The Fascinating History Behind Rosé and Its Signature Shade
Rosé is officially in season, and the many great flushed rosés of California, France, Italy, and Spain start showing up on the shelves of great wine shops across the U.S.
This time of year, we always get the same question: How is rosé wine made?
The answer — or actually answers, because they are many different types of rosé wine — often surprise people.
We’re here to answer all your pressing rosé questions, and point you to some of our favorites to try this spring and summer.
How Does Rosé Get Its Unique Shade?
A lot of people are surprised to learn that even the darkest red grape can produce a lightly colored rosé wine. That’s because every wine’s color comes from the grape skins and not from the juice (or must as it is properly called in winemaking).
Did you know, for example, that you can make a white wine from a red grape? In order to produce a white wine from a red grape, the winemaker ferments the grape must “off its skins.”
In other words, they crush or press the grapes, obtain the must (the juice), and then they immediately separate the skins from the must so that the skins cannot impart any of their color to the liquid.
There are a number of wines like this (and we will discuss some of them below). But the most famous example of this is found in a wine that everyone knows: Champagne.
Most Champagne is white even though most Champagne is made from a red grape, Pinot Noir. To produce these golden sparkling wines, the winemaker simply separates the skins and must before fermenting. And in doing so, they obtain a white wine.
How is Rosé Wine Made?
The overwhelming amount of rosé wine made in the world today is produced by macerating (softening in liquid) the skins and the must together.
Red wine is made using maceration as well. But for rosé wines, the winemaker limits the amount of time they macerate with the skins, thus limiting the amount of color that the skins give to the wine.
Think of maceration like steeping a tea bag. If you just steep it for a few seconds, you will obtain a lightly colored tea. If you let the tea bag steep for an hour, the tea will get darker and darker.
The big exception to this rule is Champagne. But we’ll take a look at that in a second. Many wine trade people call wines made in this fashion “real rosé,” although the term isn’t universally embraced in the wine world.
Other Rosé Wines are Made through the “Bloodletting” Method
The other way that significant amounts of rosé wine are made is through a method known in French as saignée, meaning literally “bled.”
In Italian, its name is salasso, meaning “bloodletting” from the Latin sanguinem laxare. In the case of saignée wines, the winemaker “bleeds off” some of their red wine before it completes maceration.
In order words, while the wine is macerating, they open a valve on the tank and draw some of the wine off. This achieves two things.
On the one hand, it concentrates the color and flavors of the red wine by reducing the amount of liquid in the tank where it is being fermented. This is highly desirable for big, bold reds with intense fruit flavors and tannic character.
The other thing the “bleeding off” produces is a rosé wine. Because they have limited the amount of time they macerate the must and skins, it will have a rosé color. Some wine trade people think that only “true rosé,” as above, is real rosé.
But there’s no truth to this. A rosé wine is a rosé wine is a rosé wine, as Gertrude Stein might have said, no matter how you make it.
What’s the Deal with White Zinfandel? Is it a “White” That’s Actually Rosé?
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, when Americans drank mostly white wine, a now very famous California grower and winemaker decided to make white wine from Zinfandel.
This was because they, like so many of their fellow grape farmers, had a lot of Zinfandel planted but not a lot of white varieties. And so they vinified their Zinfandel off its skins (see above), in other words, without macerating the must and skins. This made for a very lightly colored pink wine that became immensely popular in the U.S.
According to the Oxford Companion to Wine, the winemaker sold about 25,000 cases of their first White Zinfandel — or “White Zin,” as it’s sometimes called — in 1980 when it was released for the first time. By the mid-1980s, they were selling millions of cases.
Very Lightly Colored Grapes Can Also Be Used to Make Rosé
There are also some grapes that are so lightly colored that the wine they produce is naturally rosé. The best example of this will surprise a lot of people.
Did you know that Pinot Grigio from Italy (or Pinot Gris, as it is known in France and other parts of the world) is actually a lightly-colored red grape? It’s called grigio or grey because it’s not as dark as Pinot Noir (black Pinot; noir or “black” is used sometimes for red grapes in romance languages like French and Italian).
But it’s not as white as Pinot Blanc or white Pinot. Traditional Pinot Grigio is actually a rosé wine, even though we know it mostly as a white wine here in this country where it is mainly sold as wine that has been vinified “off its skins.”
Sometimes these wines are called gris wines. And in another era, they were sometimes referred to as “blush” wines (although this term is rarely used today).
How Is Rosé Champagne Made?
Champagne is one of the very rare appellations in the world where rosé wine is made by blending a little bit of still red wine into a white wine.
Although some Champagne is made using the saignée method, nearly all is made by blending in a little bit of still Pinot Noir before bottling. Not only does the still red wine add color, but it adds some flavor and texture as well.
Rosé Champagne is often highly coveted by collectors because of the rich Pinot Noir character it can have.
Which Rosé Are You Sipping This Summer?
Rosé is an excellent summer wine. It provides crisp and fresh fruit notes, which can be quite refreshing on a hot day.
It’s international varieties are well-loved around the world, and make for a popular drink for barbecues and backyard get togethers.
Here are some of our favorite 2020 selections at the store: