Even if you know next to nothing about wine, chances are you know that there are three main categories: reds, whites, and rosés. Right? Well, sorry to cause confusion, but it turns out, there are two types of wine that don't fit perfectly into any of those three categories. Because white pinot noir and white merlot have a light pinkish color close to rosé, have the word white in their name, and are made with red grapes most commonly associated with red wines, they're a bit baffling to many wine drinkers.
To clear up any questions about these wines that blur the lines between white, red, and rosé, we spoke to Sayle Milne, certified wine educator and founder of Wine Savvy NYC. We also talked to Ryan Harms, a partner at Amity Vineyards, which has been making a white pinot noir since 2014. Together, these two set the record straight on what's up with these wines that straddle the worlds of red, white, and rosé.
How are white pinot noir and white merlot made?
The most important element that differentiates white pinot noir from the standard red pinot noir, and white merlot from the standard red merlot, are when the grapes are harvested and how the wines are made. Milne tells Refinery29 that there are different ways to make white merlot. The first is similar to how rosé is made. "The winemaker might let the red skins of the grapes stay in contact with the white juices for only a few hours — enough to give the wine a little color but not long enough to impart tannins and other things the grape skins have," she explains. The other way of making white merlot, according to Milne, is similar to how other white wines are made, where there is no skin contact with the juices.
The no skin contact way is how Amity Vineyards makes its white pinot noir, according to Harms. But, it's not the only thing that contributes to the wine's color and taste. The Amity team also chooses grapes of a specific ripeness and presses them in a specific way. "We look to harvest the pinot noir grape at a riper level than if we were making sparkling wine but not as ripe as if we were making red wine... The fruit is pressed whole cluster using a very gentle sparkling wine setting to avoid extracting color and any bitterness from the fruit," Harms explains. From there, the process continues for a while. "Once the juice settles overnight, we put the juice in a stainless-steel tank and add yeast," the Amity Vineyard partner tells us. "We are looking for a long, cool fermentation in the hope to capture all the beautiful aromas and flavors that pinot noir can yield. Then we bottle the wine in the late winter."
How are white pinot noir and white merlot different from rosé?
The difference between rosé and white pinot noir comes from the winemaking method and production process. In the case of Amity Vineyard's white pinot noir, the grapes are handpicked and whole-bunch pressed to minimize color pick up from the skins. In the case of white merlots, which can be made like rosé with some contact between the skin and juice, the difference simply comes down to branding.
What do white merlots and white pinot noir taste like?
The process used to make these wines doesn't just affect what color they turn out to be. It also affects how the wines end up tasting. Milne says that depending on what method is used — no skin contact or very little skin contact — white merlots can be dry or even move toward off-dry.
As with white pinot noir, it's the grapes that have a big effect on the taste. Milne tells us, "Because it's made with red grapes, this wine is often richer than other white wines. She likens white pinot noir to chardonnay, in that it can be oaked and unoaked, and says it's "clean, bright, has good acid but more mouthfeel (or body) than say a Sauvignon Blanc."
That acidity is key to Amity Vineyards' white pinot noir, and the ripeness of the grapes is how the acidity is achieved. "We want the wine to have a higher level of acidity than we would typically want in making red wine," Harms says.
Are White Merlots and White Pinot Noirs new?
Though many of us only started hearing about white pinot noir this summer, Harms tells us it's not a totally new concept, especially in the sparkling wine world. "Sparkling wine producers often use pinot noir when making their wines, so I certainly wouldn't say it is a new wine, but making it as a still white wine is a newer trend," he explains.
White merlot, on the other hand, became a booming business in the late 90s and early 2000s. An article published by the New York Times in October 2000 reported that more than half a dozen white merlots were on the market, and many were being made by the biggest producers in the country. Now, with more white merlots popping up on liquor store shelves, it seems the beverage is coming back around.