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Make Me Blush

Author: Alexandra Russell
October, 2015 Issue

“I love judging Rosé at competitions, because of the visual of all the glasses spread out. You can see the vast color differences and styles.” —Carol Shelton, Carol Shelton Wines

 
 
 
A little more than a decade ago, my husband and I owned and managed a restaurant in Sonoma County. One evening, as dinner service was ramping up, a large, boisterous crowd came in to claim their 12-top reservation.
 
As they were being shown to their table, a gentleman in the group asked, in an ever-so-polite Southern accent, “Do you serve white Zinfandel?” We didn’t.
 
The group quieted and, as my husband tried to assure them we served many lovely wines and there was sure to be something they’d like, they turned in unison and, without another word, exited. In the weeks following, my husband and I joked about how many places they would have had to go before finding what they were looking for.
 
Fast forward to today, and not only is Rosé wine included on most restaurant wine lists, it’s also become a go-to for summer sipping—and beyond. How did that happen? Let’s find out.
 

Fighting misconceptions

Let’s start with the elephant in the room: white Zinfandel.
 
In the United States, the term "Rosé" has long been associated with white Zin, a cheap, very sweet, pink wine that became popular in the 1980s. But internationally, there’s always been a different spin. “The best Rosé wines are refreshing, vibrant, crisp and flavorful,” says local sommelier/wine educator Chris Sawyer. The difference starts in the vineyard.
 
There are many ways to make Rosé. One popular method starts with bleeding juice off of harvested red wine grapes as they’re destemmed; as this drained juice (called saignée, “sahn-yay”) spends virtually no time in contact with the skins, the color is very pale blush or salmon. The juice remaining behind continues its journey to ferment on the skins and ultimately become a red wine. Because the bulk of the grapes are ultimately destined for red wine, they’re picked at full ripeness, and, “when bleeding off ripe red grapes, the alcohol content is very high,” explains Carol Shelton, of Carol Shelton Wines, who’s been making Rosé under her own label since 2002.
 
Another way to produce Rosé is to pick fruit at a lower sugar level (so the resulting alcohol level will be lower) and go directly from the vineyard to the press, separating out 100 percent of the juice at one time. Again, there’s no real skin contact time, so the wines tend to be lighter in color, flavor and body.
 
Shelton makes her Rosé via a combination of these two methods—with a twist. She harvests the grapes at lower sugar, then destems them to a tank and lets them sit on the skins for three days before bleeding off 40 to 50 percent of the juice off as a dark pink saignée. (The remaining “soggy skins” ferment out dry to make a red wine for blending into her Wild Thing Zinfandel.) The dark saignée produces a finished wine that’s cranberry juice in color and very deeply flavored from its long maceration time.
 
“My husband and I always shared a bottle of dry Rosé when we had our business talks,” Shelton shares. “But it was always somebody’s else’s, and I’d pick it apart. He finally told me to, ‘Quit criticizing [these wines] and make your own.’ So I bled off some of my Wild Thing Zinfandel and Karma Zin.”
 
Under Shelton’s masterful hand (she’s the most awarded winemaker in the United States), her Rosé of Zinfandel wasn’t cloyingly sweet. But it also wasn’t financially sustainable: “The grapes were quite pricey to make a $15 Rosé, especially when the red Zins can sell for so much more. We had to find another solution.” She didn’t have to look far.
 
“Carignane grows in the same vineyard as the Wild Thing Zinfandel grapes; the vines are more than 60 years old. Being from Mendocino, the reds up there are typically much lighter bodied and, since Carignane is such a late ripener, I can pick it at lower sugar but at the same time as the very ripe Zinfandel and transport it with the same load. It was a win/win, because it brought the alcohol down and the grapes were a third the cost of Zin [at the time].”
 
Shelton’s Rendezvous Rosé (named for those early business meetings) is still her husband’s evening wine of choice. It’s a luscious representation of the style, with vibrant color, a complex nose, juicy strawberry, watermelon and nice minerality.
 
