The room in the Rudd Center at The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone filled quickly with local winemakers and other trade for the St. Helena Star and Napa Valley Vintners’ annual rosé tasting last month. There was a certain buzz in the air, a telling sign: Those in the wine industry admire rosé just as much as consumers.
For many Napa Valley winemakers, rosé wines offer the chance to work with different red grape varieties including sangiovese, charbono and malbec, while also seeing what their traditional grapes like cabernet sauvignon, merlot, pinot noir and syrah do when produced as a rosé.
Given the ease with which a glass of rosé is consumed on a warm, sunny day, it would stand to reason that its winemaking is just as simple and carefree, don’t you think? Following the tasting of 21 Napa Valley wines from the 2014 and 2015 vintages, panelists discussed the production methods of rosé wines. The big takeaway was this: While rosé itself may be the epitome of lazy summer days, the winemaking is anything but.
“Managing the alcohol and fruit is a lot of work; you have to really manage the phenolics so you can make a fresh, fruity wine,” explained winemaker Doug Boeschen.
Sara Fowler, winemaker at Peju, agreed, noting, “If you know how to make wine from the saignée method, you can make lighter alcohol wines.”
Saignée is a popular production method for Napa Valley rosé. It is also called “bleeding off,” which makes sense once you know the process. The winemaker starts by making a red wine. The color in the grape skins starts to turn the juice a pinkish color. As the grapes ferment, tannins are also released from the skins, and of course, alcohol is being produced. After just six to 48 hours, when the wine is salmon to pink in color, some of it is drawn off (taken from the tank) to finish its fermentation as a rosé in a different tank. The wine remaining in the first tank continues to ferment as a red wine.
Careful attention is needed to coax color and flavor from the grapes while not extracting too much tannin and alcohol. The very nature of the rosé — fruity and refreshing — is hindered by the heat of alcohol and drying tannins.
This can get particularly tricky when using grapes with thick skins such as cabernet sauvignon and syrah, and to a lesser extent, merlot, that are naturally higher in tannins. With the warmer areas of Napa Valley, keeping alcohol in check also requires keen attention. Warmth and sunlight translate to ripe grapes full of sugar at harvest, and the higher the sugars, the higher the resulting alcohol when the wine is fermented to a dry style.
Panelists found the following Napa Valley wineries making the best rosé:
Blackbird Vineyards 2015 Arriviste Rosé ($25). Made from cabernet franc, this medium pink colored rosé has wonderful complexity, combining pronounced cherry and strawberry red fruits with a hint of white blossoms and herbs.
Fortunati Vineyards 2015 Pranzo Rosé of Syrah, Oak Knoll District ($24). A refreshing sip of peach and candied cherry, this is a wine to sip poolside, catching up with friends. Its fun and fruity character begs for a sunshine-drenched day of relaxing.
Ideology Cellars 2014 Rosé, Oak Knoll District ($25). This cabernet sauvignon-based wine is perfect for those having a hard time letting go of their red wine fetish. There is a bit of tannic grip along with red cherries, orange and lemon citrus, and a hint of herb on the finish.
Luna Vineyards 2015 Minuet ($32). Feeling sluggish? From the sangiovese grape, this rosé offers a swirl of fresh cherry and tart lemon citrus – sure to wake up the senses.
Paradigm Winery 2015 Rosé, Oakville ($28). For those happy to share a bottle of rosé, but not wanting a laser bolt of acidity, this wine is more about the creamy palate with raspberry, strawberry and herb aromas and flavors.
Stags’ Leap Winery 2014 Amparo Rosé, Napa Valley ($27). This rosé smells like spring with red cherry and raspberry fruit; a stony/steely note; and a whiff of fresh meadow. Made from the Grenache grape, it is medium pink in color with enough flavor intensity to stand up to barbecued or teriyaki chicken.
Catherine Bugue, the Star’s tasting panel columnist, loves writing about — and drinking — wine. You can contact Catherine at firstname.lastname@example.org. Only wines from Napa Valley Vintner member wineries are accepted and tasted. Many wineries offer local residents discounts on their wines through the Napa Neighbor program. Visit napavintners.com/programs and click on Napa Neighbor to learn more.