Rosé or “pink” wines have become an important part of today’s wine market, not only in Texas but around the world. Quality rosé wines are being produced from a wide range of grape varieties in many countries: among them Spain, Italy, France, Portugal, Chile, Argentina, Australia, and the U.S., particularly California and Texas. Many Texas rosés compare to the best in the world, and Texans seem to have embraced this style of wine which pairs well with our hot weather and spicy cuisine. However, the underlying question about different colors for rosé, and possibly what is considered the best hue, seemed intriguing enough to open a bottle and engage in some serious contemplation.
The inspiration for this post came from two sources. First, there were questions posed by a dear wine friend which matched similar questions that arose during a fun discussion with friends and fellow employees recently in the courtyard at 4.0 Cellars in Fredericksburg, TX. Here are some questions to ponder. Why are there so many different colors of rosé? What is the difference between a blush and a rosé? Can a red wine be called a rosé based on its style, flavor profile, or method of production? Why do rosé wines tend to have so much acidity? What is the best temperature to serve a rosé in order to maximize its flavor profile?
Further inspiration came from an article in the latest Wine & Spirits magazine (Aug-2018) entitled Deeper Shades of Pink by Elaine Chukan Brown. The key point made by Brown in the article was that many winemakers feel pressure to make their rosé wines as light in color as possible since darker pink or light reddish wines seem to be more difficult to sell in the marketplace. The grape varieties and the methods used to produce rosé wines can have a significant impact on the color, resulting in the potential for a broad palette of coloration. However, the current customer trend seems to equate lighter color with better quality, thus the market preference for light salmon or copper-colored wines.
Since the method of production will have a huge impact on the color of rosé, it first should be noted that most, if not all color in red grapes typically comes from the skins. In order to make a red wine, grape juice must have significant contact with grape skins in order to extract the red/purple color. It therefore follows that to make a rosé or pink wine, the winemaker must limit contact between skins and juice to minimize extraction of red color into the wine. Three primary methods are described below, but one should recognize there can be numerous variations within each basic approach.
The first method to consider is direct press in which red grapes are placed in the press immediately after harvest and the juice is squeezed out of the grapes with as minimal skin contact as possible. This method usually produces the lightest colored rosé, and the grape variety, or varieties, used will influence the color over a broad range of pinks to orangey-salmon to a polished copper hue. Here in Texas many rosés are made from grapes harvested on the High Plains and trucked down to wineries located in the Red River, Central Texas, or Texas Hill Country areas. The contact time between grape and juice during several hours of transport can create more color than when grapes are harvested locally with very short transport time to a nearby winery.
A second method for rosé production involves intentional skin-to-juice contact before pressing off the juice for fermentation. This usually takes the form of crushing red grapes and allowing the must to stand for several hours or even longer in order to extract color from the skins into the juice. An important variation on this method is called saignée, or bleeding off some juice prior to production of a red wine. This technique not only provides juice for rosé fermentation, but can increase the skin-to-juice ratio for enhanced color, flavor, and tannin in the red wine. In wine regions where red wine production dominates, this technique is often employed in order to have rosé wines that can be chilled and enjoyed with summer fare.
A third method of pink wine production involves the addition of red wine to white wine until an appropriate color is achieved. Wines made this way are typically referred to as blush wines. Although quality pink wine can be made using this technique, it is most widely used around the world to produce less expensive pink wines, often sweeter versions, based on higher yielding white grapes. It often takes only 10% or so of red wine addition to reach a bright pink hue. Another version of this technique is to add red wine skins to a white juice fermentation to give pink or orange hued wine. Yet another important variation on this technique is when juice from red grapes and white grapes is fermented together to give a lighter colored wine, an option most would consider a rosé rather than a blush wine.
What impact does the grape variety have on rosé color? Richly pigmented grapes with thicker skins will typically add more color and produce darker pink or orangey-red hues. Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Mourvèdre, Touriga Nacional, Aglianico, Grignolino, Syrah, and others fall into this category. Thinner skinned grapes with less natural pigmentation will add less color and can produce lighter pink, copper, or salmon hued rosés. Cinsaut, Dolcetto, Pinot Noir, Montepulciano, Grenache (in Texas), and others fall into this category. Winemakers can manipulate color to a certain extent, but it helps to start the process with selected grape varieties that can best produce a targeted color hue.
Can a red wine be called a rosé based on its style, flavor profile, or method of production? This question reminded me of an experience when things went awry one night while making a rosé from Merlot grapes. The grapes were destemmed, crushed, and pumped into large bins where four hours of skin-to-juice contact was planned to create a nicely colored pink rosé. After four hours, the must was transferred into a bladder press to separate the pink juice from the dark skins. Just as the press was activated, everything went dark. A nearby auto accident resulted in a broken power line pole and all electric power to the winery was lost. During the several hours it took for power to be restored, all the winemaking team could do was periodically check on the ever-darkening juice dripping from the press into the catch pan. Oh, and there was a lot of cold beer consumed during this period while discussing what might eventually be done to modify and lighten the significant red color of the wine that would eventually result from our efforts. Once power was restored, the pressing was completed and some very dark pinkish red Merlot juice was pumped to a tank for fermentation. Although some techniques were employed to lighten the color in this wine, it was eventually bottled as light red, not really pink, Merlot rosé.
Harvesting red grapes earlier with lower sugar content, greater natural acidity, and less color development is an important part of intentional rosé wine production. Most winemakers focus on early harvest for two key reasons: it is easier to obtain and keep a lighter color from less ripe red grapes, and it brings along greater natural acidity in the fruit. This acidity is typically translated into the finished wine as a bright, tongue-tingling perception, part of the appeal of rosé wines that allows pairing with a broad range of foods. Typical acidity in rosé wines is a bit less than the level in sparkling wines, similar to that of tank fermented white wines with neither oak treatment nor malolactic transformation, and greater than richer white wines and most red wines.
What is the best temperature to serve a rosé in order to maximize its flavor profile? First of all, rosés tend not to have deep flavor profiles like rich white and big red wines. The flavors tend to be subtle and less typical of those expected had the red grape varieties been made into a red wine. Since grape skins can add important flavor components to red wines, the process of making rosés with limited skin contact will therefore limit the presence of these red wine flavors. Common flavor descriptors for rosé wines may include the following: tart strawberry or red cherry, mandarin or blood orange, barely ripe peach or nectarine, watermelon, apple skin, lemongrass, rose petals or violets, and delicate herbs like fennel and chervil.
In order to maximize the flavor profile of a rosé, it is probably best to serve it in the 45-65 degree temperature range. More robust roses can still deliver good flavors at colder temperatures, but many need to be warmer than ice bath or refrigerator temperatures to show their best. It has been my experience that rosés, like most white wines, taste best when cool but not cold. Cellar temperature of 55 degrees is a good place to start, and many rosés get even better as they warm an additional 5-10 degrees.
So, this leaves the question, “What Color Should Pink Wine Be?” It seems obvious that some shade of pink should be okay. Darker pink may result from choice of grape variety or longer skin-to-juice contact time. Direct press techniques can reduce the color level regardless of the grape variety, and often result in orangey or salmon hues. Blending various wines or grape types can help a winemaker create a particular color and intensity. In the article Deeper Shades of Pink by Elaine Chukan Brown, it is noted that color, particularly darker color is less desirable in the current marketplace. However, it seems to me that more important than color should be the issues of how does the wine taste, and how well does it go with the cuisine with which it is being paired. The bottom line for this wine drinker is that color shouldn’t matter, but flavor and enjoyment should.