Like Shelton, Julie Johnson’s Rosé (a unique blend of Zinfandel and Petite Sirah) stands the white Zin preconception on its head. “In 2011, I was worried about my old vine Zinfandel not getting fully ripe [because of the cooler weather],” says the founder/winemaker for Tres Sabores Winery in Rutherford, “and I think I was right to be. So I decided to harvest a bit of the fruit early to give the remaining fruit on the vines time and space to mature.
 
“I harvested one cluster from each cane of some of my Zinfandel vines, whole-cluster pressed it and cold-fermented that to make Rosé. It turned out really well—which was a nice surprise for all of us,” she laughs. “I started in this business to make Zinfandel with Frog’s Leap in 1981. We were among those who fought the battle for red Zin, so I had a rather smug attitude [about white Zin and Rosé wine]. I had to get over that.”
 
Johnson’s Ingrid and Julia Rosé is named for her favorite roses (which, in turn, are named for Ingrid Bergman and Julia Child) and sourced from the same grapes as her Estate Zinfandel, Guarino Vineyard Petite Sirah and ¿Por qué no? red blend. It’s a “Rosé of Intent” (ROI, the second method), meaning she picks a portion of the vineyards early specifically to make Rosé. She describes the result as having “a nose of alpine strawberry—the little fraise des bois. It’s like a Jolly Rancher without the sweetness: that burst of flavor. It’s a nice surprise. It’s not cloying, which is the trick to Rosé.
 
“What’s unusual about my Rosé is the Petite Sirah,” she continues. “That’s why I don’t call it White Zinfandel—because I think that would mislead and disappoint a lot of people who have a set expectation. ‘White Zin’ connotes a certain approach to the flavors and what you’ll get from them.”
 
She adds, “I think the idea has become to take it beyond the simple approach. ROIs have such a nice, surprising zip to them. Really, when it’s well done, Rosé can be one of the most sophisticated wines; it’s nuanced.”
 

Learning from the past

Robert Rex, owner/winemaker at Deerfield Ranch in Sonoma Valley, points to the rise in high-alcohol wine “bombs” in the 1990s—and the resultant pushback after the turn of the century—for the change in U.S. Rosé style. The saignée process was used to remove excess alcohol when those high-intensity wines started losing audience (water was added back to replace the lost juice): “This lowered the sugar level, which resulted in lower alcohol without doing too much to the flavor, because most of the flavor remained in the skins,” he explains.
 
“[Doing this] created a surplus of fresh pink juice, which we used to throw away or give away,” he continues. “But winemakers stared making their own wine with it instead. These new Rosés were dry but still fruity, because our presses are less aggressive than they were 20 years ago; we press at a lower pressure, so we leave behind the harsh tannins—then we don’t need sugar to cover up the tannin.”
 
Often offered first in the tasting room [because there was no retail demand], a new audience was introduced to Rosé—this time, dry, European-style Rosé—and the popularity grew. “At Deerfield, we started to run out of our saignée Rosé, so we picked some of our estate Syrah early for purpose-made Rosé. We liked it so much better, because the bleed wine was always a blend of several varietals—anything that came in too sweet. We now make all of our Rosé from purpose-picked Syrah. We’re back to selling and sometimes giving away our saignée juice.”
 
The Deerfield Checkerbloom Rosé of Syrah is almost dry, with restrained tannin and accentuated fruit. Named for the endangered Checkerbloom plant that grows in the extensive wetlands on the winery property, all the proceeds of the sale of this wine go to the restoration and preservation of these wetlands and the Kenwood Marsh Checkerbloom.
 

True romance

Kathleen Inman first made Rosé in 2004, when she inadvertently scheduled harvest to begin on her 20th wedding anniversary. “I realized what I’d done the night before,” she says. “I had no card or present [for her husband, Simon]. So when I woke to a diamond and a card at 3:30 in the morning, I promised to make a special wine. I called it Endless Crush.”
 
