Rosé Techniques Roundtable

Asking a winemaker if they make rosé should be like asking a winemaker if they drink beer. The two beverages, pink wine and a tasty lager, belong in any cellar and in any winemaker’s glass. Why? Quite simply, rosé (and beer) is easy to make, quick to bottle, quick to market (or mouth) and delicious to drink with almost any food (or none at all). It can be made a few different ways, including as a “bleed off” of juice (known as the saignée method) from an underperforming red wine fermentation to add flavor intensity, color and “grip.”

Rosé is also a fantastic way to make a drinkable wine from underripe fruit in a cold or short vintage. It can also be made to have lower alcohol and great liveliness in the palate so can be a drink for fun activities that require some sobriety such as boating, golfing or hiking/picnic where beer would usually be de rigueur.

So here’s the big question: If rosé is such a fundamentally important style of wine for food, friends and fun, why do so few home winemakers ferment and bottle it? I asked some of my favorite winemakers and consultants a few questions about rosé wine production and this article will summarize their answers, tips, and philosophies of making great rosé wine. Hopefully we will be able to convince you to give rosé a try in your home winery!

In addition to making rosé using the saignée method I mentiond earlier, there are two other approaches for making pink wine. You can also make it as a Blanc de Noir, which means making a white wine from black grapes using a touch of skin contact. You’re probably familiar with this term if you drink sparkling wine as this method is often used for making Champagne. This is how I make my rosés at Clos Pepe here in Santa Barbara County, California.

You can also make rosé by blending white and red wines. This method is not used much these days commercially, however, you can try the blending method at home much like you would blend any other wine using bench trials.

As for the “bleed off” or saignée method, this is done by fermenting the juice that is taken out (bled off) of a red wine fermentation to improve the skin-to-juice ratio in the red wine.

Wes’ Take

Not surprisingly, before we get to the roundtable of pros I will start by climbing my own pulpit and preaching my love and understanding of the pink wine. After my commentary, we will check in with four more California winemakers: Karen Steinwachs, Winemaker for Buttonwood Winery in Los Olivos, Kathleen Inman from Inman Family Wines in Russian River, Sonoma, Larry Schaffer of Tercero Wines (Santa Ynez/Los Olivos) and Clark Smith, King of the Wine Geeks from WineSmith.

Here’s my take on rosé production: “The First Duty of wine is to be Red . . .” ~ Harry Waugh
This quote strikes the very heart of rosé’s ongoing marketing struggle. The stigma is that white wine is for first courses or a weekend lunch, red wine is for serious wine drinkers, and pink wine/rosé/blush is unfairly relegated to amateurs and the uninitiated. Insincere at best, disgustingly sweet at worst, drinking pink wine is thought of like driving a moped: Fun until one of your friends sees you doing it.

But on the contrary, rosé wine is one of the greatest pleasures in drinking wine! Most would blame White Zinfandel for its bad reputation, but even Sutter Home’s big mistake (like Ivory Soap, the first White Zinfandel was a production boo-boo) kept thousands of acres of old-vine Zinfandel from being destroyed, and got a whole generation of Americans drinking wine. Even though our wine culture has mostly moved on from White Zinfandel, it still sells well and has strong market presence. Pink wine has moved from White Zin wannabes to a true drink of the initiated wine geek. If drinking rosé is not cool with the crowd you drink with, it’s time for them to get educated or for you to move on.

My first great rosé was a 1997 Tavel, which was made from mostly Grenache and Cinsault grapes harvested around 22 °Brix from the Avignon region of France’s Rhône Valley. It was bright and crisp like a white, but had cherry, pomegranate and strawberry aromas that balanced the verve-y acid structure. With a great slice of pizza, I was beyond charmed: I was hooked. I learned what I could about the wine. It was macerated for 10 to 36 hours in various lots. Some of the wine stays on the skins longer than other lots and then the wines are blended together to produce a standard pink color. Tavel can be a little darker and richer than some French/Provence-style rosé. Maybe it was the slight uptick in color and concentration that first charmed me.

Or maybe it was how the wine perfectly cleansed my palate between bites of pizza, raw oysters, or soft, creamy Affine cheese spread on fresh baguette. This wine defines my favored style of rosé wine to this day: Bone dry, lovely pink color, great acidity, and gorgeous, clean fruit expression.

