Red grapes, white wines

White pinot noirs—a growing niche

White fruit hiding inside a red grape.

White fruit hiding inside a red grape.

As the pinot noir grapes in one of winemaker Adam Lee’s favorite Oregon vineyards turned dark, plump and sweet each fall, there was, he noticed over the years, a particular corner where the fruit almost never fully ripened. The fruit here consistently refused to reach optimal sugar levels. A white-wine grape, like riesling or gewürztraminer—less needy of intense sun—probably would have done better.

“We often said, ‘I wish they’d just planted white-wine grapes here,’” Lee said. “Then it dawned on us: We could just make it into white wine.”

A white pinot noir, that is. Lee, a pinot noir buff who owns Novy Family Wines as well as Siduri Wines, both in Santa Rosa, didn’t invent the idea, but at the time there were only a handful of other American winemakers making red-wine grapes into chardonnay-colored wine—a trick which involves fermenting the grapes without the tannin-rich skins. Six years later, Lee is still making his Arbre Vert Vineyard white pinot noir.

While denying one of the most cherished varieties of red wines in the world the burgundy hue that helps make it such a star might seem like bad winemaking—or at least bad business—the white pinot trend is catching on. In Oregon, white pinot noir is a growing niche category, and scattered wineries around California are making nearly colorless renditions of other traditionally red-wine grape varieties—like cabernet sauvignon, sangiovese, syrah and merlot. These wines, generally known for their carpet-staining colors, are also being used increasingly in rosé wines.

At LaRocca Vineyards, in Forest Ranch, owner Phil LaRocca makes a rosé cabernet sauvignon. While he makes it in the style of making a white wine—that is, without the skins—the wine still finishes with a rosy hue. LaRocca, in fact, said it is difficult—almost impossible—to make a truly white wine from a red-wine grape variety. That’s because the grapes, even before fermentation, may absorb the pigmentation of the skins. “By nature of their DNA, you can’t make them white,” LaRocca explained.

But Lee said this isn’t always true. Yes, some pinot noir grapes, and other red varieties, are too red in the skins for the juice to make it to the wine bottle without at least some pigmentation. But, he said, by carefully selecting the fruit and handling it just so, one can manage to leave almost all coloring properties in the grape skins.

T.J. Evans, winemaker at Domaine Carneros, near Napa, agrees.

“You put my white pinot next to a glass of chardonnay, and you can’t tell the difference,” he said. Evans has made a locally grown white pinot noir since 2008. Since the bleeding of tannins into the juice poses the chance of getting a pink wine, Evans harvests the grapes at night, when cold temperatures reduce the solubility of the tannins. The grapes are pressed lightly, too. “And as soon as we see any pink color coming out, we stop,” Evans said. This means a much lower yield of juice—95 gallons to the ton, rather than the average 150 gallons. With the remaining juice, Evans makes a rosé.

Scot Covington, winemaker with Trione Vineyards & Winery in Sonoma County, makes a pinot noir rosé. He said a blush-colored pinot is not a stretch from traditional norms. Pinot noir, Covington points out, already renders a light-colored red wine. Going a step further toward pink is an easy progression.

Several red-grape white wines have come out of the Lodi area, too, including a white barbera, a white cabernet sauvignon and a white syrah from d’Art Wines, and a creamy, almond-and-peach flavored rosé from Sorelle Winery, made with sangiovese and barbera grapes.

American winemakers have not invented a category; white pinot noir is made in parts of Europe, and Champagne is made largely with pinot noir grapes, fermented without their skins.

But the notion of eliminating the color from one of America’s most-loved red wines still raises eyebrows. Lee says that his white pinot noir has sold exceptionally well in Japan. His wineries have a loyal following of pinot devotees. Yet he conceded the white pinot noir—acidic, tart and citrusy—is less a customer draw than a curiosity of winemaking.

“Nobody is knocking down our door to get this,” he said.