Inman Family Wines Endless Crush is a light, salmon color, refreshing and crisp. Says Inman, “The flavors evolve in Pinot Noir and depend very much on where it’s grown. My Rosé is single vineyard and has a watermelon and fresh strawberry profile. But to me, one of the great pleasures of Rosé is the aromatics; it has beautiful floral notes and bright fruit.”
 
Originally an every-other-year wine, demand now dictates an annual release of her Russian River Valley Rosé of Pinot Noir. Another ROI, the grapes are picked “several weeks in advance of when I’d pick for a red Pinot Noir,” says Inman. “I want the sugar to not be as high, so the potential alcohol is lower. And I want the acidity higher, so I don’t have to add any. I pick it early and press it like a white wine—it’s an expensive way to make Rosé, but I think it’s the best way to make Rosé.”
 
At Balletto Vineyards & Winery, winemaker/Vice President Anthony Beckman is also making Russian River Valley Rosé of Pinot Noir, inspired by a similarly romantic notion. “When [my wife] Alissa and I first met, we had a summer together in San Francisco where all we drank was Rosé, at all price points. So when I got this job, I told her I wanted to make ‘that Rosé’—and she knew exactly what I meant. Finally, in 2008, she told me I’d succeeded.” Ahh, love.
 
Balletto already had a Rosé program in its infancy when Beckman joined in 2006, but he wasted no time before revamping the wine into his vision of what it should be. This involved a move from a full saignée to 75 percent ROI. “We’re also growing some Pinot Noir specifically for Rosé now.
 
“I’d done all kinds of research about Rosé styles worldwide and wanted to change ours to be drier and have more minerality,” he says. “It changed the wine dramatically to what we have today. It’s a beautiful salmon color with really bright acidity. It has weight, but not from sweetness, and it has beautiful aromatics. It’s a much more pleasant wine, and it’s also a much more serious wine. I love that it can be both.”
 
“I think anyone who’s making red wine today is experimenting with Rosé,” says Nick Frey, public relations and brand ambassador at Balletto. “That’s why there’s so much variation [in the grapes being used]. They’ll all have some similarities—because of their early harvest, they’ll be crisp and light—but the different grapes means they’ll all be distinct.”
 
“I think a lot has to do with the changing style,” agrees Beckman. “It took a while for U.S. consumers to catch on that it wasn’t the same sweet thing they knew. People will go to Europe and experience Rosé there. When they come back, they’re looking for that style. It’s slowly shifting the demand.”
 

A Rosé by any name

Mora Estate founder/winemaker Fabiano Ramaci embraces European wine styles as a pioneer making Italian, Amarone-style red wine in Sonoma County (for which grapes are picked at full ripeness then semi-dried before pressing to intensify flavor and color). His Rosato (the Italian word for Rosé wine) also has an international inspiration.
 
“It’s modeled after Bandol, which is from Southern France. I came across it when I was a sommelier in Nantucket for a season,” he says. “I fell in love with it. It’s light, crisp and has really wonderful structure.”
 
Using Italian grape varieties, Ramaci hand selects the best clusters, destems and lets them sit on the skins for about a day before crushing. From there, the juice goes into “almost a white wine program,” he says, fermenting in 50 percent barrel and 50 percent stainless steel, ultimately producing about 50 cases of Rosato. (The fruit that remains in the vineyards is harvested a few weeks later, then dried on trays for 120 days before being crushed and fermented for his Valpo, an Amarone tribute.) “I’ve been trying to perfect my niche with this Rosé, and I think I nailed it with the 2014—the true coral color, beautiful acidity, a round mouthfeel, notes of minerality and stone fruit with hints of tangerine zest.
 
“This is nothing like the stereotype of Rosés we’re familiar with from, say, 15 or 20 years ago. It’s not sweet. It’s dry, light, crisp. You’ll almost think you’re drinking an imported Italian wine. I think it’s beautiful and sexy.”
 