What I Know and Love About Producing Rosé:
• Favored grapes for rosé: Pinot Noir, Mourvèdre, Grenache, Cinsault.

• I do not make rosé wine from bleed-off juice (saignée) from a red wine ferment; I find it changes the balance of the red and the rosé tends to be too high in alcohol for the style I prefer.

• Pruning: I prune any grapevines growing fruit intended for rosé for slightly higher yields, leaving an extra bud per spur or a small kicker cane for cane pruned systems.

• Canopy management: Always manage sections of the vineyard for rosé first, as it will be harvested first. Give those berries all the sun they can handle without burning. This will remove vegetal and herbaceous aromas/flavors and encourage floral and high-toned fruit character. I pull extra leaves for rosé, but if you live in an area with strong heat spikes, make sure not to over-do your leafing — burned raisins don’t make good rosé.

• Pick or source fruit when mature flavors begin to emerge, but sugar is still relatively low and acidity is bright and focused. I prefer numbers for a bright, dry rosé near 19–22 °Brix, and a pH between 3.1 and 3.4. In a perfect world I like my rosé to be about 12% alcohol and 3.2 pH. There is no reason you can’t let the fruit get a little riper for flavor and phenolic development and then water/acidulate the juice to 20–21 °Brix and 3.1–3.4 pH pre-ferment.

• Use a yeast that handles low pH well and that will get you to dry (if that’s your goal). I have had good success fermenting dry rosé with Lalvin ICV-GRE yeast and EC-1118, both from Scott Labs and Lalvin respectively.

• Leave it on the skins a little longer than you think. I leave Pinot Noir rosé on the skins at least 36 hours (although 12 hours is probably ample time if your grapes are warm). Don’t go overboard, however — the longer you leave the wine on the skins and seeds the more tannin can be extracted. Same for Grenache. Syrah can be crushed for a few hours to about 12 hours, but can pick up a lot of color quite fast. Mourvèdre is a challenge to get color, and 48 hours is a reasonable in my cellar for a cold-soak/color-up.

• Use lysosome (I use Lyso-easy from Scott Labs) and add SO2 early to stabilize dry rosé, inhibit malolactic fermentation (ML) (unless you want it), and bottle quickly after the wine is dry, stable and clear. Be careful with SO2 — too much can affect the wine’s color.

• When it’s ready, bottle and hit it like it owes you money, because it does.

My bottom line: I drink rosé wine at least three to four times a week, mostly the dry, Provence style that Tavel represents. But here’s a dirty little secret most winemakers wouldn’t admit: About twice a month I drink a glass of cold White Zin with a spicy tuna roll at my favorite sushi joint. The slight sweetness and lower alcohol match perfectly with that little sriracha burn and tuna richness, and the strawberry/cherry fruit and acidity perfectly cleanse the palate between bites. I’ll always prefer light, dry rosé in general, but that doesn’t mean I think it’s the only style that should be crafted or consumed! Like music, every wine style has its time and place. Drink and taste all wines to find what you love, and take time to prove yourself wrong.

The Roundtable

And now, as promised, let’s move on to our list of other rosé winemakers for their thoughts.

Karen Steinwachs is the winemaker for Buttonwood Vineyards and Winery (buttonwoodwinery.com) in Solvang, California. After 20 years in the high-tech field, she began working in the Santa Barbara wine industry with teachers such as Kathy Joseph at Fiddlehead and Norm Yost, who now runs Flying Goat Cellars. Karen and I have been drinking wine together for more than a decade, and I love her Syrah rosé. You always get clear and straightforward answers from Karen, which can be refreshing in an industry that often thrives on anecdote and hyperbole. Buttonwood’s Rosé of Syrah 2013 is highly recommended.

Wes: “What’s the greatest rosé wine you’ve tried, and how did it influence you stylistically?”

Karen: “I’m not even sure what it was, but it was a delicate, lovely pink in Spain. It was refreshing, fruitful but not sweet, perfectly matched with the seafood in the Costa del Sol and danced across the palate with liveliness. But if we were all being honest, the rosé that probably influenced all of us (first at least) was Mateus. Admit it!”

