A Rosé By Any Other Name

(Originally published May 2002)

Yeah, it was only two months ago that Hanes was singing the praises of dessert wines but when New York City hits 94 degrees in April, he starts thinking about summer wines awfully quickly! So to help his loyal readers get in the swing of things, he will now discuss those wines that make you blush, the ever-popular rosé. Memorial Day here we come!

Rosé wines are made throughout the world, from many different types of grapes. There is no "rosé" grape. Instead, the class of wines called rosé (or whatever the local language's word for it) is more the result of a certain winemaking process. The process is as follows.

Rosé wines are made from red-skinned grapes, the same grapes that make red wine. For the most part the wines are made in the same manner as red wines. Wine's color comes from the juice coming into contact with the pigments in the grape's skins. So, the basic technique in making a rosé wine is to leave the juice exposed to the skins for much less time than with fully red wines. This process, called "maceration," is monitored by the winemaker very closely to achieve the desired color. Also, since the skins and stems impart tannins to the wine, the winemaker must also strive to get the right level of tannins in the rosé as well as color -- most rosé wines are supposed to be fruity and light and not have an excessive tannic bite.

First, you crush the grapes, pressing either intentionally or simply through the weight of the pile of grapes to get the juice out. The first method is more common, especially for larger production wines. Winemakers call the second method "free run" juice because no human or machine presses the grapes -- even as they lose their juice they retain their inherent capital and are free from the constraints of alienation whereby a faceless capitalist pig strips the grapes of their juice in return for a set wage and/or home in a fermentation vat.

Second, during the maceration period you decide how long the juice needs contact with the skins. If the grapes are very darkly pigmented or you desire a very lightly colored rosé, the contact may be only a few hours. The juice is then removed from contact with the skins and placed in a fermentation vessel, usually stainless steel. Note that unlike red or white wines, the more delicate rosé wine gains little from being placed in oak barrels, the flavors of which could throw the wine into imbalance. So, the whole fermentation process occurs in stainless steel until the wine is bottled. Again, this is mainly the part of the process where the "character" of the rosé comes from -- its color, flavor, level of tannins, etc.

Third, however, is the part of the show where the winemaker has at her discretion further choices to effect the character of the wine. This is where the wine is "bled." But you can never say that or you will look like a total loser. You have to refer to this process as "saignée." Stand in front of a mirror and watch your lips until you get the pronunciation down right. As far as Hanes can tell, saignée is just a fancy way of saying that you are drawing off the juice bit-by-bit. It appears that what makes this conceptual term unique from simply removing all the juice from contact with skins and stems is that the wine that is removed becomes rosé while the wine that remains behind becomes red wine. The idea then being that the rosé is more concentrated, complex, and deeply hued because the wine it left behind becomes red wine. Uhh, sure, whatever. Anyway, the point is that you gotta remove the juice from the skins sooner rather than later if you want to make a rosé. Got it.

Because they are lighter and supposed to be consumed while youthfully fresh, rosé does not need to be aged all that long. Usually, the current vintage and maybe the previous one are going to be nicely dry and crisp, and with a few exceptions anything older will be more or less DOA. To highlight the acidity and crispness rosé wines should be drunk slightly chilled, not necessarily as cold as white wines but definitely a good bit below room temperature.

Hanes should mention that some rosé wines are made in another fashion, by blending red and white wines together. This is usually the case with rosé Champagne, the white Chardonnay wine being mixed with small amounts of wine from the red Pinot Noir and/or Pinot Meunier grapes. Since Hanes loves rosé Champagne he accepts this. However, a bunch of commercial grade rosé wine is made this way and usually goes by the alternative label of "blush" (or sometimes Vin Gris) wines. These wines often lack distinctive character and tend to be sweeter than rosé wines made as above.

Repugnant as it is to mention them, there are many wines, particularly from California, that are also called "blush" wines but are not truly blends of vinified white and red wines but made more like traditional rosé. These are, yes, those wines known as White Zinfandel and White Merlot (and White Anything). Please do not confuse these wines with the spirit of true rosé. First, rosé is supposed to be dry or off-dry whereas White Zinfandel is supposed to be sweet. The color of rosé or White Zinfandel may be similar but because White Zinfandel is vinified to be sweeter these wines really belong in their own category, regardless of the color of the wine. Drink White Zinfandel if you must but please do not invite that effete snob, Hanes, to partake.

As mentioned, rosé is made the world over. Each individual person may develop a fondness for rosé produced in a certain region but here are some of the more well-known areas making top-notch rosé wine, ones you may want to try first if you are just dipping your toe into the worldwide pool of rosé.

Rosé is made all over France but usually the best comes from three regions, Provence, the Loire Valley and the Rhône Valley. In Provence, you can look for sub-designations such as Côtes de Provence, Les Baux de Provence, or Coteaux d'Aix en Provence. But the bad boy of Provence are the rosé wines of Bandol. These are usually more muscular and intense wines. And, naturally, more expensive. In the Loire, dependable rosé comes from Anjou, Bourgueil, and Sancerre. In Hanes's experience, of the three, the Sancerre rosé can be the most structured. In the Rhône Valley, the basic Côtes-du-Rhône rosé can be quite nice, as can those from Costières de Nîmes, but the best are the ones from the town of Tavel. As with Bandol, Tavel can be pricey but if you want to try the best, look for some Tavel.

Spain and Portugal make some very competent rosé, and often at a highly competitive price. Going by the name rosado, Hanes has found the majority he has swilled to be lighter in style. The best Spanish ones usually come from Rioja or Navarra. They are mostly recommended for parties or back porch sipping and not for pairing with heavier meals. Or you can get some of the ever-famous Mateus or Lancers rosé wines from Portugal and hang out with your grandma on some park bench.

Italy makes some very nice rosé wines (called rosato) but sadly Hanes has not had the opportunity to try that many. It seems that Tuscany and some other regions like Abruzzi, Campania, Sicilia, or Puglia make the best ones. Italy offers probably the most diversity in rosé wines after France.

Rosé, blush wines, Vin Gris, etc. from California will be sweet. That's just the facts. The minimal amount of dry, traditional rosé being made in the U.S. deserves our praise but it is a drop in the bucket. For now, be pleasantly surprised if you find a dry one but don't expect to find it.

Hanes assumes that places like Germany, Austria, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, etc. make rosé wines. After all, why deprive oneself of more opportunities to say "saignée"? But you're on your own here. It's no secret that Hanes drinks mostly French rosé. Any recommendations are accepted with the usual Hanes snide derision.

As for food pairings, rosé usually works best with seafood, stuff like tuna, salmon, shrimp, scallops. Some lighter poultry or veal dishes might do the trick too. Maybe some salad, soup or light cheese and fruit plates. But try to avoid aggressive spices and or food you have to kill with a gun.