Wine

The Rise of Still Blanc de Noirs Wines

In California, Argentina, Germany, and beyond, winemakers are crafting white wines out of red grapes—without turning them into sparkling wines

A close up of a glass of white wine being poured
Though it may seem unconventional, still blanc de noirs are garnering attention for many winemakers. Photo credit: Adobe Stock.

“My father thought it was a terrible idea,” says Lisa Howard, the second-generation winemaker at Tolenas Winery in California’s Suisun Valley. It was 2017, and they were harvesting grapes during an eclipse. “I wanted to make white wine from red grapes as a play on light and darkness.” Her father begrudgingly sold her one ton. Five years later, “we’re picking 12 tons for this project.” 

The Eclipse, Howard’s white Pinot Noir, takes advantage of the fact that the color in most red grapes, including Pinot Noir, is only in the skins. By barely pressing to extract straw-colored juice from the pulp, producers achieve white wine’s acidity and color but with the velvety mouthfeel of red wine. “I didn’t know anybody had ever made white Pinot,” says Howard. “There was just something inside me that said it had to be done.” 

As it turns out, The Eclipse is part of a growing global trend toward dry, still blanc de noirs wines. Producers are making them for various reasons: They’re mitigating the effects of climate change. They’re using fruit they don’t want in red bottlings. They’re offering alternatives to rosé. In the process, they’re creating SKUs that are attractive to consumers. Where once the notion of a still “white” wine from red grapes smacked of something cloying and pink—the 1980s’ popular White Zinfandel, in short—the reference for today’s producers is more likely the bone-dry base wine for Champagne. 

“I made a white Pinot Noir last year,” says Randy Schock, the winemaker at Handley Cellars in California’s Anderson Valley. “People said, ‘Oh, isn’t that weird?’ Well, no. What’s [our] Brut? I just didn’t put bubbles in.” There and elsewhere, still blanc de noirs are picking up steam, and the producers making them have advice for others looking to explore the style.

The Rise of Still Blanc de Noirs

Still white wine has been vinified from red grapes for at least as long as blanc de noirs Champagne has existed. But foregoing secondary fermentation has been rare until recently. Early proponent Fattoria Mancini began bottling its flagship Imperio Blanc de Pinot Noir in 1998. When Tony Rynders, then the winemaker at Oregon’s Domaine Serene, encountered it back in 2004, “a light went off in my head,” he says. “It seemed logical to showcase a different side of the grape and open doors to an investigation that others weren’t trying.”

Rynders became an unofficial ambassador for white Pinot Noir, making it at Domaine Serene, for his own Tendril Wine Cellars, and in the Anderson Valley at Maggy Hawk. “White Pinot Noir provides something different for consumers,” says current Maggy Hawk winemaker Sarah Wuethrich. And “with the increasing fire threat, it’s an option for making wine in the event of a catastrophic year.” 

Indeed, in Oregon, what started as experimental became essential when wildfires hit in 2020. “White Pinot Noir was our saving grace,” says Shardul Ghogale, the director of sales for Left Coast Estate, which bottles three expressions of the wine. “We did not make red Pinot that year. With skins out of the equation, we were able to mitigate the effects of smoke taint.”

Others in Oregon followed suit. “Now consumer demand compels winemakers to make more,” says Andante Vineyard winemaker Erin Percheron, who plans to increase her white Pinot production this year. 

For Remy Drabkin, the owner and winemaker at Oregon’s Remy Wines, the style proved beneficial when her new press broke. “I was going to make sparkling rosé, but we had to let the Pinot hang until the press got fixed.” The white Pinot Noir she made with more ripened grapes resonated as a fundraising tool for Wine Country Pride, her LGBTQ+ non-profit. “There’s a lot presumed about us based on physical makeup, and sometimes we don’t get to show off all the beautiful parts of ourselves. White Pinot is taking a grape people assume one expression of and making it into a completely different style of wine. So it’s thematic.” She calls her wine Transformation.

