Rosé season is upon us - hurrah! It’s the time of year for venturing out onto the terrace with friends (pandemic permitting) and just relaxing. There’s definitely something special about that first glass of rosé that welcomes-in better weather. Yet, despite the fact we drink a lot of it, many people don’t really quite know what rosé is.
Making rosé is a simple enough concept, but real winemaking skill is required to achieve success. White wine tends to have more delicate flavours than red. Make no mistake there are some hefty whites out there as well as some superb light reds, but the majority of white wine is defined by aromas and flavours that are predominantly floral or based on white and citrus fruits, and noticeable acidity is an important aspect of ensuring these wines are refreshing.
Red wine typically has more robust aromas and flavours - red and black fruits, plus a whole range of additional flavours created by winemaking techniques and bottle age. So the challenge for the rosé winemaker is to introduce enough of the red fruit flavours and smells without overpowering the inherent qualities of the white wine.
The key to understanding rosé is to understand the difference between how red and white wines are made. There are very rare exceptions, but for simplicity let’s say that all grapes are ‘white’ inside e.g. the flesh and the juice are clear. White wine is made by gently pressing the grapes to release the juice and then fermenting it - there’s a little more to it (quite a bit actually but this is a blog not double chemistry), but that’s the idea. The skins are kept away from the juice in most cases and play no part. There is nothing red involved so the outcome is white wine. Simples!
With red wine, the grapes have to have skins that are red (black or purple really), and instead of just squeezing the juice out, the winemaker puts whole grapes into a vat and crushes them all up together - the resultant ‘mush’ is called must. There the grapes begin to ferment and the juice starts to absorb the red pigment from the skins. This is encouraged by regularly mixing the juice and skins by ‘punching down’ the floating skins or sucking the juice from the bottom of the vat and pumping it over the skins. The skins bring other qualities such as flavour and tannin to the red wine as it develops, but the immediately obvious difference is the colour. Put simply, the longer the juice remains in contact with the skins the darker red the final wine is, and most red wines ferment and develop for at least two weeks and often a lot longer.
Making rosé therefore requires grapes with red skins, because without them there can be no colour. So rosé is initially made in exactly the same way as red wine. The skins go in with the juice and begin to absorb some of the red colour as well as some flavours from the skins. The winemaker then has to decide when to separate the juice and the skins, and generally this happens within the range of 12 to 36 hours - so not very long at all. The result is pink, and most rosé is best described as exactly that. Some wines however have orange hints and this colour is known as salmon. Very occasionally a rosé is made that is actually orange in colour. These are rare and should not be confused with orange wine, which typically comes from eastern Europe and is often quite savoury. There is an old saying about orange wine which is that you should be sitting down when you have your first sip! So probably not what you want if you’re expecting a light and delicately fruity rosé!
A successful rosé wine will blend the best qualities of the white wine with subtle flavours and aromas from the red, and the result should be fresh, appealing and delicious!
I always like to finish with some facts to impress your friends, so here’s a goodie! There are other ways of making rosé (and none of them are the ‘shandy’ method!). One is called the saignée method, so you get to impress your friends with your French too! It means ‘bleed’ and refers to the practice of removing some of the juice from the must of a red wine that is already fermenting.
Sometimes when a red wine is being fermented the winemaker realises there is too much juice and not enough skins, which can result in a wine that lacks flavour and texture. This can happen for example if heavy rain before harvest causes the grapes to swell with more water than usual. To concentrate the flavours again the winemaker bleeds off some of the juice, and may then use that juice to make a rosé wine. Because they are a by-product of red wine rather than a purpose-made rosé, some folk look down on saignée wines as inferior. The main difference you might notice is that they are usually darker in colour and - unsurprisingly - more dominated by red wine flavours. Because we’re all different some people prefer this - so if you think most rosé is a bit wishy-washy, look out for a saignée rosé and give it a try. If you enjoy it bear in mind that it will have a ‘big brother’ (sister?) - namely the original red wine - from the same producer. Now if that doesn’t impress your friends I don’t know what will!