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By Liz Crowe
Hello and happy Shelter-in-Place Day Number…who knows?
As I sit and ponder the relative importance of talking about rosé wines at this particular moment in the world’s history, I’m feeling both stir-crazy and anxious. But you know what? At the same time, I also believe that things will improve, so both while everything is nuts and after, you owe it to yourself to learn a thing or three about the “other wine” — that is to say, not red, not white, but pink.
Let’s start with a few basics. Firstly, rosé is not a grape. It’s a style of wine, different from reds and whites. To back up even further, you should know that most grapes, with very few exceptions, create a clear or colorless juice — even grapes like cabernet sauvignon. The color of the resulting wine comes from something called anthocyanins, which are water-soluble pigments that will produce red, purple, blue, or black colors depending on their chemical make-up. Think blueberries and blackberries, and you’ll get an idea of an anthocyanin-rich food. In wine, anthocyanin reacts with other components like tannins, acetaldehyde, and pyruvic acid to form the pigment color. The process of maceration — wherein the skins, seeds, and stems from the grapes are soaked in the clear juice — draws out all of these compounds, including the color.
Oh, and yeah, that whole grape-stomping thing? That is technically a maceration process, albeit a kind of icky one. Oh! Also, fun fact: lambic beers, absinthe, and Campari also use maceration as part of their process.
Whew. Okay. So now that we know enough about the process stuff, it stands to reason that one way to make a rosé wine is to only allow the maceration (exposure of the clear grape juice to the skins) to occur for a few hours or days, as opposed to the time it takes to create a deep red cabernet, which allows the skins and whatnot* to remain in the juice all the way through fermentation. There are a couple of other ways, according to Our Favorite Wine Guru, Brian Hay. “You can blend a red and white wine, or you can use the bleeding process.”
Bleeding? Yes, bleeding. Relax, it’s a French term; it’s a process called saignée, which takes 10% of the macerated red wine juice out and puts that in a separate tank for fermentation. This gives you both a nice rosé in one tank and a red wine that’s 90% of the juice with 100% of the skins and whatever else that will result in a nice, strong, definitely not rosé.
“Rosés get a bad rep, for no reason other than the fact that some of the more mass-produced white zins and other sweet, pink-colored wines are considered to be of low quality. But places like Sutter Home have produced these sorts of palate entry-level wines for years with much success, so I certainly never fault them for that,” says Brian.
And really, I get this, on a beer level. I gave up judging people on what they drink years ago. Producing a large amount of booze at the same level of quality every time (see: “the Bud you drink today tastes exactly the same as the Bud you drank three years ago”), selling it to the masses, and continuing to make money doing so takes skill, organization, and committed fermentation specialists. This in turn makes money that can be spent on large advertising budgets. No arguments from me on that.
Back to the process for a minute, now that we have re-established the judgement-free nature of this column. You can make a rosé wine from pretty much any grape. Brian is of the opinion that a grape that is low in acid and tannin levels makes for the best option — pinot noir, grenache, and zinfandel being among them. In fact, the lower the acid, the dryer the result. Many French versions are crisp and “off-dry,” which is wine talk for “not sweet but not dry either,” which is Brian’s preference for this style. He’s not inclined to give us specific recommendations because quality varies depending on if you want your rosé sweet or not, not to mention where you live and what wines are available to you, but he will say that if you can get your hands on one made in Oregon, you will be a happy drinker. If you prefer French, look for rosés from the Loir Valley, Tavel (Southern Rhône), and Provence.
“When it comes to rosé wines, you have to keep an open mind and listen to your local expert. Not all rosés are available in every part of the U.S. so relying on your wine steward or wine shop owner is key.”
Decide if you want it sweet or not, too, because that’s where large variations occur, along with color. Remember when we talked about how any wine’s color (red, white, otherwise) comes not from the juice of the grape but from adding the skins and stems back in to allow them to soak in that juice? The light pink to salmon to near-fuschia you get when you’re facing that enormous shelf full of rosés is a direct result of which skins were used and how long they sat in the juice. Therefore, it stands to reason that there will be a wide variety of color on that pink spectrum.
Personally, I can highly recommend Rendezvous Rosé from Carol Shelton Winery. It’s available in the Ann Arbor market, so when you’re shopping and want a delicious, deep pink option made by bleeding half of the “pink” juice off of red Carignan grapes a full three days after crushing them and fermenting the result cold like a white wine — ask your local wine shop owner to find that one. The process gives the Rendezvous not only a compelling color in the beautiful bottle (yes, I am a sucker for packaging), but also a distinct strawberry fruitiness that is delicious served cold. I also tried and can recommend a solid Michigan-made rosé — the Etcetera Rosé from Chateau Grand Traverse, made from a combination of pinot noir, gamay noir, merlot, and cabernet franc.
A word about “White Zinfandel” (a.k.a. “Cougar Juice” in Texas, according to our aforementioned wine expert Mr. Hay). First off, it’s a rosé, one made from Zinfandel grapes. It’s very sweet. It’s also very popular. That does not make it bad (or good), but simply a fact. Many people new to wine start on the sweet end of the spectrum as a gateway and end up elsewhere. Some don’t. No judgement.
As for pairings, for best results, Brian recommends keeping things light to match the style of rosé wines. Chicken or fish, poached or grilled with some peppery greens, would make a lovely summer meal with your choice of sweet or off-dry rosé. On the other hand, you might consider going all in with something else. “One of the best meals I’ve had is a local BBQ brisket, consumed at the Fall Creek Vineyards, in the hill country of Texas, alongside their 100% grenache (grape) rosé.”
Just in case you were confused about what food to pair with what wine… go with what you love. I mean, just last night, after a long day of whatever during Michigan’s pandemic lockdown, I consumed a delicious and creamy, yet delightfully perfect, Rice Krispies Treat alongside a pinot noir.
Okay, I consumed three of them, and the whole bottle. An apt pairing for the times, and zero judgement. Enjoy life. Drink more wine. That’s the gist. If you like it pink-colored, I hope you gained some assistance from this, your monthly column dedicated to helping you drink better and judge less.
*The term “whatnot” is used as a Serious Winemaking Term only here, and nowhere else. It is not recommended that you use it too much, lest you be considered a wine snob.
Amazon best-selling author, mom of three, brewery founder, beer and wine consultant, and avid sports fan, Liz Crowe is a Kentucky native and graduate of the University of Louisville currently living in Ann Arbor. She has decades of experience in sales, public relations, and fundraising, plus an eight-year stint as a three-continent, ex-pat trailing spouse, all of which provide ongoing idea fodder for novels and other projects. She helped found and is the current president of Fermenta Michigan, a non-profit organization dedicated to the education and employment of women in the fermented industries.
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