For all of its freshness and conviviality, rosé wine is surprisingly tough to make.
That’s the perspective I tried to convey at the beginning of the summer season. “Rosé is, technically, the hardest wine to make,” I quoted Ashley Trout, owner/winemaker at Brook & Bull Cellars and head winemaker at Vital Wines in Walla Walla, Washington. “There are very few ingredients… [There is] no oak as an option, no tannins or pyrazines, and you have to nail it in a truncated time frame. All faults shine through in a rosé like an old cucumber would in a caprese salad.”
Now that summer is behind us, and the grape harvest is underway in the northern hemisphere, it’s an opportune moment to revisit this idea at another phase of the growing/production cycle, namely, picking the grapes. What decisions are being made in vineyards right now, that will impact the harvest of grapes that will be made into rosé wine?
I asked this question to winemakers and growers around the country. Today’s focus is on Washington state, where we set the stage from both the vineyard and the winery. In the next post we’ll travel just over the border north to British Columbia, then south to Sonoma, and east to Virginia.
We’ve long ago passed the boundary from rosé wine as either afterthought or side project, to rosé wine as a substantive and considered program in its own right. Homing in on rosé in different parts of the country at this moment in the growing/winemaking cycle, however, uncovers pointed and nuanced decisions that will fuel the industry’s rosé supply for the year to come.
Washington State: A Winemaker’s Perspective
One angle to understanding the picking and winemaking decisions for rosé wine is in relation to those decisions that are made for red wine. For the winemaker, there are different spectrums of ripeness, and readiness for picking, for each.
“The key to this time of year is to look out for sunburn, acid, and a level of ripeness that you have to tune your palate to,” Trout said. Tuning your awareness to those factors for rosé is different than what you do the rest of the year, however, in a similar way to how we adjust clothing or choice of eyeglasses according to varying temperatures or levels of sunshine.
That’s how it sounded to me, at least. Trout kept the focus on fruit and food.
“Looking for fruit ripeness in rosé is kind of like gauging whether your tomato is ready to make your fried green tomato recipe,” she said. “There is a level of ripeness that works perfectly, and the level of under-ripeness that won’t work. But that spectrum is totally different than the spectrum you’d be looking out for from that same fruit for a red wine.”
Washington State, from a Grower’s Point of View
From a winemaker’s perspective, ripeness and acidity are top of mind when it comes to grapes destined for rosé; a grower’s perspective complements how that actually looks on the ground.
Sadie Drury, who runs North Slope Management, an extensive vineyard management company in Walla Walla, said that there are two things she focuses on: leaving more crop to facilitate slower ripening of the grapes, and less canopy management so that the grapes aren’t over-exposed.
Not only is leaving more crop more economical for the purchaser, Drury said, “it also allows the grapes to ripen slower without a spike in sugars which can lead to high alcohol.” In terms of canopy management, less sun exposure allows the grapes to maintain higher acidity and prevents the berries from getting sunburned. “We wouldn’t do this on grapes intended for red wine because it might affect color development, but that intense color isn’t needed for rosé,” Drury said.
In the next post we’ll see similar priority placed in acidity elsewhere – for sparkling rosé wine in Sonoma, for example – while rosé wines in British Columbia evolve from off-dry, “tutti frutti” versions to something drier and more savory. Finally we’ll wrap up in Virginia, where most rosé grapes have already been harvested (two weeks ahead of “normal”) and balanced rosés are more blends than single varietals.