Updated: Nov 20, 2019
A friend recently asked a flurry of questions about rosé wines, wondering who, what and where they were royally made. Here are a couple of quick thoughts:
1. Rosé, which is also known in Italian as rosato, is made usually from red grapes. A true, purpose-made rosé as in a dedicated rosato that is made for its own ends, is pretty rare in California (though both our Zinfandel Bianco and rosé are.) It is much more common in Europe. Most rose is the product of a "saignée" program, meaning that juice has been drained from or bled off of the skins of a red wine not to create a rose specifically, but to concentrate a red wine. (Here is a hint - after three inches of rain fell in Northern California during harvest, you can bet that a rather large amount of rose from those areas is available. Many vintners bled off 10-25% of their juice to reconcentrate the rain-bloated grapes.) This is standard practice in many places, all over California in particular. In many/most cases the pink juice is drained off after 12 - 48 hours of skin contatct, water is often added to bring the alcohol down to 12-13-ish % (many in the know claim that a rose over 13% is an error) and the pink juice is fermented in cool conditions like a white wine, usually resulting in strawberry madness. The famed areas of rose production in Tavel and Lirac (to a lesser extent) can approach 14%, which brings us to the next point... 2. The best roses are not necessarily dedicated roses, meaning that the grapes are pressed in the pink stage, adding extra body, complexity and depth that the saignee method can not, also helping to meld higher alcohol/ripeness levels, because in most of the world water can not be added like it legally is in California. Grenache and Cinsault are the primary varietals for this. Certain parts of the Loire are quite famed for their Cab Franc roses as well.
3. Rose shows flaws quite clearly, just like a white wine. The number of H2S-defective roses running around is astonishing, ostensibly because rosé is often an afterthought, and the last tank to be checked and monitered during crush. The yeast work too fast, or are too cold, the juice is too clear or they are too reductive. Yeast stress is the largest offender, as some defects are moot with the early removal from skins. VA isn't such a problem. A lot of roses have had H2S problems and have been copper fined, stripping them down to the basics of pink alcohol. At the other end are enterprising roses fermented in new oak barrels with all sorts of bizarre woodiness and over enthusiastic batonnage programs that smell like old cheese and sawdust. Most people find charm in a simple rose. Residual sugar is another area of contention as a touch holds onto volatile aroma compounds, lowers alcohol a tad, and broadens mouthfeel. On the downside, sugar is sugar, and a sweet rose can make you feel like a hack - though some good ones do exist with a touch of sweetness. The irony is that cold weather grapes (imagine a St. Laurent rose = brilliant) would probably make real good rose, but colder climates are the last place you would want to consume them. This is where a place like Alto Adige comes into its own. 4. There are a few grapes highly regarded for rose beyond Grenache and Cinsault. Sangiovese and Mourvedre are a couple, Cab Franc and Tempranillo can also work quite well. Minerally Pinto Noir can be phenom, and skanky grapes like Syrah and Negroamaro give a good hope of unusual varietal interest. Obviously just about any red grape can make a rose - and most end up tasting like strawberry. My Nebbiolo experiment in 2006 was pure watermelon Jolly Rancher - one of the few flavor profile varients beyond barrel treatment to be had. The fermentation kinetics usually create a pretty firm strawberry core, and then you try to work spice into the mix. Just about any hot area will make them, and on a hot day they can all taste pretty darn good. Whether or not getting too fancy with them is open for debate. 5. Ironically, some of the best and cheapest to be had is Bordeaux Cabernet rosé, say Phelan Segur at $10 a bottle retail. The extra minerality and Cab-iness clinched it. 6. When you talk about rosé Champagne or Cremant (non-Champagne sparkling wine) - it becomes a whole new complex animal, and red and white wine may comingle. And, number 7: The eternal dilemma: That rosé you had in Provence will never taste the same at home. Such is life...