Rosé Revealed: 9 Winemakers Share Their Styles & Approaches


By Laura Ness

Rosé is definitely the big buzz these days, with wine drinkers of all ages, and not just millennials (21 to 39) going crazy for rosés of all hues. Pantone’s 2016 color of the year was, unsurprisingly, Millennial Pink, and it is still showing up all over.

Earl Ault , Cedar Mountain

The appeal of rosé exists not just as a chilled wine, but in frozen cocktails (frosé) and even in gin. Wölffer Estate Vineyards on Long Island just launched a gin allegedly distilled from their rosé and tinted pink with grape tannins. It is a pretty pale pink hue that flirts with lavender.

It says a lot that two wine competitions I judged this year were won by rosés, while others added a Best Rosé category for the first time. The top sparkler at the Mendocino Wine Competition was a Roederer NV Brut Rosé. They added a category for Best Rosé to this competition for the first time: Navarro won it with a Grenache and Carginan rosé.

The besottedness with rosé extends even farther: Native Cosmetics out of SF launched a rosé scented deodorant at the beginning of summer in a three-pack featuring brunch aromatics that also included mimosa and sangria. Unsurprisingly, it was an instant sell-out. But we digress!

Back to drinking. The various approaches to making rosé was the topic of a recent seminar as part of Livermore’s Taste of Terroir. Here, we tried wines made in several different styles. The first with a rosé of Grenache by Cedar Mountain, made by Earl Ault with grapes harvested from the Ghielmetti Vineyard in the saignée, or “bleeding off” method.

Typically, wines made in this fashion tend to be a bit darker in color and higher in alcohol than those picked at lower brix for classic rosés, which are not bled off, but pressed directly and made in the manner of white wine.

The Cedar Mountain wine was picked on September 24, 2016, at 23.4 Brix and given 6 hours of skin contact. Rhone 4600 yeast was used, which Earl described as “killer.” The wine, which clocks in at 15.1%, has big flavor and texture, with persistent strawberry and guava flavors. It’s not shy.

Next up was Steven Mirassou of The Steven Kent winery who sources Grenache from Ghielmetti as well. His approach is basically to make a white wine out of the Grenache grapes, which are picked quite low in sugar, and fermented with a Delta yeast typically used for whites. Although the wine had a pretty pink color at first, it dropped out during fermentation. A teensy amount of red, in this case Syrah, was then added until the desired color and texture had been achieved before bottling.

Sneaky, eh? Many French rosés are made this way. It’s slightly more work, but it makes a more ethereal, delicate beverage that glides across the palate like silk on marble. The grapes were picked on August 18, 2016, at about 20 Brix, yielding a classic French style rosé that came in at 12.3% alcohol. It delivers rhubarb, lime and currant aromas and flavors, with a hint of tannin from the Syrah. This was such an impressive execution, they’ll be aiming for a repeat in 2017, with a little help from Mother Nature.

Interestingly enough, Cindy Burnett, assistant winemaker at Cedar Mountain, told us they plan to make Grenache Red wine as well as a Grenache Rosé, for 2017. “Since we will pick the grapes at the same time for both wines, we will skip the long skin contact for the rose and make the rose as a white wine and color it later with some of the red wine, just like Steven Mirassou did with his rose. We will use the same yeast as last year, Rhone 4600.” 

Next up was Longevity, with a robustly colored beauty that looks like the epitome of the perfect summer sipper. Winemaker Phil Long employed the saignée method to help concentrate the reds — Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre — for the Longevity Debruvée red blend. The color is rich on account of the extended skin contact, which not only adds pigment, but also skin tannin. The result is a highly textural wine that doesn’t flow like a watery pink nothing, but instead, at 14.2%, commands your attention.

Its jubilant red apple, strawberry and pomegranate orange jello flavors reminded me of a popular beverage from my childhood, Tang. Remember that? I think the Mercury astronauts drank it. Long plans to pick around 24 brix again this harvest, perhaps aiming a little lower on the Mourvedre. He’s planning to use the same yeast, M-83.