Wes: “In a simple format, what is your rosé recipe? Give me a few sentences or more on your preferred varietal(s), target harvest chemistry, yeast, fermentation, aging and bottling (free SO2, etc.).”

Karen: “We grow [grapes for] rosé here [in the Santa Ynez Valley], farming a block of Syrah specifically. It is leafed more aggressively, but allowed quite a bit of (exposed) fruit load. Picked right around the first time of our Sauvignon Blanc, it comes in at about 19 °Brix. A portion of it is de-stemmed, the rest left whole cluster; both foot-stomped and cold soaked for 24 to 48 hours. Then, it’s pressed on a white press cycle to chilled stainless tanks, inoculated with rosé yeast and fermented at about 52 °F (11 °C) until dry. Then, it’s done — bottle it. The pH is normally pretty low (3.3-ish), and the wine should be consumed early, so we keep FSO2 at the low end of the recommended level [18–25 ppm free].”

Wes: “What’s your feeling about picking grapes specifically for a rosé, as opposed to bleeding off juice from a red wine ferment to make rosé?”

Karen: “I think they all have their place and there are plenty of saignée-method rosés that I also enjoy. But I like that little bit of tannin and mid-palate that I get from stems, and I like being able to pick early so acidification is not needed for
the liveliness.”

Wes: “What special suggestions, tips or tricks can you offer to a garagiste or home winemaker who has limited winemaking and lab equipment? How can a home winemaker maximize quality making a rosé wine on a garage budget?”

Karen: “It’s tougher, because temperature control is the key (IMO). So, get a used full-size refrigerator for the garage and keep it at 50 °F (10 °C). If using glass carboys, minimize light exposure as well. If you have access to grapes, try a whole cluster press — pick on flavor and pH!”

Kathleen Inman of Inman Family Wines in Santa Rosa (inmanfamilywines.com) is a rare winemaker who balances hospitality, friendliness and craft better than anyone I know in the business. Her rosé (and bubbly) is so good, I usually start a day at an event by seeking out the Inman Family Wines table and getting a healthy portion of their pink to start my day off right. Her Endless Crush Rosé of Pinot Noir 2013 won Best of Class and a Double Gold this year at the Riverside International Wine Competition. It’s one of the greatest domestic rosé wines I have ever evaluated.

Wes: “What’s the greatest rosé wine you’ve tasted, and how did it influence you stylistically?”

Kathleen: “The first time I was in Provence in my early 20s I had a number of rosés that I thought were fantastic. I took some of them back to England (where I was living at the time) and I discovered that not all of them tasted as good when you took them out of Provence — the gray Yorkshire weather showed some of the wines to be less attractive than I had remembered them in the warmth of Provence. The Bandol and the Tempier, however, tasted just as delicious and those wines became my touchstones for French rosé. When I moved back to California in the late 1990s, I loved the Rosato of Sangiovese that Iron Horse did at the time. Loved it! I later discovered another Rosato of Sangiovese, made in home winemaker quantities, by my friend and mentor, Kevin Hamel. When I decided to make my first Endless Crush Rosé of Pinot Noir in 2004, it was Kevin I turned to for advice. The thing all of these wines had in common were fantastic aromatics, great acidity, no significant RS [residual sugar] and just a little bit of tannin.”

Wes: “What’s your feeling about picking grapes specifically for a rosé as opposed to bleeding off juice from a red wine ferment to make rosé, or other methods?”

Kathleen: “I believe that the best rosés are made when the grapes are specifically grown for rosé, harvested for rosé and pressed to ensure not only free run but the entire grape is pressed, as this provides more complexity. It also should ensure that the juice will need little or no acidulation or lowering of alcohol by adding water, which most saignée-method rosés require when the grapes have been picked for red wine production. When it comes to sparkling rosé, my opinion is different, I think there the best method is to start with an absence of color through whole cluster pressing of Pinot, Chardonnay (or other) and then tinting the wine with a red wine at the time the wine is bottled for tirage.”

Wes: “What special suggestions, tips or tricks can you offer to a garagiste or home winemaker who has limited winemaking and lab equipment? How can a home winemaker maximize quality making a rosé wine on a garage budget?”

