This is rosé season. Or should be. We’re having a rather cold spring in Paris. Rosé has in recent years become incredibly popular. Incredibly is the right word. So let’s take a look at how rosé is made. This seems to be needed; it seems to be a very misunderstood area…
There are three ways of making rosé:
- Direct pressing
The three methods are different and have different effects on the result. Let’s take them one by one.
But first, some basic facts. All rosé made of red grapes. Sometimes, but very rarely, it is done on a blend of red and white grapes. I will come back to this later.
The colour is in the skin. All colour is in the skin of the grapes. The juice that comes from the flesh is colourless. There are a few exceptions; grapes with coloured flesh (called “teinturiers”), but they are not used for rosé. So to give the wine a “rosé colour”, ie something between a white and a red wine, the skins must be included in the winemaking for some time in order to extract some colour. But the skin must not be used for too long a time for the wine not to simply become red.
1. Direct pressing
The method that is called direct pressing is basically the same process used when making white wine. The freshly harvested grapes, red grapes, are put into the press. The the grapes are pressed. During the pressing some of the colour is leeched out from the skins and gives colour to the must.
This usually makes a fairly light-coloured rosé. The skins are used for only a short time at the pressing. The skins are not at all included during fermentation. (If you include the skins during the fermentation, the colour becomes stronger. When the wine ferments the alcohol level increases. Alcohol makes the leaching more efficient. This avoided when doing direct pressing. More on this in the next section.)
How strong the colour becomes when doing direct pressing depends partly on how slowly the grapes are pressed, the amount of pressure used, and, of course, perhaps most importantly, what kind of grapes it is.
It is also a method used to get a lot of freshness and fruit aromas in the wine.
2. Maceration / leaching
“Rosé de maceration” is done by first lightly crushing (red) grapes after the harvest before pumping them into the fermentation tank. It is exactly the same method as when you make red wine, but with the difference that to make rosé you remove the skins before the fermentation is finished. This makes it rosé instead of red.
The crushed grapes begin to ferment in the tank. The leaching, that gives the colour, can be very effective, so the time on the skin is often not long. It may be just a few hours, up to a maximum of a few days.
The colour is of course also very dependent on the grape variety and on other things. For example the fermentation temperature (higher temperature gives more rapid leaching) and how fast fermentation is (a rapid fermentation, with a rapid increase in alcohol, gives stronger leaching).
When you think you have enough leaching, ie the right colour, you empty the tank and the must can then finish fermenting without the skins.
Saignée, a special case
A variant of the maceration method is what is called “saignée” in French, or “bleeding” in English. It’s probably the method one hear most about, perhaps because the name sounds so odd.
A rosé de saignée is actually a by-product of red wine production. The red grapes, which will become red wine, are crushed and put in a tank. The fermentation begins. After a certain period of time (a few hours to a few days) a part of the must drained off from the tank. Only a little colour has yet been extracted. This is fermented in a separate tank to rosé.
The rest of the must is left in the tank, along with the skins, and allowed to ferment to red wine (the difference with “regular” rosé maceration is that in that case you draw off all the must). The red wine becomes more full-bodied, richer and with more colour because there is more skins in relation to must left in the tank. Is actually this increased concentration of the red wine that is the main purpose of this method. In other words, rose de saignée is a by-product in red wine production.
Because the grapes for saignée are harvested when they are ripe for the red wine, the main product, they are often a little overripe compared with what would be ideal for rosé. Such a rosé can therefore become a bit overly heavy, and may lack in freshness.
If rosé is the main product, which it is in direct pressing and the “regular” rosé de maceration, the harvest is often a little earlier to keep more acidity and freshness. In that case it is not so important that the tannins have time to become really ripe, since very little tannins are leached from the skins when making a rosé. For rosé it is not so important to wait with the harvests until full phenolic maturation is reached. For a red wine it is however very important that the tannins are mature enough, otherwise the wine can be harsh and rough (“green tannins”).
Clairet, another special variant
Clairet has become more and more popular, deservedly, since it is one of the most characterful rosés. It’s not really a separate vinification method but rather a wine style.
Clairet is only made in Bordeaux. It is a type of rosé wine with a very strong colour. It is made with a comparatively long maceration and with the saignée method. The colour is so strong that the wine has about the same colour as some red wines made in the northern regions, for example, red Alsace or Sancerre, sometimes even darker than these.
(Note that the spelling is different from “claret”, the traditional English word for red bordeaux.)
3. Blending method
One can also make rosé wine by mixing red and white wine. You start with a white wine and then add a dash of red, perhaps around 10% of red wine, depending on how much colour you want.
The blending method is banned in the EU, except for champagne.
A few years ago it the rules were going to be changed so that it would be legal to make rosé by blending in the EU. However, there was so much opposition from some winemakers, particularly from existing rosé wine growers (which I assume were worried about increased competition) so that the proposal was shelved. Unfortunately. As is often the case wine producers (not only in France!) are keen to restrict competition. Blended rosé is therefore still banned in the EU but allowed in some other countries.
For Champagne it is permitted to make rosé by blending in a little red wine in a white wine. It is the traditional method of making rosé champagne. Between 7% and 15% of red is the usual amount.
