WHAT IS ROSÉ?
Last week, my childhood friend Melissa tagged me in a Facebook post from Coastal Living Magazine. The picture was of a chilled can of "Drop Rosé" happily nestled in an ice bucket. The caption ensured that "(T)here is no room for swirling and sniffing on the beach." Agreed!
#roséallday, #yeswayrosé and #roseseason are hashtags I use on Instagram, but hardly ones I made up. When wine friends Nicole and Ashley were in town this week, we announced "Hash Tag Rosé All Day!" to each other as the grand entrance into a multitude of unsuspecting restaurants all over San Francisco.
On Instagram, I follow "the taste of rose", "rose season", "crushed", "rosé imports" and a host of others. In fact, there are so many instagram accounts focused on rosé I had to stop adding them, or it would completely monopolize my feed. 2017 is the year of rosé for sure.
Let's start with some basics. What is this "rosé" thing that people like myself keep on incessantly talking about? Is it a style of wine? Is it certain grape varietals? Is it a brand? IS IT SWEET? For sure, rosé and Chardonnay are the two most polarizing wines we as reps present to the consumer market. (The third may be Merlot. More on that in a bit.)
Over time, I will start sharing anecdotes of life as a wine rep. One of our responsibilities is to set up in-store tastings at your local Whole Foods, liquor store or corner market. We're the guys who have the little table with a few wines lined up near the cheese aisle. We are the ones who try to catch your eye, trying to entice you with "Would you like to try some wine?" And yes, we are the ones who can make you feel uncomfortable during those moments. Whatever -- we are salespeople! Buyer beware. And who are you kidding, after that uncomfortable moment passes, how many of you have acquiesced for a sip from a bottle you know you won't buy. Because...it really was a long day...
Over time, we as reps know it doesn't matter if the store is in Boston or Westborough MA. Or Portland or Augusta ME. Los Altos or San Francisco CA. Or any other city in the United States. We get the same reactions from certain wines no matter where we are. And we get them over and over again. And over. And over.
Some top contenders of these reactions:
A. "I don't like Chardonnay."
Here we go. There are many reasons I am not interested in importing Chardonnay as a priority. Either people are part of the ABC Club ("Anything But Chardonnay") or they crave the biggest, butter-fueled glass. No matter what I'm pouring on the Chardonnay spectrum, I will get a very pointed comment of either "yah" and "nay". Next.
B. "I don't like dry wines."
This one is bit trickier. In my head: "Um...95% of all commercial wines are "dry" by the wine-world definition." (Yes, the wine-world definitions can at times be different than the rest-of-the-world definitions.) By the wine-world definition, most of the wines we drink are "dry", meaning that most if not all of the sugar from the grape is fermented into alcohol. So yes, most all of you like dry wines. What normal people (meaning those NOT in the wine industry) mean when they say "dry" however, is almost always "I don't like tannins." The physical reaction of tannins in our mouth will "dry" it out. We lick our lips and gums and want something to drink.
Or, they do know the wine-world definition and don't like a sweet wine. Well, a large majority of commercial wines truly are not sweet. They fall within the ABV (alcohol by volume) of a dry wine (roughly 11%-15%) with little leftover non-fermented sugar in the bottle. The inherent flavors produced by the grape will always be other fruits. So when we are picking up that taste of raspberry, our brain is triggered to assume we are tasting sugar. This does not mean there is actual sugar in the wine. (Or there is, which is an another post. Many nameless, faceless mass-produced wines do add sugar to their wine.)
Let alone the longstanding wine industry adage that ultimately Americans "talk dry, but drink sweet."
C. "I love this region/style/varietal/vineyard of the wine you are pouring! I was just was there for work/vacation/my honeymoon and I know absolutely everything about it, and would I would love to tell everyone at this tasting what I know. Because as an attorney/physician/CEO of a tech company after that one visit tasting with 48 other people, I am now an expert! Wait, dude (me) you are wrong about what you are saying about your wines. Remember! I just got back from my work trip/vacation/honeymoon. I met the winemaker's niece, you know."
I have a fantastic memory of doing an in-store tasting in the basement of the Wine Emporium in Boston. Some guy took me on that the Spanish Rioja Crianza I was pouring (and selling for years) was a young wine and not aged for two years (um...actually it is aged for two years. By definition and law. And for the record, pal, what you are are talking about is called "Joven"). Nope. Not with this guy: "I was just back from Spain. I know." Well, ok then.
I have always sworn to start a blog with my fellow wine reps to document "Inappropriate things said to us while trapped behind a small table."
And, best for last:
D "I hate rosé."
Scrunched up faces, sour looks, and skeptical attitudes. "I hate sweet wines. This is like White Zinfandel, isn't it?" Then I usually get a look of smugness from this attorney/physician/CEO of a tech company reading: "This guy sells wine? He doesn't know what he is talking about. I mean I just got back from Chateau X for my work trip/vacation/honeymoon, and I did meet the winemaker's niece...."
