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Drink pink: the rise of rosé

In a sip…

  • Rosé makes up around 11% of the UK wine market, with bottles coming mainly from France, Spain, the USA and Italy. In recent years, winemakers have started to take rosé production much more seriously and quality has risen dramatically.
  • Rosé is usually made using one of three methods:
    1. The saignée ('san-yay') or 'bleed' method: early in the production of a red wine some of the juice is run off while it is still pink so it can be made into a rosé.
    2. The maceration technique: crushed grapes are left in contact with skins for anything from two hours to a couple of days before running off and cool-fermenting, more-or-less like white wine.
    3. The 'direct pressing' method: whole bunches or gently de-stemmed fruit goes directly to the press and the juice is run-off quickly.
  • There is a fourth method used mostly outside the EU (with the exception of pink Champagne), in which rosé is made by blending red and white wines.
  • Rosé ages faster than red or white wine and so should be enjoyed young.
  • Paler rosé tends to have less expressive flavours and fruit compared to darker, richly coloured pink wines, however there is a current trend for pale pinks and some excellent examples are being made, particularly in Provence, the French region which has long specialised in rosé production.

For a more detailed analysis of where rosé fits in today's wine industry and information on how rosé is made, read on…

Glasses of rosé wine

Rosé in the wine industry, then and now

Pink wines, whatever their shade, are all the rage at the moment, especially on those rare balmy days of summer on our rainy island. The UK market share for rosé seems to have settled at around 11%, which is approximately 12 million cases, but within this category the growth of 'posh pink' has been particularly notable.

Rosé was once, at best, a cheap and cheerful option, but today certain famous Provence names – and a helping of celebrity endorsement – has helped to make premium-priced and higher quality rosé wines a strong category.

One thing that has changed over the last couple of decades is that rosé used to be an afterthought or a by-product, or even a way of using up substandard grapes – young or over-cropped vines without enough substance to make decent red wine, for instance. And in the case of the original 'white zinfandel', invented back in the 1970s, it was a way of making wine from red grapes that weren't in fashion. Today, most producers take rosé production much more seriously, selecting grapes carefully and picking specifically for rosé to tread the fine line of balance between flavour, colour and freshness.

In France, rosé has achieved a 30% market share (though only 16% of production) and is increasingly enjoyed all year round, and by men as well as women. 80% of the world's rosé is produced by four countries, according to the OIV. A 2015 report showed that this is led by France, producing 7.6 million hL, followed by Spain at 5.5 million hL, the USA with 3.5 million hL and Italy making 2.5 million hL. This article will take a look at the technical side of making wines pink.

How rosé is made – and how this affects its shade of pink

Glass of rose with grapes

The key thing to understand is that almost all wine grapes, whatever the skin colour, have clear juice. There are a few exceptions called 'teinturiers' but this doesn’t include any of the well-known grapes (alicante bouschet is probably the best known). This means it's possible to make white wine from red grapes.

In fact, a significant amount of Champagne is made by the gentle pressing of red pinots noir and meunier followed by a rapid removal of juice to avoid colour pick up. For both pink and red wines, much of the winemaking process is about extracting the right amount of colour from the grape skins and for rosé wines, there are several approaches possible.

'Saignée'

'Saignée' or bleeding is one traditional way of making pink wines (think clairet in Bordeaux). Early in the process of making red wine, some of the still-pale juice is run-off and fermented into rosé, leaving a lower ratio of skins to juice in the remaining tank to make more concentrated and intense red wine. This approach tends to make deeper coloured and more alcoholic pink to light red wines, as the grapes were picked with red winemaking in mind (with a focus on flavour and tannin ripeness, rather than freshness and delicacy for rosé).

Maceration

In the maceration technique, crushed grapes are left in contact with skins for anything from two hours to a couple of days before running off and fermenting cool, more-or-less like white wine. The temperature of the maceration and whether fermentation has started will make a difference to the style of the wine.

Direct pressing

Next is the direct pressing method, where either whole bunches or gently de-stemmed fruit goes directly to the press and the juice is run-off quickly. This tends to result in the palest wines of all.

Co-fermenting

Most rosé is made from red grapes only, but some producers opt to co-ferment some white grapes with red varieties. And surprisingly, EU regulations do allow red and white wines to be blended to make rosé, though frequently national and appellation regulations forbid this. Champagne is the most common category where red wine is blended with white – up to 15% pinot noir red wine may be blended in before the second fermentation. Some producers argue that this approach gives more complexity than the maceration technique.

