A Rosé by any Other Name

In 1963, I first experienced the romance of wine in the form of a basket-covered Chianti bottle stuffed with a candle and covered in dripping wax. It sat on a red and white checkered tablecloth in a dimly-lit coffee house at the University of New Mexico. Four years later, when I returned to the US following an overseas tour of duty in the Army, I was pleased to find that both checkered tablecloths and the wine-bottle-as-candleholder still persisted as symbols of youthful romance. Now, however, Chianti had been replaced by pink Portuguese interlopers. Coffee houses now had their tables bedecked with bottles from Mateus Rosé, or faux stoneware jugs from spritzy Lancer’s Rosé. Chianti was out. Rosé was in.

A Rosé is a Rosé is a Rosé…or is it?

In 1972, Sutter Home Winery’s Bob Trinchero attempted to intensify his dark red Zinfandels using an Old World trick of drawing off some of the just-pressed juice, leaving a much higher percentage of skins in the remaining macerating must. The drawn-off juice was fermented as white wine, but showed a slight pink-amber color cast, similar to that which Europeans call Oeil de Perdrix (Eye of the Partridge). That, in fact, is what Trinchero named his creation: Oeil de Perdrix. Sebastiani followed suit with Eye of the Pidgeon, but the public didn’t seem as impressed with the bird’s-eye names as they were with the wine itself. By the late 1980s, Sutter Home’s renamed White Zinfandel had become the most popular premium wine in the US. It spawned a whole generation of folks who believe that all Zinfandel is “white.” It also added a new term to our vocabulary – blush.

Today, supermarket shelves are filled with blush wines — white Zins, white Merlots, white Cabs. Many no longer aim for that delicate pink blush, but often sport bright red tones. Rather than being dry or slightly off-dry and fruity, as pink wines have traditionally been, these new pinks tend to range from somewhat sweet to positively cloying. These wines often carry the reputation of being “wines for people who don’t like wine,” but there are also some real gems there.

In Europe, the old traditions continue. Dry or off-dry, light pink wines carry the names vin gris (meaning “grey wine”), blanc de noir (“white from black”), rosé, rosado, or rosato. They are often inexpensive, everyday wines — Mateus and Lancer’s can each still be bought for about $US 6.00 — but they can also be very deluxe, indeed. A ‘97 Perrier Jouet Fleur de Champagne Rosé will set you back about $150.00 (USD). Rosés are made nearly everywhere that red wine grapes are grown. While most Old Word pink wines are meant to be drunk while young and fresh, that is not always the case. Rosé Champagne may be bottle aged on its lees at the winery for five years before it is clarified and released. Vins gris are sometimes aged in oak and may be matured in the bottle for some years before they are ready to drink.

Some pink wines are known for their sparkle: from zillions of bubbles in rosé Champagne to the more lightly spritzy wines like Lancer’s. The latter are called pétillant or crémant in France or frizzante in Italy. The vast majority of rosés, however, are still called wines.

Grapes for Rosé

With a few exceptions, rosé wines are made from red grapes rather than from blends of white and red grapes. The principal exceptions are some mass-market California blush wines, and rosé Champagne, which is made by adding a bit of red Pinot Noir or Meunier to a white base wine. Sometimes blanc de noir Champagne, which is made entirely from Pinot Noir, has a slight blush of pink.

In the Loire Valley of Northern France, rosé wines are made primarily from the Groslot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. The best-known Loire rosés are off-dry, fruity wines from Anjou and Saumur. The south of France, including the Southern Rhône Valley, Provence, and Languedoc-Roussillon, produces oceans of pink wines made primarily from Grenache grapes, often blended with some Syrah, Carignan and Mourvèdre as well.

In Italy, nearly every type of red grape grown is made into some pink wine, or rosato. These include Canaiolo, Sangiovese, Montepulciano, Anglianico, Barbera, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, etc. Pink wines can be found in all of Italy’s winemaking districts. The same can be said of the Iberian Peninsula, of course, where pink wines are likewise made from a variety of grapes. Perennial favorites, however, are rosado wines of Spain’s Navarre Province, made from Garnacha (Grenache) grapes. Good pink wines based on Tempranillo are made in the famed Rioja wine district, as well. Spain also produces some very good Cava rosado, or pink bubbly — especially in the Penedés region south of Barcelona.

Besides the deluge of White Zinfandels and White Merlots, California produces some good traditional pink wines from Grenache, Gamay, Gringolino, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. There are also a lot of sweet, generic rosés made from various Central Valley grapes.