Round Pond Estate in Napa Valley produces a Rosato using Nebiolo grapes (another Italian variety), which is a favorite of winery founder Bob MacDonnell. It started in 2011 as a saignée, “to concentrate the Nebiolo red,” says winemaker Muiris Griffin, “but it sold out really quickly. Who knew it would be right on trend?”
 
An ROI since 2013, production has increased every year since and currently sits at about 400 cases. “We released the 2014 in June and it was gone in a month—faster than we’d want,” he laughs. “I’d love to still have a few bottles for myself!”
 
As a red, Nebiolo produces lightly colored wines that can be highly tannic with scents of tar and roses. These characteristics, says Griffin, “make it well suited to Rosé, because it already has the necessary acidity and lighter color we’re looking for—more salmon than pink.”
 
Once picked (about four to six weeks ahead of the red wine harvest), fruit is left in the press for about six hours under a thick blanket of dry ice, “which helps break down the skin and extract what little color there is,” says Griffin. “After that, it’s very similar to our Sauvignon Blanc protocol: two days of natural settling at 40 degrees, then into another tank for fermentation. It stays in stainless throughout production. It gets a long, slow fermentation to guard those aromatics.”
 
“Some of the red fruit characters carry over into the Rosé,” he adds, “but they’re truly different beasts.”
 

In all seriousness

For those who still aren’t convinced that these new Rosés are worth a try, I checked in with Chimney Rock winemaker/General Manager Elizabeth Vianna, who’s overseen the Stags Leap District winery’s Rosé of Cabernet Franc for a decade (the program has existed since the late 1990s).
 
“I think of [ours] as a Cabernet drinker’s Rosé,” she says, “because it has more structure and color. But that’s what we do: We’re a Cab house. So I think it makes sense for our style of Rosé to be a little more intense.” A brilliant ruby red (Vianna calls it “a jewel”), the wine has fresh cherries, violets, clove and white pepper on the nose; and flavors of strawberry, bright cherry, and a long, soft finish.
 
“This definitely isn’t Cab Franc-light,” says Vianna. “It doesn’t even smell like Cab Franc to me. It’s like a party in a glass—I think of it as celebratory.”
 
Farther north, at Rutherford Hill Winery, winemaker/General Manager Marisa Taylor is also making “a red wine lover’s white wine,” as she describes her Rosé, which is a saignée style wine of 85 percent Merlot and 15 percent Cabernet Franc.
 
“This is darker pink than a lot of other Rosés. The Merlot gives it a lot of body and fruit tones,” she says. “For me, I get strawberries, but also violets, floral, lavender and even watermelon rind. And there’s a bit more tannin [than in lighter Rosés] so it holds up to heartier foods.” (See “Surprisingly Versatile,” page ??)
 
Available only at the tasting room or through the wine club, the 400-case annual production sells out quickly. “It’s meant to sell in a season—and it always does,” says Taylor.
 
This year, Taylor also sourced some Syrah for an ROI: “We went direct-to-press, like we would with Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc,” she says. “We’ll try a Provence [French]-style Rosé from that as an experiment; it may become a stand-alone project.
 
“It’s always nice to have something fun and different to offer.”
 

Don’t be shy

If you’re just starting to explore the world of Rosé and are wondering how to get started, “Start with red varietals you know you like—Pinot Noir, Grenache, Syrah, even field blends—and look for Rosés made from them,” suggests Sawyer. The flavors and aromas will be different because of the winemaking process, but you’ll have a familiar touchstone from which to compare and contrast.
 
Stay open minded, urges Shelton: “Personally, I look for deeper color, because it will have deeper flavor as well. If you’re a red wine drinker, you’ll probably prefer that, because it’s going to have something closer to a red wine flavor profile—maybe a bit more tannin and definitely more depth of flavor. The pale ones are good too, but don’t expect an earth-moving experience. They’re meant to be a quick quaff.”
 
