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Rose Love In Bloom
By Michael Apstein
Aug 24, 2010
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I’ve been converted.  Sort of.

Despite the tsunami of enthusiasm that appears every summer, I’ve never been a fan of rosés, except, of course, for rosé Champagne.  The argument for rosé is that they are perfect for summertime because they are not too serious, they stand up to and go with hearty cold salads or grilled fish, and they cut through summer’s heat and humidity.

I don’t dispute that some rosés have those attributes.  Far more are limpid and innocuous, lacking energy.  More often I have found a chilled light, low-tannin red wine, such as Beaujolais or an aromatic vibrant white wine, has far more character and fills the bill better than rosé—until now.  A rosé included in the first tasting during a week-long visit to Navarra, a region in northern Spain nestled between the French border and Rioja, made me rethink my previous opinion. 

The wine was Marco Real’s 2009 Rosado, made entirely from Garnacha (aka Grenache).  One taste and I realized this represented a different class of rosé.  It had complexity and length.  In short, it was real wine.  And yes, it was still refreshing in the heat and had plenty of stuffing to accompany summertime fare.

Fabio Oliveri, Marco Real’s Export Manager for Europe, explained that the wine came from 60-year-old vines and then, almost as an afterthought, that they distill the must.  In other words, they don’t make a red wine after making the rosé.  That comment supported my contention that the best rosés are made by winemakers whose focus is rosé rather than those whose primary aim is red wine and the rosé is a byproduct of a technique to beef-up the red.

The winemaking for most still rosés (Rosé Champagne is different) starts the same way as for red wines.  Red grapes of any variety, from Cabernet Sauvignon to Zinfandel, are harvested and crushed.  Since the color comes from the skins—the juice of all grapes is clear—the amount of time the skins remain in contact with the juice determines the color of the wine.

For rosés, the skins and juice remain in contact (maceration) for a relatively short time, anywhere from 12 hours to a day or two, after which the now pink colored juice is removed.  The fermentation of the juice continues in the absence of the skins.  The French call this process saignée, literally, bleeding. For red wines, the juice ferments in contact with the skins for days or weeks, not hours.  

Really cheap rosé is made by blending still red and white wine to get an appropriate color.

Here’s where the focus comes in.  Many red-wine producers bleed their red wine tanks as a way to concentrate what’s left—to beef up the red wine. Their primary purpose is to make a bigger, bolder red.  In the process, they wind up with rosé, basically as a byproduct or a leftover.  Being parsimonious types—nobody likes to discard perfectly useable, even if not distinctive items—they ferment the pink juice, bottle and sell it. 

But there are producers in Spain, such as Marco Real, and in other parts of the world, such as Sacha Lichine’s Chateau d’Esclans in Provence, whose primary goal is to make rosé.  Tavel’s another example.  The entire Tavel appellation, located in France’s southern Rhone Valley near Avignon, is only for rosé.  A byproduct for muscling-up red wines is not on their radar.

Producers who focus on rosé do things differently in the vineyard before they even start the winemaking process.  Kepa Sagastizábal, the winemaker at Bodega Inurrieta, points out, “they (the owners) planted Garnacha (here in Navarra) to make rosé, not a red wine with 15% alcohol.” 

Winemakers aiming for intense reds prefer to wait until the last possible moment to harvest to bring in the ripest, most concentrated fruit.  In contrast, those who aim to make rosé harvest much earlier to capture more of the grapes’ acidity so that the resulting wines have vivacity and verve.

In the winery, winemakers focusing on rosé determine the length of maceration based on what’s best for the rosé, not the remaining red.

Producers committed to rosé, such as Principe de Viana in Navarra, use techniques in the winery usually reserved for high-class white wines.  They fermented and aged their 2009 Albret’s Rosado, made from free-run juice of Garnacha, in older barrels, which allowed them to perform bâtonage (stir the lees).  It imparts this refined rosé with lovely texture, length without sacrificing its mouth-watering acidity.  Sacha Lichine at his Chateau d’Esclans achieves the complexity and incredible length in his line of rosés, in part, because of similar techniques.

Does this mean that the only character-filled rosé come from places where that’s the focus?  If only it were so simple.  To use Navarra as an example, there are plenty of producers’ who make both rosé and red from the same batch of grapes.  Bodegas Julian Chivite, founded in 1647 and Navarra’s largest, accounting for fully half of the region’s exported wine, makes a delightful rosé under their Gran Feudo label.  Made from Garnacha, the 2009 is juicy, dry and full of verve despite its enormous, two-million-bottle annual production. 

Señorío de Sarría’s 2009 Rosado Viñedo No. 5, made from old vine Garnacha, is one of the best rosés I’ve ever tasted.  With only 15 hours of maceration, they have captured enormous spiced berry flavors and complexity.  Their winemaker told me that the old vines deliver such flavor that they can include the remaining red wine with some of their others after they finish with the rosé. They make fewer than 2,000 cases of the Vinedo No 5, but it retails for only about $15.

Maybe Garnacha, especially old-vine Garnacha of which there is plenty in Navarra, is unique in its ability to make excellent rosé and satisfying reds.  And importantly, many of the Navarra reds made from Garnacha weigh in at only 13% alcohol. 

Peter Granoff, the experienced taster and owner/partner of the Wine Merchant in San Francisco’s Ferry Plaza, points out that Garnacha is not alone in making a good red wine and a simultaneously distinctive rosé.  He points to Sinskey’s lovely and stylish Rosé of Pinot Noir.  That’s not surprising considering Pinot Noir delivers enormous flavor even when made without any skin contact, as is the custom in Champagne.

Chivite’s 2006 Collecíon 125 Rosado, a blend based on Pinot Noir that usually includes other red grapes, such as Merlot and Syrah, is a testimony to the category.  Fernando Chivite, the firm’s current leader, calls this wine his “homage de Rosé.”  It was delicate, yet penetrating with layers of intrigue. Chivite thinks it has the hallmarks of great wine because it has length, complexity and singularity.  And at four years of age, it had wonderful development of flavor without losing any of its verve and freshness.  So much for the myth that rosé must be drunk young. 

Navarra is awash with Garnacha, which can make superb red wine.  So why did the region become renown for its rosés?  Chivite agrees that Navarra is “the land of Garnacha” and noted, quite pragmatically, that “rosé was the way we could penetrate market.  Reds were already firmly established and covered by Rioja.”  He felt the new technology for rosé at the end of the 1970s—temperature control, sparkling clean wineries, clarifying the wines, greater use of stainless steel—allowed rosés to come into prominence.

So as the heat and humidity continue to rise this August, I think I might opt for a rosé with dinner tonight.

Questions or comments?  Email me at mapstein@winereviewonline.com.