Attaining that perfect pink: grapes and climate go hand-in-hand

Other factors to consider include the colour of the grapes and the climate. Pale grapes like pinot noir, grenache and cinsault typically result in lighter-coloured wines. Cool climates give paler wines than sunnier, warmer ones. One option in warmer zones is to pick earlier to keep acidity, though this can simply give thin, under-ripe and acidic wines if flavour has not developed.

The science bit: rosé flavour profiles, ageing potential and more

France's Provence region has long specialised in rosé, which accounts for 88% of the region's production and in 1999 a specialist rosé research centre was set up here. They have analysed some of the key components that give flavour to rosé, notably volatile thiols (particularly 3-mercaptohexan-1-ol and 3-mercaptohexyl acetate) which contribute to fruity characters.

However, these compounds are not very stable, and levels drop significantly within a year of the fermentation. Research in Australia has shown that fermentation temperature influences production of these volatile thiols, and perhaps surprisingly, higher levels are produced at 20°C than 13°C.

Of course, there are many more flavour compounds (see my previous article on how white wines age for more on wine flavour), partly due to the grape variety and terroir, but also due to fermentation techniques such as skin contact time, enzyme use and even yeast strain.

Pale and sophisticated, or 'loud pink', fruity and frivolous, one feature of rosé that is almost universal is that it should be drunk young. All the usual things apply about good quality fruit, selecting the right sites and looking for balance of flavour and freshness, but despite this, in most cases, pink wine quickly fades to orange and fresh flavours become flabby. Colour stability is hard to achieve because anthocyanins which give colour (see How wines age – reds) need to form complexes with tannins to remain in a stable, coloured form and pale rosés have very low levels of tannin.

Italian research by Suriano et al in 2015 found that three hours of maceration was worse than six hours for colour stability, but eight hours of maceration extracted too much bitterness – which highlights what a tightrope this decision is for winemakers.

It's also important to minimise exposure to oxygen during winemaking to avoid browning and damage to flavours (tannins in red wine help protect against oxidation but levels are usually too low in rosé), and to ensure correct pH and levels of sulphites (and possibly other preservatives like ascorbic acid) to keep the wine in good condition. It seems ageing on fine lees also helps preserve thiols and releases a natural wine component called glutathione which helps protect against oxidation.

Another warning point is that pink wines are particularly prone to a fault called 'light strike' when exposed to sunlight or UV light, not least because they are usually sold in clear glass to show off their pretty colours. So you can see rosé winemaking is a surprisingly complex process even at its most basic, though this is not stopping producers experimenting with using oak to add texture and complexity.

Theory into practice – a case study

Olivier Mouraud of Bougrier

Olivier Mouraud of Bougrier (owners of Caves de l'Angevine in Anjou in the Loire) explains that their rosé is made from the grolleau grape which is picked before full ripeness (at just 10.5% potential alcohol). One third of the blend undergoes maceration on skins at a low temperature for around 12 hours to release anthocyanins and a little tannin into the wine, and the rest is direct pressed. Their winemaker has selected two specific yeast strains – one for citrus aromas and the other for fruity flavours. Careful use of SO2 is important (which combines with anthocyanins to decolourise them and also protects against the damaging effects of oxygen) and a new bottling line helps minimise oxygen exposure. The winery also uses a fining agent made from pea protein, along with bentonite clay, to keep the wine bright and help stabilise colour. This treatment also favours the red anthocyanin pigments over brown tones.

Olivier says: 'In the Loire, we have seen recently that most rosé wines are made through direct pressing of grapes having not reached a sufficient maturity (resulting in pale colour and no aromatic intensity). We don't want to make a super-pale rosé which would not be typical of the Loire, but in the past few years we have achieved a much paler wine than before, which fits with the consumer demand while retaining maximum flavour'.

Final word

It's not the place of this article to debate whether the trend for super pale rosé is a good thing, or arguably creates wines with less character than some of the deeper pink versions – that's a decision for the consumers. However, the development of a market for pricier gastronomic rosé does seem to mean that pink wines can command a premium today, so the quality of the wine is being taken more seriously, and that can only be a good thing.

Caroline Gilby MW
August 2017

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Members' Comments (1)

"What a great article. So, can I throw away my glutathione capsules if I just source wines aged on their fine lees? It would be cheaper!"

Mr Edward Ash (11-Aug-2017)

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