How Rosé is made

While there are a few red grapes that have pink-tinged juice, most yield white juice when pressed. That is why it is possible to make white and pink wines from red grapes. Once the grapes are crushed, however, the secret for making a white or lightly colored blush wine is to remove the juice from the skins, stems and seeds as quickly as possible. Such a wine can be called blanc de noir, or “white from black,” a term that is usually reserved for Champagne-like sparkling wines made entirely from Pinot Noir.

By allowing the juice and skins to macerate together for a while longer, the winemaker achieves greater levels of color in the juice. If the primary product is a pink wine, then, once the pressing is completed, the grape skins may be discarded. Traditionally, these skins were often placed in sugar water to ferment and become piquette, a tart, lightly-alcoholic beverage often served to children.

More typically, however, one batch of red grapes is destined to make both a red and a pink wine. After the grapes have been crushed and allowed to macerate for a short time, part of the juice is drawn off and fermented in a manner similar to a white wine. This will become the rosé. The remaining juice continues to macerate with the skins throughout fermentation. By reducing the juice-to-skins ratio, a more extracted wine will result, with deeper coloring and depth of flavor, as well as fuller body from increased tannins. In this case, pink wine is a byproduct of making a dark red.

There are some pink wines made by either adding small amounts of red grapes to the fermenter, or, more commonly, by simply adding red wine to the finished white wine. This latter method is used for some of the cheapest and least interesting pinks — jug wines from California’s Central Valley — as well as for some of the world’s finest: rosé Champagne.

Styles of Rosé

As you might imagine, with a whole world of pink wines out there, made from dozens of different grapes, there is no single stylistic standard. While there are as many gradations in styles as there are shades of pink in the rosé world, we can think of these wines as falling within four style classes:

Anjou Style (named for the famous pink-wine district in Northern France’s Loire Valley): These wines emphasize fruit. Alcohol levels are moderate and the finish is dry to medium dry, but never crossing into sweet. Acidity is moderately high and tannins low. Aromas and flavors that suggest cherries, red berries, roses and violets are characteristic. These wines truly are wonderful summer refreshers. They will complement picnic spreads that include smoked meats, ripe cheeses and fresh fruit.

Tavel Style (named for the major rosé-producing village of the southern Rhône Valley in Southwestern France): The pink wines of the hot southern areas of France, as well as Spain and Portugal are anything but picnic wines! Made from the same grapes that produce bold reds like Châteauneuf-du-Pape, these wines are usually bone dry, high in alcohol, low in acid, and relatively low in fruit. Their coarse, earthy flavors and the warmth of alcohol are part of their attraction. These wines often have a bit of tannic burr, as well. While young southern rosés will exhibit some fruit, as they age — and many argue they should be well-aged — they take on nutty, rich flavors that distinguish these wines from all others. For food pairings, I first think of well-herbed seafood fare from Provence, mild goat cheeses and country patés, but I’ll bet it would wash down a Texas barbequed brisket nicely as well.

Blush Style (named for the common American term for California’s popular “pop” wines): While many folks call these wine’s “fruity,” I often find whatever fruit character they have masked by low acidity and too much sweetness. This is a distinctive style that has certainly captured the favor of the American wine market. Like Tavel-style wines, they may have the elevated alcohol and low acid levels of their warm-country origin. What sets blush wines apart is their typical sweetness, which makes them suitable to stand up to, and complement, spicy Southwestern dishes, curries and Thai barbeque.

Pink Bubbly: There is just something attractive about bubbles in pink wine. Wherever rosés are made, there is usually a bubbly version being bottled nearby. The amount of bubbles range from a slight spritz detected more by the tongue than the eye to the full-blooming mousse of fine rosé Champagne. Most bubbly pink wines are finished off-dry, with at least light fruit in the aroma. What should we serve these sparklers with? Why, with love, of course!

Making Rosé at Home

The level of color in the wine is your choice. In general, more color also means more cherry or rose-like flavors and aromas in the final wine. To increase the color in wines made from red grapes, just increase the amount of maceration time. Conversely, to minimize color, press the grapes earlier.

No hard and fast recommendations can be made, because color extraction rates will vary with grape varietals, temperature, ripeness and many other factors. In most cases, however, you will need no more than two or three hours of maceration to achieve an appropriate color level. Remember you can always add color later, but you’ll have a hard time removing it!

Take samples of the juice after the crush and wait until you reach your target level of color. If you are going to discard the skins, press them once you reach this color. If you are drawing off a pink wine to increase the amount of skin contact in a red wine, wait until you get your pink color and siphon off between one quarter and one third of the juice, depending on how much skin contact you want your red to have.

