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What is Rosé Wine and How is it Made?

July 3, 2020

We asked our friend Molly, winemaker for Alta Colina Vineyard & Winery, to give us the lowdown on one of our favorite wines, Rosé! Read all about how rosé is made, what makes it different from other wines, and what food plays well with this pink beauty.

Rosé is one of my favorite wines to make and to drink. The recent popularity of Rosé has changed how and when we drink rosé and has catapulted this category into a year-round favorite.

Unfortunately, Rosé had a bad rep due to the sweet Lancers and white Zinfandels of yester-year. Today we’re fortunate to be part of a paradigm shift which has pushed wineries to produce high-quality dry Rosé, which has brought you (wine consumers) a wide array of delicious, dry (not sweet) wines that rival many old-world favorites, all at a price point that won’t break the bank. The popularity of this wine has attracted many superstars to jump on board and create Rosé-focused wine brands. You can find Rose’s from Brangelina, Post Malone, Mary J. Blige, and even Bon Jovi (to name a few).

What Makes Rosé Different from Other Wines?

Rosé is sexy. It comes in a wide array of pinkish hues ranging from pale, light salmon to peach and even magenta. There are many things that affect the end-product like terroir, varietal, winemaking techniques etc. From dry to sweet, bold to light, crisp to opulent, fruity to minerality focused. There are so many different styles of Rosé, that there is surely a Rosé out there for everyone.

The almost overnight colossal rise of Rosé shocked a lot of people; even us as winemakers. We all loved to make good Rosé but found that the majority of the public still took some convincing. Eight years ago I would attempt to pour Rosé for someone and they would tell me “no thank you, I don’t like sweet wine;” now you are hard-pressed to find someone who turns down a glass of rosé any time of the day, or year for that matter. Wine lists that ten years ago would maybe feature one white Zin now find themselves with three Rosé offerings.

With the rapid success, many thought it was just a fad that would fade away with the likes of the Cosmo as a female drink trend. Luckily for all of us Rosé lovers that did not happen. Instead, the competition got fierce and it has pushed everyone to continue to move the needle to produce the highest quality Rose’s possible. Great packaging may make a one-time sale, but the wine-drinking public has honed in their palates and now require a high-quality Rosé inside that packaging.

What Foods Pair Well With Rosé?

With the rise of Rosé many thought that it would solely be a summer wine, but even that has proved wrong.  Rosé is consumed year-round, and one thing that makes it so approachable is its versatility with food pairings.  Not only does Rosé pair beautifully with eggs and salmon (hello brunch), but it goes great with everything from appetizers to desserts! Rosé lends itself to a broad range of foods that a red or a white wine could not compete with. The inherently fruity characteristics like watermelon, strawberry, and guava complement summer salads, think watermelon-feta, or prosciutto-wrapped melon, while it also pairs with vegetable dishes (even asparagus), poached salmon, and fruit-based desserts like sorbet and olive oil cake.

How is Rosé Wine Made?

Rosé can be made from any red grape, however certain varietals lend themselves more readily to this category like Grenache, Mourvèdre and Pinot Noir.  Generally speaking, lighter skinned red grapes with fruity characteristics are great candidates for Rosé.  Regardless of grape varietal, there are two main techniques to vinify Rosé: the Saignee method and vin gris (or direct press).  There is also the less common method of blending a white wine with red wine, which is seldom used with quality wine producers, and even illegal in France (except for Champagne).

In the Saigne method, red grapes are harvested to become a red wine; the grapes are de-stemmed, sorted, and sent to tank for cold-soaking (the grapes are held cold for a desired period of time prior to fermentation, a common practice in red-wine production). Usually, as quickly as possible a portion of the juice is bled off (Saigne means to bleed in French) and set aside to be made into Rosé. For the tank of red wine, this means that you will have less juice to skin ratio, which in turn will create a more concentrated red wine. If the red grapes are picked at riper levels (more typical for red wine) this method can result in juice that has the DNA of a red wine, that is to say, the sugar is higher and the acid is lower. Sometimes to make an approachable Rosé the winemaking team will add water and acid to this juice prior to fermentation.

The vin gris, or direct press, method involves harvesting grapes that are destined for Rosé, meaning they are usually picked at a lower sugar level (resulting in lower alcohol) and higher acid level. The grapes are then pressed (usually in a bladder press) and fermented off the skins, just like a white wine. Because the juice is coming from red grapes it will be naturally tinted pink. The more time the juice is in contact with the skins the darker the color will be. Some people choose to press the whole clusters with no skin contact time, and others prefer to de-stem the fruit and leave the juice in contact with the skins for a desired period of time (from hours to a day or so) prior to pressing. The more time the juice is left in contact with the skins the more color and flavors will be extracted into the juice.

The pink juice is then fermented like a white wine: the juice is fermented separately from the skins (the skins are usually brought to the vineyard to incorporate in a compost program or fed to livestock). Fermentation for Rosé most commonly occurs in the tank, but it can also be done in barrels (typically neutral barrels as new oak does not lend itself to Rosé).  A variety of winemaking decisions can affect the outcome like fermentation temperature, speed, yeast selection, the addition of enzymes, prohibiting or encouraging malolactic fermentation etc.

Rosé is unique as it really is its own category of wine. It is typically not meant to age, and drinks best within a year or two of the vintage it was harvested. It really bridges the gap between most white wines and red wines as it typically has more body and fruit than a white wine, and more acid and softer than a red wine. It has the acidity and alcohol levels of a white wine with flavors and weight of a lighter red.

Rosés are found all over the world and many regions have their own techniques for vinification and varietal choices. Provence and Tavel in France are well known for their Rosés made from Grenache, Mourvèdre, Syrah, Carignan, Counoise, and Cinsault to name a few. Provence has a pale hue and lends itself to a vin gris vinification, where Tavel is darker in color and is typically produced by the saigne method and/or longer skin contact. California produces beautiful rose from Pinot Noir in the cooler regions, to Rhône varietals in the warmer regions. I can’t think of many wine-growing countries/states that do not produce a Rosé.

If you can’t tell by now, I’m a little obsessed with Rosé! Living in Paso Robles means hot days and the first thing I want when I get home from hiking vineyards is a cold glass of Rosé. Paso Robles is a great location for Rosé as our limestone soils help maintain acidity and minerality, and the vast number of varietals create a lot of versatility. At Alta Colina, we produce a 100% Grenache Rosé that sells out before the middle of summer. There are so many amazing Rosés in our area it’s hard to pick just one, but some of my favorites include Halter Ranch, Tablas Creek’s Patelin, L’Aventure, and Clos Solène. I hope you find yourself opening a bottle of Rosé tonight! Cheers! – Molly