Amateur Wine Taste-Along: Rosé

Robyn Lee

My introduction to "pink wine" came in a box: a box of Franzia's White Zinfandel. (Anyone else?) It was the wine of choice at frat parties where the hosts wanted "something girls would drink" (that is, something other than Milwaukee's Best) poured out by the Solo-cupful. At the time, when pretty much everything I wanted to drink tasted like Kool-Aid, its strawberry-soda flavor suited me just fine.

As I became a more practiced wine drinker—more practiced as in, I drank out of a glass made of glass and knew that ordering Chardonnay would get me a white wine—I started looking down on anything pink, thinking that color would always indicate a sticky-sweet wine about as sophisticated as a Bacardi Breezer. But that early judgment from a still-novice drinker was wrong, too.

It wasn't until my Francophile boyfriend (who wouldn't drink anything but Ricard or chilled rosé in the summer, the better to grease his pétanque game) started uncorking bottle after bottle of dry, refreshing rosé from Provence and the Loire Valley that I started to appreciate how, well, good they could be.

What Rosé Is Not: Other Pink Wines

When many people (particularly in the United States) think of pink-hued wine, it's White Zinfandel that comes to mind. That's a wine that took off in the 1970s, after an incident at Sutter Home Winery in California's Napa Valley, as they were producing a barrel of wine that didn't quite finish turning into wine. In order to turn grape juice into the buzz-inducing beverage it is, yeast do the work, digesting the sugars from that juice and making alcohol as a by-product; in this case, something called "stuck fermentation" occurred: the yeast had all died out, but a significant amount of sugar remained. The result was a light pink, sweet beverage that wasn't as strong or dry as intended—but the winemakers had a hunch they could market it anyway. And indeed, the sweet, cheery, fruity wine was a runaway hit: White Zin soon became the most popular wine in America.

A rosé is something different. They're dry, with little to no residual sugar; they're made with a different method. When you see "White Zinfandel," you're probably looking at something with a decent amount of sugar; but a pink wine by any other name is not as sweet.

How Does Rosé Turn Rose?

So what gives rosé wine its distinctive color? It's not grown from pink grapes, or grapes with pink juice; it's also not usually the blend of red and white wine*. There are two different commonly used methods to get the pink in the drink: saignée and skin contact.

*Though sometimes it is. We'll get to that later.

Red wine gets its color from the skins of the grapes; the crushed skins leach their color into the juice during the winemaking process, imparting that hue. Traditionally, many winemakers wanted their red wine more concentrated in color, tannin, and flavor than they were getting. So early in the winemaking process, the not-quite-red-yet wine, a shade of pink, would be siphoned off (or bled) into another barrel, where it's made into finished wine. In the original barrel, you get less juice but all the skins, allowing you to create a deeper-colored red wine. In the other, you get wine that's just barely tinted by the skin's pigments: that's the rosé. It's called the saignée method, from a word meaning "to bleed"—as if they were "bleeding" the pink wine from the rest of the barrel.

But you don't need red wine to make rose; you can make it on its own, too, in a method referred to as skin contact. In that case, you start the process more or less the same way you would a red wine—skins and juice in the barrel together—and the juice macerates (that is, steeps with the skins) for a short time: maybe a few days, maybe just a few hours. Then the skins are removed.

There is a third method, which we mentioned above: blending, which is just what it sounds like: mixing red and white wine. It's often looked down on as an inferior method of producing rosé; that said, it's worth noting that many rosé Champagne producers use this method.

Due to all the different ways rosé can be made, the wines vary widely in color—from a light, light pink barely distinguishable from white wine, to a deep, almost purple-y red.

And What Are They Like?

Because rosé wines come from many different grapes, they're even harder to classify that some of the other categories we've tackled. They're not just grown in different regions, in different years, and turned into wine by different vineyards, but they're actually different grapes. As a result, we can expect a lot of variation from our wines this week.

Wine #1: Long Island's North Fork (Merlot / Cab Franc / Syrah)

While a few decades ago, few people would have thought of New York as a place for a respectable vineyard, the state's Finger Lakes and parts of Long Island have become wine countries in their own right. We're trying Bedell Cellars 2010 Taste Rose ($13), a blend of multiple grapes—mostly Merlot (which New York grows quite a bit of), about a quarter Cabernet Franc (ditto), plus Syrah and Petit Verdot. The grapes are pressed whole and left in contact with skins before those skins are removed.

Wine #2: South Africa (Cabernet Sauvignon)

South Africa is another up-and-coming wine region where it's possible to find great values. Mulderbosch Vineyards, in wine region Stellenbosch Hills, makes primarily white wines, but they have a rosé, as well: the Cabernet Sauvignon Rosé 2010 ($10). It's another rosé made via the skin contact method; the grapes crushed, lightly pressed, and then fermented. It's Cabernet Sauvignon all the way, no blending.

Wine #3 and #4: France (Cabernet Franc; Grenache)

From the Old World, we'll try two French rosés: one from the Loire Valley in central France; one from the Côtes du Rhône in the southeast. Chinon, in the central Loire Valley, is a big producer of Cabernet Franc, and the Jean-Maurice Raffault Chinon Rose 2010 ($16) is made entirely from that grape; 1/3 of the wine is obtained via the saignée method we talked about above; the remaining 2/3 of the wine comes from grapes that have been pressed whole, with the skins discarded as we see in the skin contact method.

The Côtes du Rhône produces a great deal of Grenache, so it's no surprise that that grape figures heavily in the M. Chapoutier Côtes du Rhône Rosé Belleruche 2010 ($9). It's not all Grenache, but that's the primary grape; it's blended with Cinsault and Syrah, two other grapes you'll see a lot of in that region.

Wine #5 and #6: California (Pinot Noir; Grenache)

Finally, we'll head back to Sonoma for our last two rosés. California's Anderson Valley is well-known for its Pinot Noir, so we're looking forward to their Lazy Creek Vineyards Rose of Pinot Noir ($18). It's all Pinot, nothing else; the grapes are crushed with the skin left on for just a few hours, before they're fermented and aged in neutral barrels. At 14.5%, it's a boozy wine, a little more so than our other pick: the Isabel's Cuvée Grenache Rosé 2010 ($18) from cult favorite winery Donkey and Goat. This wine is all Grenache Gris, those grapes grown in Mendocino County's McDowell Valley. Like the Lazy Creek, it's all one varietal (no other grapes mixed in); it's also aged in neutral barrels.

Come Drink With Us!

So grab a few bottles of rosé—these, or whatever you can find—and join us back here next week, as we chat about what we've tasted.