Your Summer Rosé Primer

WFFT's Director of Wine Education takes us inside Rosé - the best wine to keep you cool throughout the hot summer months in Texas.

As we roll into our brutally warm summer months in Austin, magically, the red wines that so often grace my glass start turning a lighter shade of pink. It should be of no surprise to anyone reading this column that Rosés are simply on fire; imports of French Provence producers have increased over 40% for the past couple years. Much to my delight these dry wines are so ubiquitous that we no longer need to start the conversation by dispelling the myth that pink means sweet. Bravo, Texas!

Last month, Rosé was the feature of our monthly educational class at WFFT and is always one of our most popular themes. We tasted a wide variety of styles from all around the world, each one giving us a unique perspective. If you have not been to one of these classes, they are always fun and informative. I thought it useful and interesting to discuss some of the lingering concepts, questions, and misconceptions that came up in the tastings so we could all better enjoy this perfect summer beverage.

At the center of the Rosé discussion is the fact that the beautiful shades of pink, ranging from light salmon to a darker magenta, are coming from pigments in the skins of red grapes. (The scientific word for these pigments is Anthocyanin.) Therefore, the longer the skins are allowed in contact with the juice post-harvest (or technically, maceration time), the darker the hue and the closer to a red the wine will become. Maceration can range from just a couple of hours in the press (at this point, I usually make a joke about a 3-hour French lunch) to up to 2-3 days for a darker Italian rosato, such as Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo. Furthermore, a grape variety that naturally has more pigment, such as Syrah or Zinfandel, might yield a darker wine than a lighter skinned grape, such as Grenache, Pinot Noir, or Cinsault.

In addition to the variables of grape variety and maceration time, there are 3 “major” methods by which Rosé can be made. The most common technique in France, particularly in Provence and the South, is called the “direct press method.” As the name indicates, the grapes go from the vineyard directly to the press. This involves red grapes being grown particularly for Rosé production. They are harvested earlier and at higher natural acidity and lower potential alcohol than if they were destined for red. Shane Moore, winemaker of Gran Moraine in Oregon, divulged that he harvests Pinot Noir for Rosé two weeks before his Pinot for red wine production. You might also hear the Italian term Chiaretto in the Lake Garda area of Lombardy, the most popular Rosé of Italy, which comes from the word “Chiaro,” meaning “light” or “pale” all referencing the light Provençal style. It is also important to note that there are very important darker Rosés that are purposefully grown to make Rosé, but spend a little more time macerating to get a darker color with more tannin and mouth feel. The classic example of this is the Tavel appellation in the Rhone Valley which might be more appropriate with grilled chicken and more robust cuisine.

Another production method employed in California and many New World regions is termed Saignée, or to “bleed” off juice from what will eventually be a red wine fermentation. There are a few reasons a winemaker might want to take some of the very sweet juice out of the red wine fermentation. This would naturally increase the proportion of skins to juice thereby further concentrating flavor, tannin, and intensity, surely making the red wine more expensive, but for the $100+ Napa cabs it’s probably worth it. Another reason might be to replace an equal amount of juice with water, lowering the final alcohol, but keeping the ratio of skins and juice the same, instead of simply adding water (which is very commonly done). I often tell savvy consumers if you ever see a boutique winery making a couple thousand cases of red, but only 300 of Rosé, this is probably why. I never want to judge one way as better than another, they just result in different final wines. The saignée will tend to have a bit higher alcohol and lower acidity than the direct press method.

Finally, there is the “Blended Method,” in which a little red wine is blended into white wine. Sounds like cheating and must be sub-quality, right? Well, many cheap jug wines are made like this; however, most folks don’t realize that this is the most common practice in Champagne, and who doesn’t love Rosé Champagne? There is also an obscure and expensive Rosé-only appellation in the South of Champagne centered in the village of Riceys, called Rosé de Riceys. This is “still” Champagne that is blended and often barrel and bottle aged for many years before release. In the class, we tasted the current vintage- 2011 Moutard-Dilligent which was the only Riceys available in Austin. The idea is that Champagne is all about consistency and since it is so far north and conditions year to year are so variable, the only way to guarantee the same hue is to blend in an exact amount of Pinot. The wine spends a lot of time aging so the flavors have enough time to marry.

I always preach the appreciation of different styles and experiences in their proper situation. I see the light and delicate Provençal style so omnipresent that many consumers are shunning any and every dark and sweet example of Rosé. As referenced before, a darker wine with more present tannin might be a better pairing for more robust food such as grilled white meat or even barbecued brisket (that’s right, Rosé and brisket is killer). Also, some German and Austrian Rosés that have a little residual sugar can pop the flavors and pair gloriously with spicy food.

These are just a few thoughts to bring us into summer and hopefully inspire us to appreciate the diversity of wine even more. In writing this piece, I learned something new as well: in Provence - Vidauban to be precise - there exists a Research and Experimentation Center dedicated to Rosé wine. I wonder if they would like help in setting up a branch in Austin!

If you have any questions or comments, please let me know: mrashap@winefoodfoundation.org