Updated: Jul 4, 2020
Like it or not, 2018 may very well be the year of Rosé style wine. Rosé wine is a pink wine that is made from red wine grapes, with the skins only contributing the slightest bit of color. In traditional red wine making, a great amount of effort goes into extracting every bit of color and intensity from the grape skins. To achieve this, the wine is fermented on the skins for as long as the winemaker can get away with it, which is often 18 days or more. When making a rosé, just the opposite is the case, with skin contact time ranging from 2 to 24 hours generally.
In the Vineyard
The grapes used to make a rosé wine are no different than the grapes used to make the corresponding red wine but they are often picked at a lesser degree of ripeness. As the growing season comes to an end, grapes rapidly accumulate sugar and the acidity drops. Higher sugar in the grapes makes higher alcohol in the wine, if allowed to ferment to dryness. A red wine with 14.5% alcohol is the norm, but this might blow your socks off in a rosé. Crisp acidity is welcomed in a rosé, but will compete aggressively with the tannin in a red. All this adds up to different picking decisions in the vineyard and generally picking a little less ripe. In years where the grapes just don't quite ripen fully, it is nice to have the option to make such a wine.
In the Winery
There are a few different techniques used for making rosé. To make a rosé traditionally, the red wine grapes are crushed and destemmed into a tank or temporary storage vessel. This slurry or "must" will start out as white juice, full of red skins. Almost immediately, the skin color will begin to leech into the juice, making it into a cloudy light pink color. As the hours pass, this will progressively darken until it is the desired shade of pink. It is up to the winemaker to decide how long to allow this maceration period. Often times 3-4 hours is adequate but it is not uncommon to allow 12 or more hours of maceration. When the color looks right, it is time to press the juice off the skins and kickoff the fermentation. Fermentation for rose is kept cool to preserve the fruity characteristics, whereas red wine is usually warmer to maximize extraction from the skins.
Another method used to make a rosé is the saignée method. This literally means to "bleed" in french and the term is suiting. To make a rosé with using saignée, grapes are crushed and destemmed into a vat for the primary purpose of making red wine. During cold soak, a portion of the juice is pumped off (often 10-15%) to improve the skin to juice ratio of the red wine. The red wine now has more skins per gallon of must but off to the side you have a volume of pink juice. This can be fermented into a rosé, but some adjustments are necessary first. Since the grapes were picked for the purpose of red wine, the sugar will be higher and the acidity lower than what you would want for rose. The acidity can be fixed by the addition of tartaric acid (the primary acid found in grapes). A good starting point is a pH of 3.2 to 3.3 when making adjustments. This will rise slightly after fermentation. To bring down the sugar, a process called amelioration is employed. To ameliorate, simply add a mix of water and tartaric acid into the juice until the percent sugar is on target. A good target for a starting sugar is 20-22% for a rosé. It is now time to ferment just as if you were making the rose in the traditional method.
Left: White Zinfandel made using the saignée method
Right: Red Zinfandel from the same grapes as the rosé on the left
There are a couple less common methods to make rosé that I will at least mention. One method is to simply blend a small percentage of red wine to a white wine and make a pink wine. Very light colored rosé can also be made by crushing and destemming directly into the press and pressing immediately, rather than allowing a maceration period. Additionally, a red wine can be decolorized with activated charcoal to create a pink wine but this is not very common.
Each of these different techniques can create rosé wines that are visually indistinguishable from each other. The taste and aroma can be somewhat different though, so it is always nice to know how a particular rosé was made. Traditionally made rosés taste crisp and refreshing with a little bit of fruity grape character. Saignée made rosé wines are similar but can be a little more powerful and complex. Residual sugar can also significantly effect the taste of the wine. A little residual sugar can bring out the fruit flavor, but a bone dry wine can often be more refreshing. With so many styles to try, it only makes since to try them all...
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