First, though, we have to decide what style of pink wine we want to make. Our decision will likely depend somewhat on what kinds of grapes are available to us. Here are some recommendations for making various styles of rosé:

Do the Anjou

For a fruity, Anjou-style wine, I think the perfect choice would be Cabernet Franc, especially if grown in a cooler region. Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo and Pinot Noir will do fine as well. This style doesn’t require the extent of ripeness needed for Tavel. For that reason, it may be better suited to Eastern and Northern winemakers, where preserving freshness, acidity and cherry-like fruit is much easier than getting deep, dark grapes at 24 °Brix or higher. I have limited experience with rench-American hybrids used for rosé wines, other than Chambourcin, which does a great job. I suspect that Foch, Chancellor, and many others would also make excellent, fruity, pink wine.

Grapes at 20–22 °Brix are appropriate, with total acidity that could range from 6.5 to 7.5 or higher. A cool fermentation, in the 55–60 °F (13–16 °C) range, is best. Use gentle yeast that preserves or enhances varietal fruit aromas, and which will preserve a little residual sugar. I like Lalvin’s 71B for this application; however, I believe that RC-212 and Red Star’s Côte de Blancs would work equally well. Adequate sulfite will insure prevention of MLF, which is not desirable for this style. To preserve the freshness, rack early and with minimal oxygenation. Fine, sweeten to taste and bottle as soon as the wine is stable (including cold stabilization). Be sure to use potassium sorbate if bottling wine with residual sugar.

Tavel in Style

If you want to make a dry, Tavel-style wine, but don’t have access to fully ripe Rhône-like reds, then I recommend using grapes that come the closest to these. Ameliorate acids by diluting with water until you have total acidity (TA) at about 6 g/L, or slightly lower, or plan on conducting malolactic fermentation (MLF). Of course, don’t let pH rise higher than 3.7 or 3.8 at the most. Chaptalize your must to 24–25 °Brix if the grapes don’t contain sufficient sugar.

Choose an attenuative, neutral, yeast, such as Prise de Mousse, or one that favors full-bodied mouth feel, such as D-47, or D-254. A relatively warm fermentation is appropriate for these wines, as is an extended period of contact with lees. Cold stabilize over winter. You can let this wine continue to bulk age for several more months, or bottle when clear and stable. Bottle age from six months to several years.

Brew Your Own Blush

If White Zinfandel, White Merlot, or similar wines are your goal, begin with the appropriate varietal grapes. Of course, you might also want to try to match the style using any red grapes you have available to you. After all, how many folks out there have ever had the joy of drinking a White Lemberger or White Catawba?

In this case the trick is to blend aspects of the Anjou and Tavel methods. Your goal should be a lower acidity — say, TA around 6 g/L — preferably without malolactic fermentation, which tends to mute the fresh fruit flavors and it is not suitable for home wines that will be sweetened. Ameliorate acids by diluting with sugar water if need be. You also want to achieve final alcohol of at least 12 to 13.5% by volume, so use well ripened grapes if possible, or chaptalize if necessary. Cool fermentation, aroma-enhancing yeasts — such as Epernay II (also known as Côtes de Blanc) and Lalvin 71B-1122 — and early racking from lees are best for blush wines. As soon as the wine is stable, fine, sweeten to taste, add sorbate, and bottle.

The Riddle to Pink Bubbly

Guidance in the méthode champenoise — the traditional method of making Champage — is beyond the scope of this article, but see the WineMaker articles by Alison Crowe (Fall 1999) and Tim Vandergrift (April–May 2003). The first step in making bubbly, however, is to make the still base wine that will later be bubbly.

I recommend that you make a base wine following the guidelines for Anjou style rosé, above, but make certain to keep the sugar content of the must at just 18 or 19 °Brix, at most. Remember that sugar will be added for the bottle fermentation later and that will bring alcohol up to the appropriate level. Be sure, too, that TA is on the high side; 8 g/L or higher.

Get in the Pink!

Like the late comedian, Rodney Dangerfield, rosé wines just don’t get the respect they deserve. There may be oceans of pink plonk lining supermarket shelves, but the savvy wine lover embraces the classic rosé styles of Europe — as well as the better-made blush wines of California. Every home winemaker should try his or her hand, at least once, in making a good rosé. You may just find that, in the huge space between snow white and garnet red, there is a whole spectrum of colors and flavors to delight your senses.