It’s that time of the year again. Spring is finally starting to show its face and the sun is starting to shine warmer and brighter. What better way to enjoy a warm spring afternoon than with a glass of cold, crisp, and DRY rosé.
Many of you have probably noticed over the last few years that the rosé market has exploded here in California. And these are not the sweet, cloying white zinfandels your parents may have drank. Many of today’s rosés are bone dry, mineral, food-friendly that deserve attention. But this isn’t a novel concept for most of the old world.
The rosés of Provence have been made in this style for generations. So how did we here in California and the United States as a whole begin to associate rosés with sugary, nondescript, pink wine? And speaking of, how is it pink anyway? Let’s take a refreshing dive into our favorite warm weather, porch pounding pink drink.
How Rosé is Made
You may look at a bottle of rosé of pinot noir and think to yourself, “Pinot noir is a red grape and a red wine, how is it also a rosé wine?” Let’s start with the basics: almost all grapes (red and white) produce the same color juice, clear. Red wine is made by letting the skins of red grapes soak in their clear juice.
After an extended period of time, the skins are filtered out and the resulting juice is red. White wine generally has the grape skins filtered out immediately after the grapes are crushed and the juice is kept clear. If white grape skins are left to soak in white grape juice for an extended period of time you end up with orange wine, which is another rising trend in the wine world that may be the topic for a later post.
The first thing to know about rosé is that they are (almost) always made of red or a blend of red varietals. While the more common ones are made of pinot noir and grenache or grenache blends, any red grape can make pink wine. There are three styles for making rosé wine. However, only two of them are generally considered in quality winemaking. The first is the maceration method, sometimes referred to as “direct to press” depending on maceration time. This simply means that the grapes are grown, harvested, and picked with the sole intention of making a rosé.
After the grapes are picked and crushed, the juice will remain in contact with the skin of the grapes for anywhere from a couple of hours to a day or two. At which point all the skins are removed and the juice moves on to fermentation. Followers of this method will generally tell you this is the superior style.
The second method is known as saignée, which means to bleed. With this process, the grapes are grown, harvested, and picked with the intention of making red wine. Just like with the maceration method, the skins will remain in the juice for a similar length of time, at the end of which, only a small portion of the juice will be “bled off” from the main batch. This small portion will then move on to fermentation and become rosé. The remaining wine now has a higher skin to juice ratio and will lead to a much more concentrated and intense red wine.
The final method and the least popular among winemakers is blending. This is exactly as it sounds; white wine plus red wine equals pink wine. It doesn’t take much white wine to change red to pink, usually around 10% or so. The dichotomy of blending to make rosé is that it is most common at opposite ends of the quality spectrum. It is common in mass produced inexpensive rosé (White Girl Rosé is a blend of Zinfandel and Sauvignon Blanc) but also in the making of sparkling rosés (usually rarer and more expensive than their white counterparts.) Now that we know a little about how its made, let’s take a look at it’s recent history and its ebbs and flows in popularity.
Rosé’s History in America
“Is it sweet?” The first words out of almost everyone’s mouth when I recommend a rosé after telling me they’re looking for something crisp and refreshing. Asked with the same suspicion a child might ask “Are they good?” when handed their first plate of Brussel sprouts. The answer to both is no. But why is this the first question that comes to mind? Why do many of us assume pink wine is overproduced, sweet, pink sugar-water? Believe it or not, Sutter Home should not take full responsibility for this. The preconceived notion of rosés being sweet dates back to the 1940s with the introduction of Mateaus and Lancers, both off-dry pink wines imported from Portugal.
Mateus and Lancers struck a chord with the Americans for the first few years in the market. Soon after though, they both built a reputation for being cheap and poorly made. Part of Lancers appeal was the unique packaging, but this would also be its ultimate downfall. Lancers was bottled in a frosted ceramic container that allowed the wine to oxidize and turn brown before too long.
After a decade or two of declining sales, Mateus saw a resurgence in the 1970s with a number of unofficial celebrity endorsements; a photo of Jimi Hendrix drinking it straight from the bottle, Queen Elizabeth requesting bottles of it at The Savoy, and Elton John’s lyrics “I get juiced on Mateus and just hang loose” from Social Disease (by the way Elton, it’s pronounced Mah-tey-oos”). Even with this resurgent popularity, rosé was still looked down upon by people in the serious wine community.
Enter Sutter Home. Inextricably linked to white zinfandel, Sutter Home’s original intention was never to make a sweet blush wine. In the early 1970s, Bob Trinchero originally created White Zinfandel as a byproduct of his Amador County Zinfandel. Using the saignée method to create a bolder red zinfandel, their first few vintages of white zinfandel were drier style rosés sold only out of the tasting room. Then in 1975, the white zinfandel fermentation stuck (stopped converting sugar in to alcohol) and was left with a significant amount of residual sugar and low alcohol. Seeing the rising trend of Mateus, Sutter Home took their now sweet White Zinfandel to market, and the rest is history.
For the next 30 or so years, the world of rosé and serious wine could not be more separate. Famed sommelier Rajat Parr even said he did not sell a single bottle of rosé while working in fine dining from 1996 to 2009. It was during the mid-2000s when beach cities and resorts began to bring in French rosés. Coupled with an American increase in all things French (I’m looking at you Amélie) consumers started to realize that pink wine was more than just white zinfandel. The next thing you know, celebrities including Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, and Drew Barrymore were all attaching their names to rosés produced by French domaines. There would be no denying the popularity of rosé in 2014 when restaurants and wineries in the Hamptons actually ran out of pink wine. In the six years since, domestic wineries have taken note of the appeal of delicious, elegant, and more importantly dry rosés of both the porch pounding and food-friendly varieties.
An inevitability of mass popularity is the profitability of making large scale, mediocre wine that may yet again cause consumers to turn their noses up at the thought of drinking rosé. Another concern is that rosé consumption is nothing more than a fad. It is worrying that the introduction of alternative alcoholic beverages such as hard seltzer water seems to have hit the rosé market hard by taking a portion of the millennial demographic that helped boost its popularity of rosé in years prior.
So whether the rosé bubble is going to pop or solidify its place in the wine community is up to the market and consumers like you. If you drink it, the wineries will keep making it. Rosé is now a serious category, so don’t be afraid to ask your local wine steward how its made, what the varietals are, what vintage it is, or if it’s small production. Just (at least at The Wine Crush), don't ask if it's sweet. If you're looking for some of the best wine in Long Beach, look at some of our favorites!
Some of Our Favorites
James, Victoria. Drink Pink: A Celebration of Rosé. New York City: HarperCollins, 2017.