Lisa Howard sits outside with 2 friends as they share a bottle of her white Pinot Noir, Eclipse
What started as an outlandish idea has amassed great popularity for Lisa Howard, pictured above (middle), of Tolenas Winery and her white Pinot Noir, Eclipse. Photo credit: Heather Carollo Photography.

Argentina’s Bodega Trivento used grapes from its flagship Malbec to launch a white wine in support of the Fund for Students. Then the style took off. Now, following four years of growth and refinement of the process, there are over 10 Argentinian white Malbec labels,” says winemaker Maximiliano Ortiz. 

This year, Trivento and Bodega Argento began importing white Malbec to the U.S. “Economically, it could be better to use those grapes in red wine,” says Juan Pablo Murgia, the head winemaker at Argento, as he can charge more for the bottles. “But we have the size to dedicate grapes to this innovation.” Today, Argento produces up to 12,000 cases of the wine. “It’s part of giving our consumers fun, new things.”

In Germany, extremely pale wine from red grapes dates back to the Middle Ages, when it was called Bleichert. In modern times, this style of Spätburgunder has been known as Weissherbst, and it’s legally distinct from rosé. Today’s winemakers call it white Pinot Noir. In Ahr, wineries like J. J. Adeneuer and Weingut Deutzerhof make it as a way to satisfy white wine drinkers in a region where 85 percent of the grapes are red. 

Hungary’s Lajver Winery produces white wine from Kékfrankos, or Blaufränkisch. “As I see it, sales on rosés are dropping, reds are not growing, but white wines are booming,” says winemaker Rebekah Vida. “Producers working in red wine regions are trying to maintain consumers by making different wines.” Globally, she’s correct about rosé. After a steady rise, rosé consumption began stagnating four years ago. Three million more hectoliters were produced than consumed in 2021, with a decline of 9.2 percent on off-premise rosé sales between 2020 and 2022. Looking at those statistics, winemakers like Vida are stopping the presses before the juice turns pink.

Selecting and Pressing the Grapes

Many producers seek deep soils for growing the grapes that go into their still blanc de noirs. Murgia harvests fruit for his red Malbecs from the stony top of an organic vineyard in Alto Agrelo and the grapes for his white Malbec under a protective canopy at the slope’s clay-and-lime bottom, where “the expression is completely different,” he says. Rynders makes white Pinot from a vineyard called Clay Court, whose clay-and-silt Jory soil helps the berries grow larger and with more acidity. For his still blanc de noirs, Randy Hester of Austin’s C.L. Butaud Wines uses Mourvèdre from a vineyard that produces grapes with less color than the fruit’s red expression would need.  

After place, “timing is crucial,” says Andreas Spreitzer of the Rheingau’s Weingut Spreitzer. “Harvest should be planned carefully because an early harvest brings green aromas and flavors whereas a late harvest will lead to too much color in the juice.”

“White Pinot Noir was our saving grace. We did not make red Pinot that year. With skins out of the equation, we were able to mitigate the effects of smoke taint.” –Shardul Ghogale, Left Coast Estate

Striking that balance, though, depends upon grape variety. White Malbec producers might start harvest when veraison has only just finished. “You don’t want to overripen white Malbec because you lose the floral and the fresh citrus notes, and it goes toward pineapple flavors,” says Murgia. 

Winemakers working with white Pinot Noir, though, will let their grapes hang to develop flavor characteristics. Clonal selection can aid in retaining acidity with longer hang times. “I’m waiting for this tamarind flavor in the juice,” says Howard. “It’s specific to our estate, which has three different Pinot clones. I gravitated to the 667 clone for the white because of that flavor. I want it to taste savory and food-friendly.” In Sonoma, Scribe Winery uses only Robbinsville Pinot Noir, a California heritage clone that “holds acidity while slowly developing Pinot fruit tones,” says winemaker Andrew Mariani. At Weingut Philipp Kuhn in Pfalz, the eponymous winemaker eschews French Pinot clones for higher-acid German ones.

