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Lise Ciolino
May 15, 2013 | Rosé, Syrah, Winemaking | Lise Ciolino

Not all Rosés are created equal

Some rosés are sweet and simple, others are dry and complex. Some are extremely pale, yet others are much darker. You may not like some, but you might be passionate about others. Here at Montemaggiore, we are very passionate about the dry and complex style, exemplified by the Rosé of Syrah we've been making for the past six vintages. We'd like to share that passion by explaining how we grow the grapes, how we make the wine, and why we call it a "Provençal style" rosé.

Let's start with the basics: rosé is any wine that has some color originating from red grape skins, but not enough to qualify it as a red wine. The colors range from a hardly perceptible pink to pale red, dictated by the varietal utilized and the amount of time the juice spends macerating with the skins. Since grape skins impart most of the color and flavor in a wine, a longer maceration leads not only to deeper color but also to deeper flavor.

The heartland for rosé is Provence, the oldest winegrowing region in France, where the first wines many millennia ago were rosé. Today, the rosés of Bandol and Tavel are the "gold standard" against which all others are compared (Tavel is technically in the Rhône on the northern border of Provence—but we'll ignore that fact for now). While most rosés are appreciated for their freshness thus drunk very young, many from Bandol (e.g., Domaine Tempier) are so well structured that they are considered cellar-worthy for 20 years or more.

Jumping across the pond, the most famous rosé in America is perhaps our most vilified: White Zinfandel. In 1970's California, the winemaker at Sutter Home salvaged a stuck fermentation of red Zinfandel by releasing a paler, sweeter wine he called "White Zinfandel". Sutter Home's sales rocketed, and sweet pale wine flooded the market including brands such as Lancers, Mateus, and Cold Duck. White Zinfandel continues to be very popular. As recently as 2006, it accounted for 10% of all wine sold in America (by volume), making White Zinfandel the third most popular varietal in the United States. One could be tempted to disparage these sweet and simple wines, but they are common "gateway wines" which introduce many people to the glorious nature of wine, winning them over from beer and hard liquor. Thus we applaud White Zinfandel.

In recent years, dry rosé has become somewhat trendy, not just in the United States, but also in France. In 1990, 11% of wine consumption in France was rosé, but by 2011 that percentage jumped to over 27% (at the expense of red wine consumption). Most of France's rosé comes from Provence, where it represents 87% of all wine produced. France is the world leader in terms of rosé consumption, drinking 35% of all rosé produced, and exports are dramatically increasing. The United States is the second largest single consumer drinking 14% of all rosé produced.

All rosés are not created equal as they vary widely in style, flavor, and color. Perhaps the largest contributors to those differences are the winemaking method and the varietal from which it's made. While any red grape can be used to make rosé, the most popular varietals are Mourvedre (Bandol), Grenache (Tavel), Pinot Noir, and Syrah. Other varietals such as Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc are less common due to their tannic nature and flavor profile. Varietal does have a distinct influence, although not as much as for red wine because rosé grapes tend to be picked at lower ripeness, muting their varietal character.

The three most common methods to make rosé are:

  • Skin Contact. The grapes are crushed and the skins are allowed to remain in contact with the juice for 1-3 days before pressing (after which the skins are discarded). The exact timing is dictated by the desired flavor and intensity of the rosé. This method is sometimes called direct-press, and is the most popular in Provence.
  • Saignée. With this method, rosé is created as a by-product of making red wine. Some juice is bled from a red wine tank at an early stage, typically within 24 hours. The winemaker's primary goal is to make a more deeply colored, intensely flavored red wine. So by bleeding off some juice for rosé, a higher ratio of skins to juice remains for the red wine. This is the most popular method in California.
  • Blending red and white wines. While common for making sparkling wines, this practice is somewhat frowned upon for making still wines.

Lise makes Montemaggiore's rosé via the Skin Contact method, which is why we call our wine a Provençal-style rosé. Our method has many benefits over saignée:

  • Flavors in the red fruit range: As grapes ripen, their flavor profile changes from citrus to red fruit to black fruit. We like rosé in the watermelon-strawberry-plum range. Typically red wine is harvested in the black fruit range, thus rosé made by saignée has black fruit flavors.
  • More intense flavors: With longer skin contact, the intensity of flavor increases.
  • Lower alcohol: Since grapes intended for rosé are picked earlier than for red wine, they have less sugar, resulting in wine with less alcohol.
  • High natural acidity: Again, the grapes for rosé are picked earlier, resulting in higher natural acidity.

More structure: A longer maceration on the skins means a better balance between acid, tannin, alcohol and glycerol, lending the possibility of aging.

Let's get more into the details of how we make rosé at Montemaggiore. In addition to using the skin contact method of winemaking, it is important to know that we grow and harvest specific Syrah grapes solely for rosé. We leave a larger crop on these vines, which slows down the production of sugar in the grapes (lowering the alcohol), and slows the flavor development in the fruit (producing its strawberry character). We typically harvest the grapes around 23°Brix, about two weeks earlier than we would for red wine. In the winery, the grapes are crushed and allowed to soak for 36-72 hours on the skins before pressing, giving the wine its intense flavor (the deep color being a side effect). The juice is cold-fermented at the same temperatures we make white wine, in order to retain the bright flavors and ensure freshness. The fermentation takes place in oak barrels to add texture and mouthfeel, although the barrels are neutral so they don't impart any oak flavors. We bottle our rosé in March or April following harvest, and release the wine a month or two later.

We hope you've gained a bit more appreciation for rosé. Like most wines, rosé can transport us to a different place and time. Rosé reminds Vincent of sitting in a piazza in Italy, watching people stroll by, with the intermittent sound of a Vespa bouncing over cobblestones. Rosé always reminds Lise of skiing in France, stopping for lunch on a sunny deck to gain sustenance and refreshment. Do you have a favorite rosé memory? Or perhaps yours is yet to come!

Further comments by Author

7/24/14 At a winemaking seminar on rosé today, a winemaker from Provence presented a chart that will be helpful for all wine lovers, regarding what to expect from a rosé made from these popular varietals:

Varieties Red Fruit Yellow fruit Citrus Floral Spices Herbaceous Balance Color Intensity Color
Syrah ***   * * **   ** dark fushia
Merlot *       ** *** * medium pink
Sciaccarello * **   ** *   *** light orange
Grenache * * ** ** *   *** light orange
Cinsault * *         *** light pink
Pinot Noir **   * ** *   ** light pink
Cab Sauv **       * *** * medium pink
Mourvedre *   *** * ***   ** dark purple
Sangiovese * **   ** ** ** ** medium pink
Zinfandel *** *     *** * ** medium purple



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