can create something equally interesting and compelling.”

And that is what white Pinot Noir is, something that “combines a lot of things, exploration, new flavors/textures, and fun. It is such a playful wine.” TJ added, “I love Pinot Noir so much, and making bubbles, still red wine, rosé, and white Pinot has given me a lot of ways to see what one grape variety can do.”

In addition, TJ said, The white Pinot is so user friendly” because it can appeal to a broad spectrum of wine drinkers, from the curious drinker to the commercial Chardonnay drinker to the Pinot Noir drinker who wants something new. If you did not know what you were drinking, you might guess Marsanne.

TJ recommends trying the white Pinot Noir next to a Chardonnay you like and added, “in the comparison, you can really see and taste the role of oak, level of acidity, and the truly unctuous texture of the Pinot Noir grape.”

For the Domaine Carneros Pinot Clair White Pinot Noir, TJ explained that the grape, the temperature when picked, and the brix level are all important as the biggest challenge is getting the wine to be white.

With a selection of Pinot Noir clones to work with, the Pommard clone, due to its thinner skins, is the foundation of the wine. He picks the grapes at a maturity level that is greater than those used for sparkling wines but not as high as for still red wines. The grapes are picked at night for less soluble skins and then gently pressed.

Half of the juice is fermented in a concrete egg and half in oak. The oak is predominantly neutral with only 26% new French oak. The wine spends 14 months sur lie and then six months aging in the bottle.

The 2019 Domaine Carneros Pinot Clair White Pinot Noir has a stunningly elegant nose with aromas of apple, pear, lemongrass, citrus, honeydew, honeycomb, and subtle red berry notes.

On the palate, the wine has body and weight. On the first sip, the wine is juicy. The flavors broaden and fill the palate for a lovely mouthfeel with savory characteristics. The texture of the wine is oily and rich, yet it has crispy acidity and a clean finish. It is a compelling wine that can pair with dishes you might pair with red Pinot Noir, including salmon, tuna and risotto.

The Beauty of White Wines Made from Red Grapes

While white wines from red grapes are not easy to find but I enjoyed the Two Shepherds 2020 Blanc de Cinsault, Ancient Vine, Bechthold Vineyard, Lodi. The whole cluster grapes spent two hours in the press before undergoing a natural fermentation and resulting in a fresh and delicious wine with mouthwatering minerality.

The Beauty of White Wines Made from Red Grapes

The other white Pinot Noir that I recently enjoyed is the Tolenas Winery 2020 Eclipse White Pinot Noir from the Suisun Valley. Owner Lisa Tenbrink Howard sells her Pinot Noir to the Biltmore Estates in North Carolina for their sparkling wine program. She kept some of the Pinot Noir in 2017. (The name comes from the 2017 solar eclipse.) As the grapes had low phenolic ripeness, having been picked early for sparkling wine, she decided to vinify the wine white and has been doing so ever since.

The grapes are picked and whole cluster pressed immediately and then fermented in 100% stainless steel. The wine has aromas of strawberries, cherries, white nectarine, and grapefruit, with a touch of watermelon. It has a velvety texture and a fresh acidity that lingers in the mouth.

White wine from red grapes is a niche category with a cult-like following and I am happily part of that cult, seeking out white wines from red grapes wherever I can.

Read the original story in the Napa Valley Register.