Because the equipment tends to macerate fruit, even producers that might otherwise machine harvest instead hand-pick into small boxes and rush the fruit to the press before it warms and softens, causing skin breakage that can darken the must. Fattoria Mancini uses a mobile refrigerator in the field to keep the grapes cold and intact on their way to the winery.

Once the wine gets to the crushpad, says Sebastian Schäfer of the Nahe’s Weingut Joh. Bapt. Schäfer, only free-run juice should be used for still blanc de noirs, as any amount of pressing can result in a rosé. Others, like Deutzerhof winemaker Hans-Jörg Lüchau, forgo the destemming that can damage grapes’ skins and darken the must, but then press very carefully. “We watch the color, very slowly increasing the pressure. When the color turns, we change the tank and take the rest of the juice for rosé,” he says. Hester overloads the press for his white Mourvèdre. “If I need three tons of juice, I put in five tons of clusters. That allows me to squeeze soft but fast. The leftover solids go to another wine.

Vinifying for Texture and Color

Though color can vary from straw to a subtle pink tinge, one commonality in still blanc de noirs wines is their mouthfeel. “There’s concentration and a round, creamy texture, and that’s what people fall in love with,” says Rynders. “It’s a strong endorsement for the majority of wine’s texture coming from the pulp as opposed to the seeds and skins.”

Winemakers use various techniques to accentuate that texture. Vida cold ferments her white Kékfrankos with selected yeast strains that accentuate aromatics, followed by quick fining, filtration, and bottling. “The acidity is sharp, but in a good way,” she says, while a touch of residual sugar lends roundness. It’s that balance between mouthfeel and freshness that attracts Christopher Gaithers, MS, to still blanc de noirs for his list at San Francisco’s Ungrafted. From the Anderson Valley, Lichen Estate White Pinot Noir, for instance, is “bone dry but with a great weight and beautiful texture,” he says. “It’s fantastic with fish tacos, sushi, and white pizza.”

To achieve such a balance, argues Scribe’s Mariani, “you have to be careful in the cellar because these wines are delicate.” His alcoholic fermentation happens partly in stainless steel “to capture aromatic vibrancy,” and partly in concrete “to get oxygen on it and open it up.” He eschews malolactic fermentation, opting for a “clean” expression. “You get this high-toned, salty freshness, but at the same time, some apricot and honeysuckle. It’s a crisp, white wine, but the fruit profile is more like a red,” he says.

Remy Drabkin poses in her vineyard
Owner of Remy Wines, Remy Drabkin, pictured above, used her white Pinot to raise money for LGBTQ+ wine professionals. Photo credit: Cheryl Juetten.

Other winemakers go for Chardonnay-style weight. At Maggy Hawk, Wuethrich racks her wine into neutral French oak, where it stays on the lees for up to 10 months. “The barrel provides more texture,” she says. Another benefit of lengthy barrel aging, especially with lees stirring, is to stabilize the wine’s pale hue. “You get more oxygen uptake and allow time for the phenolics that would brown to drop out,” says Rynders. Plus, “yeast is your friend.” It scrubs out any color during fermentation and lees stirring. Hester gets both weighty mouthfeel and a lively juiciness through natural fermentation and aging sur lie in 60-gallon barrels made not of oak, but of stainless steel.  

As with any emerging category of wine, still blanc de noirs wines still need some hand selling. “We encourage stewards to place [our white Pinot]  in their cold box as well as in the Pinot Noir section, so that it stands out on the shelf,” says Ghogale. “This is a great draw for consumers and promotes education.” 

Vida calls her white Kékfrankos “Incognito” for its sneaky versatility. “If you were tasting it blind, you would say it is rosé because of these aromas of strawberries and raspberries, but at the same time, there’s white flowers and white peach, and it’s vibrant and refreshing,” she says. And whatever difficulties consumers have identifying it, that hasn’t stopped them from embracing it. Incognito has done so well that production at Lajver is up from 2,500 bottles in the first vintage to 25,000 this year. “It’s kind of a hit,” she says.

Dispatch

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Betsy Andrews is an award-winning journalist and poet. Her latest book is Crowded. Her writing can be found at betsyandrews.contently.com.

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