Yet, yet, yet, after coercing a sip, bookend looks of skepticism and amazement occur. "WOW THIS IS REALLY GOOD." (I. told. you. so.) "So this isn't White Zinfandel?" As I know you can write a will, fix a broken arm and create an app, yes I am sure this is not White Zinfandel.
Time to bring this all back to the point: what is rosé?
We need to go slightly into wine geek for a bit to answer that question. The questions really isn't "What is rosé" as much as "Why are red wines red?" Let's go.
1. All juice in grapes is clear. The juice in a "white" (or green) grape is the same color for the most part as the juice in a "red" (or purple) grape.
2. So why is red wine red and white wine white? It all has to do with skin contact. The molecules in the skins -- tiny little guys called phenols -- directly contribute to the color, tannin, aroma and taste of wine. Once the skin is broken (by crushing or pressing) those molecules can readily mix with juice. Letting juice just hang out with broken skins will allow the now-obtainable phenols to "dye" the juice. This is called maceration. Fermentation -- the process of converting sugar and yeast to alcohol, CO2 and heat -- additionally can pull out more phenols. (And phenols are also found within the grape: the woodsy seeds and pulp.)
3. A couple easy analogies: The longer you macerate and/or ferment the grapes, the darker the juice will get. Like dying a t-shirt. Dying (macerating?) a t-shirt for 15 minutes will get a lighter shade than if you dyed it for 24 hours. Another one: Think about making a red sauce on the stove. You start with bright red tomatoes. Adding heat (fermentation can only happen within a specific temperature spectrum) slowly breaks it down molecularly. It physically changes form and becomes denser, and the color changes from that bright red to a moodier rust. That is rosé.
5. Rosé is made from red grapes. For the most part.
6. Rosé is macerated/fermented for a much shorter time than red wine. Some rosés will see 24 hours of maceration. Some will see 12 hours. Or 4 hours. Or a few minutes. The juice is then pressed off the skins and fermented as one would white wine. Or it is syphoned off a big vat of red wine.
7. Red wines can macerate/ferment for up to two weeks -- constantly staying on their skins/pulp/seeds (like that tomato sauce slow cooking for hours). This allows all of the phenols to truly exert their full power.
8. Rosé extracts the entire set of phenols from the skins, not just the color. Just at a lesser intensity than red. Whereas white wines for the most part only get their flavor from fermented juice, rosé gets flavors from fermented juice and maceration (phenol extraction) from the skins. Think of rosé as a very, very light red that is best enjoyed chilled.
Let's now talk about how rosé is made. There are three ways to make rosé in France, and here are the broad strokes:
1. How it is made in Provence -- the Direct Press Method
2. How it is made in other regions in France -- the Saignée Method
3. How it (can be) made in Champagne -- the Blend Method
Provence -- Direct Press Method
Provence is the most world-famous region known for a unilateral focus on rosé wines. Now, relax wine geeks, yes, I know the small Rhone AOC Taval is the true region in the world that only produces rosé. But when most people think of southern French rosés, the color is light salmon and the style is light and refreshing. Because Taval makes their rosé differently, these wines are darker pink in color and exude a richer, fuller-bodied style.
Now a brief history lesson. The question of where the grapevine originates is up to some debate, but it is generally agreed that the vine was first born in the area of Iraq/Iran. From there, it migrated west to comparable growing climates, one being Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). The Phocaeans, specifically Greeks from Asia Minor, are attributed to be the first importer of grapes to France. And the first place they landed the boats was in Provence, specifically in Marseille (then called Massalia).
Grapes then spread throughout southern France, as the Phocaeans aligned themselves with the ambitious Roman Empire for protection against invading tribes. The Romans took the grapevine and ran with it, creating vineyards throughout France. The Romans (and Christian monks) gave birth to famous French wine regions such as Burgundy, Bordeaux, and Champagne.
Let's divert one more time to wine chemistry. Sugar + yeast = Alcohol + CO2 (+ heat). The sugar is easy -- that would be the grapes. Yeast is microscopic and is everywhere at all times. Grapes left alone will have yeast on their skins. (This leads into a controversial future post of Natural Wines). And, yes, we also have yeast on us right now as you read this. All good.
A couple variables need be present for wine to be made. First, that yeast and sugar need to interact. This means the grapes must be punctured so the sugar from the inner juice can interact with the yeast. Also, there is a specific temperature spectrum to which fermentation -- the production of alcohol -- can occur. Roughly 50-75ish degrees F.
Back to Provence. Let's think about those early Phocaeans back in 6th century B.C. So these guys come to this new land, bringing a fruit vine with them that they plant everywhere. One can imagine that during their exploration on foot, they took some grapes with them as a snack during the day. Where would they put it? No backpacks or ziplock containers. Probably a pouch from an animal organ (which was common at the time) or something like that.
During the day, one could also imagine that some of the grapes would have been crushed due their handlers running around the lavender fields. So step one -- the sugar and the ambient yeasts connect. This is also in the warm Mediterranean climate. Step two -- the temperature is perfect for fermentation.
