Only the most stubborn of wine drinkers would find it difficult to locate a rosé style to their liking. There are pale salmon-colored wines with faint strawberry and white floral aromas; medium pink-colored rosés with fresh cherry and dried herb character; and almost-red wines with dark fruits and a touch of tannic structure; as well as dozens and dozens of other different kinds of rosés. We can choose dry or sweet, and sparkling or still wines on top of it all.
The grape variety used to produce rosé is one of the largest influences on the style found in the bottle. Some of the most common varieties used are pinot noir, sangiovese and grenache — grapes whose thinner skins can result in lighter-colored wines. The thicker the skins, the more color that can be extracted from those skins during fermentation. But that is not the only thing found in the skins; tannins are another consideration. Higher levels of the firm, drying sensation that comes from tannins can come with thicker skinned grapes too. Since much rosé is fashioned in a refreshing fruity style, without the tannic grip that works so well with more powerful red wines, lighter skinned grapes are often easy choices for the rosé winemaker. With the thicker skinned varieties, careful handling in the cellar is necessary so as not to over-extract color and tannin.
Here in Napa Valley, we make rosé from a wide variety of grape varieties including zinfandel, which is successfully used to produce a medium sweet version of rosé, and thicker skinned varieties such as syrah, merlot, cabernet sauvignon and even petit verdot.
The grapes used in the valley often come down to simple economics. The expense of growing grapes in the region means that much of our rosé is made during red wine production, using the grapes grown specifically to make our red wines.
In the early stages of red wine fermentation, the juice, which is fermenting with the grape skins, starts to take on color. While that color is still some shade of pink (or salmon or pale red), some of the wine is removed from the fermentation vessel and put into its own vessel to continue fermentation as a rosé wine. The first tank continues to ferment as a red wine. This is called the saignée, or bleeding-off, method. While tannins are slower to release from the skins, there will be some extraction at this early stage as well, especially with thicker skinned varieties.
Not all Napa Valley rosé wines are made in this way. Franciscan, Cornerstone and other producers pick red grapes and only make a rosé wine from those grapes. But that is an expensive endeavor given grape prices here. With lower price tags on most rosé wines, the cost of production is hardly recouped.
The St. Helena Star and Napa Valley Vintners discussed grape varieties following a tasting of more than two dozen Napa Valley rosés last month. Almost all of the wines were dry, and one was sparkling. Pinot noir, sangiovese, syrah, and merlot-cabernet sauvignon based blends were tasted in separate flights, with a fifth flight covering a mix of other varieties or blends. The wines showed a wide display of colors from salmon to pink to orange and light red, and a number of them had a backbone of tannin.
“Pinot noir and sangiovese did well,” said panelist Peter Marks MW. “I was surprised there were no varietal zinfandel rosés submitted. There were also not a lot of grenache, and we love thinner-skinned grape varieties [for rosé].”
Julie Lumgair, consulting winemaker for Ideology Cellars, has made rosé for 13 harvests. She said,“Pinot noir is the queen of rosé, and sangiovese is amazing to work with. When I came to Napa Valley in 2012, I fell under the spell of cabernet sauvignon for rosé; it is rewarding — it is harder to make. To protect your fruit – your super expensive fruit — you have to have a good game plan so the grapes don’t oxidize, and so you get all the gorgeousness of the fruit. You are producing a rosé with fruit ripened for red wine. If the rosé is an after-thought, the phenolics (color, tannins) stick out.”
Laura Lujan, part of the cellar team at Silverado Vineyards, stated, “It’s hard not to gravitate towards pinot noir; the rosés are fresh and lively. Sangiovese is very pretty; all the [sangiovese] wines were nice. Grenache is another rosé I would look for when shopping. I appreciate the cabernet varieties, however, because they are not easy.”
Robert Schermeister, winemaker at Schermeister Cellars, was surprised that he enjoyed the merlot and cabernet based rosé wines most. “I didn’t expect them to be a favorite.” Second favorites for Robert were found in the sangiovese flight.
Following are the panelists’ top wines from the five flights:
Schramsberg Vineyards 2012 Querencia Sparkling Wine Napa Valley ($55). Hands down, the favorite of the tasting, no one can resist Schramsberg’s bubbles. This salmon-colored sparkling wine has gentle yeasty bubbles, crisp acidity and fresh strawberry fruit-faint herb complexity.
Top still wines
Alpha Omega 2016 Rosé of Pinot Noir, Grenache Napa Valley ($28) is a deeper pink color with fresh cherry fruit and herb complexity.
Benessere 2016 Sangiovese Rosé St. Helena ($22) is medium salmon and offers a fun mix of lemon citrus, strawberry and mineral character with a playful bite of spice on the finish.
Bouchaine Vineyards 2016 Pinot Noir Vin Gris Los Carneros ($24) is medium pink with bright cherry fruit aromatics.
Fortunati Vineyards 2016 PRANZO Syrah Rosé Oak Knoll District ($24) is a pale pink color with generous vine-ripened cherry fruit flavor.
Silverado Vineyards 2016 Sangiovese Rosato Napa Valley ($25) is for fans of intensely flavored rosés. This one has a deeper medium pink color.
Nellcôte 2015 Rosé of Malbec, Syrah Mount Veeder ($65) is medium pink in color, showing juicy plum, raspberry and cherry fruit with some tannic structure.
Nichelini Family Winery 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon Rosé Chiles Valley District ($26) is a medium pink color with intense cherry-strawberry fruit matched by refreshing acidity.
Pope Valley Winery 2016 Sangiovese Rosé Napa Valley ($22) has refreshing, more delicate cherry fruit aromas that belie a rich, silky texture and plenty of cherry fruit on the finish.
St. Supery Estate 2016 Rosé Napa Valley ($18) is medium pink in color with an interesting cherry-spearmint character defined by a structural touch of tannins.
Summers Estate Wines 2016 Rosé of Charbono Calistoga ($30) is softer and richer with a mix of riper red fruits.
Whitehall Lane 2016 Syrah Rosé Napa Valley ($24) is a rosé structured by tannins with intensely flavored red cherry and lemon citrus flavors.