Kathleen: “In the 2014 vintage, I made not only my Pinot Noir Rosé, Endless Crush, but also a Rosé of Zinfandel — more commonly known as White Zin! I did this in a one-ton lot, which is not far off home winemaking scale. I pressed whole clusters, fermented with M85 yeast in a pair of 79-gallon (300-L) stainless steel barrels (no temperature control). Temperature control does help to ensure better aromatics. The cooler and slower the ferment the better the aromatics, so keeping these barrels in a cool place was important. Also, once the wine had gone dry, adding SO2 and making sure that the barrels are topped and the SO2 is at least 25 ppm free at all times is very important as rosés become aldehydic very easily; once they get that exposure to air, the color changes to a salmon from pink and the flavor becomes more Sherry-like, so my advice is to always pay attention to topping and SO2 in the cellar!”

Larry Schaffer moved from the publishing industry to the wine industry to follow his passion for wine. His family brand, Tercero (tercerowines.com), produces delicious and balanced wines from Santa Barbara County, and his skills in marketing and education keep the customers rolling in. His 2013 Mourvèdre rosé is bright and delicious, and I went to Larry for some guidance before I made my first “MoRo.”

Wes: “What’s the greatest rosé wine you’ve tasted, and how did it influence you stylistically?”

Larry: “The ‘greatest’ rosé I’ve ever had is probably Domaine Tempier from the Bandol region of France. It opened my eyes to the fact that a rosé could be more than just fruit forward, but that it can have substance, an herbaceous element, and be very food friendly.”

Wes: “In a simple format, what is your rosé recipe? Give me a few sentences or more on your preferred varietal(s), target harvest chemistry, yeast, fermentation, aging and bottling (free SO2, etc.).”

Larry: “I’ve been making rosés now for about a decade and have made both saignée and ‘direct to press’ methods. I have decided to go ‘direct to press’ the past three years, not because it inherently makes a ‘better’ rosé, but because I like the process a bit better. I bring in my Mourvèdre grapes and foot stomp them upon arrival. I let them sit on their skins for anywhere from one to three hours, depending upon my schedule, when the press is available, etc. I then dump the grapes into the press and press them into a stainless steel tank to cool down. I rack the juice into another stainless tank after about two days and get things rolling, cool ferment for two to three weeks, then transfer the wine to older French oak barrels for three to six
months prior to bottling. My target harvest chemistry: Looking for 21.5–22.5 °Brix, 3.2–3.4 pH, and as much acidity as possible.”

Wes: “What’s your feeling about picking specifically for a rosé as opposed to bleeding off juice from a red wine ferment to make rosé?”

Larry: “As I said earlier, I’ve made rosés in both styles — both saignée-method and direct to press. The idea to pick direct for rosé is not a simple one. I think it really comes down to variety especially, and then it comes down to site. To me, some varieties lend themselves to picking directly for rosé — Grenache, Mourvèdre, perhaps Pinot — but many do not. If you are going to do the saignée method, you’ll have a number of decisions to make: How long will the grapes sit on the skins before pulling the juice off? (I generally stayed under 24 hours and in some cases about 12); will you add water and acid to bring the acid level up and the potential alcohol down? (I always did and would heavily suggest doing so); will you ferment in stainless or oak? (Both can work well . . . to me, it depends upon variety and how much temperature control you want to have).”

Wes: “What special suggestions, tips or tricks can you offer to a garagiste or home winemaker who has limited winemaking and lab equipment? How can a home winemaker maximize quality making a rosé wine on a garage budget?”

Larry: “My main suggestion would be to really consider what you want the finished product to be and make the wine in order to achieve that. For example, if you want a 12% alcohol wine and you are going to saignée, well, if your grapes come in at 25 °Brix, the only way that will happen is to add water . . .”

