One of the most important long-term trends in California wine over the last decade has been the dramatic rise in both the quality and volume of rosé wines.
The fastest growth in the category seems to be in the last three years, with almost every winery that has a tasting room making at least a small amount of rosé, and many making a lot of it. Rosé has been around for decades, but great rosé is a recent phenomenon. Today, it has reached a pinnacle of quality that is hard to describe.
I first discovered that rosé was better than its reputation in the early 1970s when Sutter Home White Zinfandel was first produced as a dry wine. Spring after spring, as soon as it was released, I’d buy a case and nurse it through the summer. It was a delightful quaff, as well as a similar wine from Caymus, (called oeil de perdrix, or “eye of the partridge”), and then later I was smitten with one from Sebastiani (which used the term “eye of the swan.”) Sutter Home still makes white zinfandel, though since about 1975 it has been sweeter than it started out to be.
Pink wine had been produced for years in Europe, but it really never developed much character until stainless steel tanks were widely used in the late 1960s to allow fermentations to be done at low temperatures, which retained grapes’ natural fruitiness.
When made in unrefrigerated wooden vats, rosé wasn’t very good. It lacked the freshness and zest of today’s pinks, partially as a result of some unfortunately horrible examples in which producers left so much residual sugar that the wines were cloyingly sweet, and largely unappealing to wine lovers.
Another questionable tactic that came into play in the 1980s was that of making pink wine as a byproduct of trying to make darker red wines. Many wineries harvested their red wine grapes at traditional sugar levels and started a fermentation intending to make red wine. Several hours after the start of fermentation, some of the juice would be drawn off after it had acquired a slight bit of color and was still light pink. It was allowed to finish fermentation without further contact with the grape skins. That produced a “rosé,” but it generally had the same alcohol as the now-darker red wine (which was made with a higher percentage of the color-rich skins).
This method, referred to by the French term saingée (san-yay), (bleeding), had alcohol levels above 14 percent. Since rosé is usually best at between 11 and 13 percent alcohol, such wines were often heavy and clumsy.
The best way to make rosé, most winemakers believe, is to harvest red grapes early (earlier than what would otherwise make a fine red table wine) and ferment the wine on the skins for just a short period of time before removing the skins and letting the wine finish fermentation with only minimal skin contact.
Such wines often take on a pale pink tinge, occasionally even just a slight salmon color, or even light copper. The aromas can be fascinating, often hinting at berries or blossoms, occasionally with an almost Champagne-like minerality.
The secret to great pink wine is the management of red wine tannins (which can be bitter), the careful use of residual sugar,and the interaction of high acidity to offset any sugar that is used to buffer the tannins.