But it is also allowed to make rosé champagne by maceration. It has become a bit of an emerging trend today in Champagne to use the maceration method. It produces champagnes that are more powerful, rosé champagne with more colour, more fruit, more body.
Myths and misconceptions about rosé
Here it might be appropriate to clarify a few things.
Contrary to what is sometimes said there is nothing in champagne called “méthode taché” (at least a never used expression) although we have sometimes seen mentioned in texts. We have met hundreds of champagne producers and no one uses that term. However, “taché” (stained, in French) is a word that can be used for a white wine that accidentally get a little bit too much colour. But this is not specifically for champagne. However, there is a wine producer in Australia that uses “Taché” as the brand name of its sparkling wine.
No, you cannot make rosé of white grapes by pressing them extra hard. An odd idea.
“Rose is easy to make”?
The colour is hard to control, but extremely important. This and other things that need to be carefully controlled, eg harvest time, causes many winemakers to say that rosé is the wine that is the most difficult to do well. Contrary to what some might think it is not easy to make rosé, “you just let it become something between white and red.” No, hardly. On the contrary, rosé is hard to do.
More about champagne, 2009, and the EU
Champagne rosée has always been made by mixing red and white. Blending champagne rosé is not something that has been permitted since 2009. It is the traditional process. However, it was in 2009 that there was a great debate between the EU’s agricultural commission, which wanted to allow blending and traditional rosé producers, who wanted it to still be banned. The protectionist rosé producers won and it is still forbidden to make rosé by blending red and white.
The saignée method is not used for champagne rosé. Saignée is used when red wine is the main product. That’s not the case in champagne.
Many champagne producers believe that they get the best rosé champagne with the blending method. (Therefore it is a bit difficult to understand why it should be so terrible to do it for still wines.)
Sugar and rosé
Many rosé wines are (unfortunately?), more or less sweet. Often the most popular wines are made in a style that might be called semi-sweet or semi-dry. The sweetness usually comes from that the fermentation is interrupted before all the sugar is eaten by the yeast. This is done by sterile filtration and with appropriate doses of sulphur.
Rosé from white grapes?
Since it is not allowed to make rosé by blending red and white wine (in the EU) almost all rosés are made exclusively from red grapes, where the colour is only partially extracted from the skins. (With the exception of champagne.)
But there are also cases when white grapes are used in the making of rosé. In that case they mix the red and white grapes in the beginning of the vinification, because it is forbidden to do so in the end (blending finished wines wines).
Perhaps the most important quality or selection parameter of a rosé wine is the colour (they rarely have particularly prominent or sophisticated nose or flavour).
Choosing the hue of the wine is one of the winemaker’s most important decisions when he makes rosé. But it is not always easy to get the result you want. It can be a question of only a few hours between a too light colour and a wine that has become too dark compared to what you want. What further complicates the matter is that the colour changes over time, for instance because of the precipitation of the sediment during the fermentation and due to different processing aids, such as added sulphur at bottling (to maintain the wine’s freshness and stability).
Rosé wine’s hue can go from a barely visible shade pink, such as the “world’s most expensive rosé” (not necessarily the best), Garrus, to something that is more of a light red wine. The hue is extremely important. Different markets prefer different shades. In France, consumers often want to have a very lightly coloured rosé. But even here the make some strongly coloured rosés, eg Tavel, the rosé wine district. In Spain, they want their rosados to be dark.
The colour is also an important signal to the buyer as to the style of the wine; a lighter colour rosé is expected to be a lighter wine; darker colour for a more substantial wine. Often a darker rosé has both more aromas and flavour, so the trend to very light rosé wines (sometimes both nearly colourless and tasteless) is perhaps something to regret.
A popular wine
Rose has in recent years become extremely popular. Both still rosé and sparkling (champagne and others) are selling like never before. Almost all of Provence, the largest rosé region, has switched over to rosé production. In Bordeaux do today they make more rosé than white. It is in many ways quite regretful. Provence makes some great red wines, but rosé sells better. White Bordeaux can be one of the world’s great white wines, but is almost disappearing and rosé is gaining ground. High-quality white and red wines are squeezed out by rather humble and neutral rosé wines.
What this boom comes from is hard to know. Of course trends, fashion and perhaps changing consumption patterns. Another contributor is not doubt that it has become almost mandatory in wine columns for wine writers to praise rosés with words like ” rosé is now up there with the great wines” and “the time when rosé was just a dull second choice is gone, now rosés are quality wines”. Why so many wine writers, who usually praise quality wines, all of a sudden are heaping praise on (often quite mediocre) rosés is also a mystery.
But of course rosé can be delicious to drink. Often refreshing and nice. Not too demanding on the consumer. (Maybe this is the answer?) It can be a nice option in some situations. But it is rarely memorable. It is not often one thinks “this food would be perfect with a rosé”, is it? Except maybe for salad on a hot summer day… Can you remember the last time a rosé gave you a great wine experience? Can you remember what the wine was called? I do not. Leave a comment if you remember.
Or as Jack, BKWine Magazine’s news reporter in Stockholm, says: “there is always a better white or a better red option”!
What do you think? Write a comment!
This post is also available in: Swedish