If you want a definitive answer in the wine business, there is Clark Smith of WineSmith and winemaking411.com (recommended for wine consultations). I have judged wine with Clark for two decades and my understanding of the more technical, chemistry-based aspects of wine production always increases exponentially when I engage with him. Clark dropped out of MIT in 1972 to get into the wine business full time and never looked back, innovating the industry in meaningful and measurable ways. His new book, Postmodern Winemaking, is surprisingly approachable and allows wine to be chemistry and artistic. I consider Clark to be one of the top three minds in wine. If you ever need the Geek of Geeks, the Lord of the Chemically Vinous — Clark is your man! Not surprisingly the conversation with Clark did not follow the same set of questions we’ve seen above. Let’s see what he has to say about rosé:

Wes: “Clark, when discussing rosé wine in the United States, what comes to mind?”

Clark: “Rosé should be distinguished into two categories: Silly rosé, also aptly termed ‘blush,’ about which nothing need be said, and serious rosé, which is the cornerstone of French and British culture because it’s cheap and goes deliciously with everything — steak, fish, fruit, charcuterie, you name it. One cannot be faulted for serving a dry rosé on any occasion, and as a consequence, rosé sales in France exceed those of white wine.”

Wes: “Rosé is usually relegated to a summer sipper in the US. How can we increase rosé consumption here?”

Clark: “Dry rosé should be consumed all year long. It is not just a summer wine, and is pleasantly consumed throughout the winter as well. It’s my everyday wine. Great with turkey, ham, pizza, smoked salmon, and other hard-to-pair foods, especially salty ones. But most Americans only buy rosé in the summer, so unlike any other wine, you fight for your shelf position in May and then you’re done. Retailers hate getting stuck with inventory in September.”

Wes: “What ‘trade secrets’ have you uncovered in your 40-year love affair with rosé?”

Clark: “Winemakers love to make saignée-method rosé because bleeding off some free run increases the skin-to-juice ratio. In dry climates like California, this results in terrible wines because rosé as a general rule tends to bitterness if it’s over 14% alcohol, which corresponds to about 23.4 °Brix, much lower than red grapes are harvested in California. In all candor, I simply water my rosé so it results in 12.5–13% alcohol. I do not find that this practice leads to diluted flavor — just the opposite. The fruit aromas are much more apparent absent the masking of excessive alcohol.

“Rosé usually is not very good until it’s had a few years of age. Pinot Noir is an exception, but I work mostly with Bordeaux varieties, and these make pretty reductive rosés, particularly Cabernet Franc, which to my mind makes the best rosé there is, but only at its best after four or five years. Unlike, say, Sauvignon Blanc, rosé does not need to be young to be fresh, and is often reduced and tight until it’s had at least a couple years to relax in the bottle. I am currently drinking my 2009s, which are much better than when I bottled them. Since Americans do not understand this, I never vintage date my rosés.”

“Another problem is that true rosé made from free-run red grapes is not bright pink. Large White Zinfandel producers strip the color out with carbon and add a little red wine to get a shelf-stable bright pink color. My back label says, ‘Serious rosé acquires a salmon hue with time. Get over it.’”


According to Dr. Patrick McGovern, the world’s leading archaeologist of alcohol (Uncorking the Past, Ancient Wine), the first wine ever made by humans was likely a rosé. The first Eurasian grapevines discovered in forests certainly produced red/black fruit, and the first wines were likely made with minimal skin contact. The earliest winemakers probably stomped the freshly harvested clusters in wicker baskets and the blush/salmon colored juice was fermented without grape skins. So even though Harry Waugh may believe a great wine’s first responsibility is to be red, let’s not forget that the first red wines were actually pink!

Rosé wine runs the gamut from barely-salmon/orange ‘eye of the partridge’ color to electric-strawberry rosé with a bit of tannin and grip. Experimenting with color/skin contact, harvest chemistry, alcohol/pH levels and temperature control during fermentation can provide home winemakers with enough stylistic choices to fill a lifetime of crafting the pink stuff.

My best suggestion to home rosé winemakers, and those that aspire to make great rosé, is to see pink wine as a fun experiment that has few rules and fewer boundaries. Can you make a wine that splits the difference between a red and a rosé? Sweet, off-dry or bone dry? How about the lightest rosé one year and a big, darker one the next and taste them over a few years to see which you prefer?

Rosé may not get the respect of red, or even white (for now), but that gives us the chance to experiment, taste, tweak, rinse and repeat (especially the tasting)! Try making rosé in your home winery and chances are you’ll come up with something you really like.