Reader curious about rosé colors

Wine Press NorthwestMay 23, 2013 

“As rosé wines have become more popular in the Pacific Northwest over the past several years, I’ve noticed they exhibit a wide variety of colors. Why?”

Since Wine Press Northwest’s tasting panel just recently completed a rather comprehensive judging of 99 rosés from our region, your question is especially timely. One of the topics some of the judges commented on was exactly the color variability you observed.

Among the 99 were some so pale they appeared more like a bronzy Gewürztraminer or Pinot Gris than a rosé. And some of the others were as dark as — or maybe even darker — than some of the lighter versions of Pinot Noir or Merlot, which can be rather light-bodied reds.

There are two chief factors that determine the color of a rosé, the grape varietal the wine is made from and the amount of time the freshly crushed grapes spend in the tanks with the grape skins. “Skin contact,” can range from a very brief few moments to many hours. And the longer the time the juice spends with the skins, the darker it will be.

A white wine I tasted recently from Lake Chelan Winery in Chelan, Wash., is a good example of how minimal skin contact can allow a winemaker to produce a white wine, even from a red grape renowned for its color, in this case Syrah.

The winery’s 2011 Stormy Mountain White is 100 percent Syrah, which may seem to most of us to be an odd choice of a wine to make from the popular red grape. But it won a double gold at the 2013 Great Northwest Wine Competition, held earlier this year in Hood River, Ore., at the Columbia Gorge Hotel. And it shows nary a trace of red color.

“We accomplished this with Syrah grapes by pressing the fruit fresh from the vineyard without any fermentation on the skins,” the bottle proclaims. And that is why it’s not a huge surprise that rosé wines can so differ in color.

The pale pink color often exhibited by sparkling blanc de noir is another good example of making a wine from red grapes, usually Pinot Noir, with minimal skin contact.

The other major variable is the grape a rosé is made from. Once again, many Pinot Noir rosé wines not made as sparklers are quite light in color, partly because of skin contact but also partly because Pinot Noir often makes into a lighter-colored red.

And no matter what the weather during harvest might be like, Pinot Noir-based rosé is almost certain to be lighter than a rosé made from an inky dark red such as Malbec. Though Malbec might also seem an unusual choice as the basis for a rosé, I’ve tasted at least a couple that were quite good.

Since rosés have become so popular, especially for spring and summer fare with lighter meals, consumers can expect to find some heretofore unusual choices. For example, I’ve encountered at least one rather sweet example that was made by adding a dollop of Merlot to a Riesling. It was a crowd-pleasing summer sipper, but the rosé wine producers France likely would stroke out at the mention of the idea.

Another reality of the rosé world in today’s Pacific Northwest is that many of these wines are made a little bit more by accident, not design.

Sometimes rosé, especially when economic factors are added to the equation of winemaking, becomes an easy answer for the question of what to do with grapes that perhaps aren’t coming to the desired level of ripeness for a hefty, dark red. Cool fall weather, for example, may take matters beyond the winemaker’s control. And at times something goes awry in the vineyard and a rosé becomes an attempt to salvage something out of a sloppy result.

That’s far different than the approach taken by winemakers who are serious about making great rosé. Rob Griffin, who’s generally acclaimed as the master of rosé in our region, has developed a rigorous set of standards at his Barnard-Griffin Winery in Richland, Wash. His Sangiovese rosés consequently have won gold medals or better for eight years in a row. He uses particular vineyards, sets tight limits of tons to be produced per acre and creates a consistent, repeatable, high-quality wine.

Wine word: Saignée

Time for a little more fun with Français. And since we’ve been talking about rosé, this term, derived from the French verb saigner (to bleed or to drain blood from) is a natural. It is, simply put, pumping off liquid from the top of a fermenting tank of wine “to produce rosé wine from the free-run juice,” according to The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia. In cooler regions and in cooler years when a winemaker might worry about obtaining the deep color often desired in a red wine, it has the added advantage of leaving behind the red color, thus darkening the remaining wine “because the greater ratio of solids to liquid provides more coloring pigment.”

And what’s not to like about an opportunity to make a rosé? Especially when it can go onto the market the following spring or summer, providing some nice cash flow while the red wine ages for another year or so in expensive oak.

The French — and probably many other folks as well — sometimes make their Champagne rosé with a bit of a reversal of this process, adding red wine back to their sparklers to give them a bit more of that gorgeous color that makes them even more appealing.

Ken Robertson, has been sipping Northwest wines and writing about them since 1976.

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