Decide whether you want a light, lower-alcohol sipper or something for the table,” advises Virginie Boone, contributing editor at Wine Enthusiast magazine. “There’s a wide range of alcohol levels and impact in Rosé. Many consumers may not realize that, thinking they’re only picnic wines, which many are—but they also deserve the same amount of attention and respect as any other wine.”
 
Winemakers agree: “People tend to think of Rosé as not a serious wine,” says Vianna, “but I think this is a wine that can be taken seriously. It feels like there’s definitely a Rosé revolution going on right now—I love it.”
 

Surprisingly Versatile

One common theme when researching this article was the versatility of Rosé when pairing it with food. “For me, wine is food,” says Rutherford Hill’s Marisa Taylor. “Rosé is just another opportunity to pair something in an interesting way.”
 
“I love Rosé with rich foods,” says Ryan MacDonnell, owner of Round Pond. “It can be simple, like a cheese plate with honey and nuts, but the crisp wine works with the salt-and-sweet combination. It’s also really delicious with spicy or salty foods like prosciutto.”
 
Many winemakers recommended light fish dishes, including salmon, ahi poke and pesci crudo, while others stressed its ability to stand up to heartier fare like ethnic cuisine (tacos al pastor, pizza and spicy curries).
 
“In Napa Valley, three restaurants carry my Rosé,” says Julie Johnson of Tres Sabores, “[they’re] Hog Island Oyster Bar, Fatted Calf and Press. Those menus cover about the whole gamut of food possibilities. But Rosé is such a versatile food wine that it stands up to salt, spice, smoke and heat. Plus, it’s less tannic that a red wine, so it also pairs like a white wine.”
 
One opinion was unanimous: “They’re meant to be enjoyed year round, and one of the best ways is at Thanksgiving dinner,” says winemaker Carol Shelton. “The traditional holiday meals—roast turkey, cranberry, sweet potato, ham—everything on that table goes well with Rosé. Plus, so many of those foods are heavy, and the Rosé lightens and brightens them up.”
 

Brosé: Real Men Drink Pink

Among some male wine drinkers, there’s a perception that Rosé is “girly wine.” I get it: It’s pink, and it might have cooties. “A lot of men are more reluctant to try Rosé,” agrees Elizabeth Vianna of Chimney Rock Winery.
 
But in June, Details magazine published an article chronicling the rising acceptance of Rosé among men. Part snark and part statistic, the article points to aging hipsters (“[he] was probably in a hard-core band that I loved and is now in some electro-clash band…and [has] two kids and collects records”) and indecisive millennials (“Rosé offers something even more valuable than aspiration—the luxury of non-choice”) as leading the trend.
 
It also quotes Paul Mabray, Rosé enthusiast and CEO of VinTank, the world's largest software company for wineries, who points to the 2012 release of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s Rosé, Chateau Miraval, as the breakthrough moment of what Details calls “brosé culture”: “The fact that a man is part of that probably doesn't hurt in the gender transcendence as well.”
 
Read the whole article at www.details.com/blogs/daily-details/2015/06/brose-pink-wine-for-men.html
 

More to Try

In addition to the winemakers interviewed for this article, here are some additional North Bay Rosés to try, as recommended by sommelier Chris Sawyer and Wine Enthusiast Contributing Editor Virginie Boone:
 
• Charles Heintz Rosé of Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast
 
• Etude Pinot Noir Rosé Carneros
 
• Gary Farrell Rosé of Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley
 
• Kokomo Grenache Rosé
 
• Lynmar Rosé of Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley
 
• Muscardini Cellars Rosato di Sangiovese
 
• Peay Vineyards Cep Russian River Valley Rosé
 
• Red Car Rosé of Pinot Noir
 
• Scalon Cellars Syrah Rosé
 
• Sidebar Rosé Russian River Valley
 
• Tedeschi Family Winery Rosé of Charbono and Old Vine Gamay
 
• Unti Dry Creek Valley Rosé

 

 

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