When these guys were done for the day, after they ate what was left of the crushed grapes, they probably drank the juice left behind as they were thirsty. A slightly colored, slightly PINK juice in the pouch. That made them feel really, really good. And, maybe they saw "spirits"! (I am convinced with absolutely no validation that this is the true history of that word.)
So yes, the first wine ever drunk in France was rosé. Before the Greeks and then Romans fully understood winemaking, they did not ferment for days. (For one, they didn't have the time to do so...wine was literally considered safer than water in many cases, so it needed to be consumed asap). They fermented only for a few hours. Over time, however, winemaking techniques from northern France moved south as vignerons truly upped their game. They never made the big switch to red wine like in the north, however, because after centuries, drinking rosé was a age-honored tradition. Such an important tradition, in fact, that by the 14th century, many advanced wineries of Provence produced rosés that were considered the wine of aristocrats and kings.
Back to how to make rosé. As been the tradition since the ancient Phocaeans, winemakers grow and harvest grapes solely for the production of rosé. They macerate (again, letting the skins soak on the juice, dying the color of the clear juice) for anywhere from a few minutes to 3 or 4 hours, then ferment that juice as one would a white wine. Meaning, not with the skins, which would be the process of red wine. This is called the direct press method.
Side note -- why red wine is "red" is that maceration -- the dying of the clear juice -- can last up to two weeks with varying temperature manipulations. That light pink color will become a deep rich maroon or purple with time and effort.
The Rest of France -- Saignée Methond
As the Romans took over France and the monasteries were in charge with running the vineyards, more thought and consideration were put into making wine. It didn't *all* have to be rosé. They experimented with longer maceration and fermentation times. And aging in vessels, from amphores to cement vats to wooden barrels. Red wine took on the realm of prestige to which it has never lost.
Like I stated before, broad strokes about how one makes red wine: 1. macerate the grapes skins/pulp/seeds on the juice for an extended period and 2. fermented the juice with the skins/pulp/seeds for an extended period. It is more than color that is exacted during this process...numerous phenols for tannins, aromas, color and flavors need time and correct temperature settings for extraction. This all makes for a very complex wine.
As all of these phenol by-products come from the grape skins and inner woodsy components, if there is less volume of juice in that fermenting vat, the liquid will get more direct contact with the phenols, and thus more intense tannins, color, aroma, flavors.
Many winemakers, for this reason, syphon off some juice at the beginning of the process. As in during the first 24 hours. This leaves less liquid in the fermentation tank to acquire more phenol interaction, and the juice they extract is pink -- a rosé. This is how areas such as Tavel make rosé. This is the saignée method (en Français: "bleeding" off from the vat). And for some wineries (not Taval, however), they actually make two wines in this one process, one red and one rosé.
Champagne -- Blending Method
This will be quick. Champagne is one of the few areas that by law can mix red Pinot Noir and/or Pinot Meunier with white Chardonnay -- sometimes 50/50 -- to achieve the pink color for their sparkling rosé. Other regions in Europe can do this by law, but most do not. In general, other than Champagne, a blended rosé is a lesser-quality wine. With that said, however, many areas in Provence do allow a small percentage of white grapes to be added the final cuvée.
Nothing is necessarily black and white regarding making rosé in France. Some vignerons do a combination of both saignée and direct press methods depending on the varietal in the blend. Some will let the grapes sit in either a cold or warm soak (the latter is called Cuvaison Rapide) for a brief time. Some Champagne producers of sparkling rosé will not blend white and red grapes, instead creating a direct press method rosé from the Pinots Noir and/or Meunier.
To start, think of rosé as a category of wine: a younger sibling to red wine with more in common with its white wine cousin. And as white wine has basic flavor profiles of citrus or tropical fruits, rosés have flavor profiles of berries, some stone fruits, herbs and spices. That's all it is.
But don't underestimate the power of rosé in the wine world. It holds equal place at the table of the 6 categories of wine -- in no specific order -- red, white, sparkling, sweet, fortified, and rosé.
So WHY is there such pushback and polarization? What is the big deal? The big deal is due to an American alcoholic concoction called White Zinfandel -- which created its own category -- a "Blush" in the 1970s catering to a market that at that time was raised on Coca-Cola. Unabashedly loving to drink sweet wines, the wine drinkers of that time it made a cultural zeitgeist. What is White Zin? For many producers, take a cheap table wine of mass-produced, low quality grapes made quickly (so little maceration and no aging) and add sugar. Boom.
As that damned Sideways movie crushed Merlot terribly and unfairly (and virtually no one outside of the wine industry got the insider joke about the bottle he drinks in the paper bag at the end. His cherished bottle is Chateau Cheval Blanc, a Merlot-based Bordeaux.), White Zinfandel in America almost crushed the entire 2,000 year-old category of rosé.
Almost crushed it. Start looking around. #roséallday is back with a vengeance.
P.S. Many people have been curious why I chose to focus on rosé. It has been an underdog for centuries! I want to help get it back to the prestige it deserves. And, many people have been curious why I chose to focus on Provence versus more established French wine regions. Provence is where the entire French wine world started. I believe it deserves some love and respect for that!