Collin Cranor of Nottingham Cellars has been dialing in his rosé formula for a few years now. The 2016 version was primarily made of Merlot, along with other Bordeaux varieties, each picked around 20 – 21 Brix, and either whole cluster pressed or saignéed into stainless steel tank for fermentation. The wine was made like a white, but with no ML, and finished off at 12.6% alcohol.

The gorgeous peachy pink color does the varietal proud. Aromas of mandarin, cranberry and currants lead to flavors of melon, orange pith and cranberry relish, with definitive hints of cardamom and nutmeg. It’s a fascinating wine with a big texture and being made from Bordeaux varieties, it’s got ample tannin, too.

Last up was Bob Bossi of Dante Robere, whose zaftig Syrah rosé was the fullback on the squad: big, beefy and not at all lacking in tannin or fruit. This was more like a medium-light red, which is pretty much what he was after. Made of 90% Syrah and 10% Viognier, it started out as a saignée of Syrah.

The Viognier was added to lighten it up and add a floral element. “We kept adding the Viognier to dial down the harshness,” Bossi explained. Turns out Bob is not much of a fan of white wine: this is about as close to a white as he will come. At 14.2%, it’s very ruby in color, packs a nose of strawberry punch and comes on like a freight train of ripe plums, with tannins that display a decidedly Velcro-like grippiness.

Bossi says their goal for this year is to make it a little lighter in color, which should also result in a softer wine with less tannin than last year’s version, yet retain all the fresh fruit flavors. To accomplish this, they will back off on the skin contact, and use a lighter setting on the press. Or, they might just let the grapes sit and drain the free run without going to press at all. It all depends on how the grapes come in.

Bossi will use Rhone 4600 yeast again, which he loves for its fresh fruit qualities. He might also ferment some juice with ICV GRE, which provides a nice front of the mouth impact and then blend the two together. The wine will once again be done entirely in stainless.

One of the wines we didn’t try at the seminar — because it had been long sold out — was the winner of Livermore’s 2017 Uncorked Wine Competition. The 2016 Occasio Rosé of Grenache was crowned Best of Show. It was made by winemaker Dave Hendrickson, a recent UC Davis graduate.

For this year’s edition, Hendrickson plans to use Grenache from Ghielmetti Vieyard as last year, picking the grapes to be processed for rosé, as opposed to saignée. He’s aiming for a dry style, with bright acid, coupled with a full texture attained by some post fermentation lees contact. “It seems that my preference is to pick somewhere in the middle in terms of ripeness compared to the rest of the valley, but of course with our small production we sometimes are grouped with larger picks and don’t have laser control of that decision,” says Hendrickson.

He admits the grapes were picked late in 2016, on September 24, with high brix, so adjustment was necessary. They used a hybrid yeast called Cross Evolution, which they will use again this year. Hendrickson prefers not to use oak, just stainless, adding, “I allow the wine to settle on the lees after fermentation but I never stir the lees. We try to bottle soon after fermentation so I want the wine to clarify quickly which lees stirring would disrupt.”

Molly Hill
Molly Hill, Sequoia Grove

We checked in with a few Sonoma and Napa producers as well. Winemaker Molly Hill of Sequoia Grove picked Stagecoach Vineyard Syrah from Atlas Peak for the 2016 edition of “intentional rosé.” Grapes were picked at 25 brix, a bit higher than her ideal target, but she needed to wait for proper flavor development. She hand-sorted, then whole cluster pressed the grapes, treating it like a white wine. A long, cold, slow fermentation then took place with a temperamental yeast she says they’ve determined to be the best for rosé (cote des blanc). Hill admits this was a new technique for Sequoia Grove.

Skin contact occurred while pressing— about three hours worth—as she constantly tasted press fractions to avoid too much skin tannin. After finishing, the wine was racked down to stainless steel barrels to settle for five months before bottling, with no battonage. The finished alcohol came in at 14.4%. It’s got a bit of weight for a wine made with no wood, and a preponderance of candy apple and cinnamon red hot flavors, nicely melded with pomegranate tea. Pretty zippy!

For 2017, she hopes to get some fruit off their new Stagecoach Grenache vineyard. Says Hill, “Our 2017 rosé may come from the Grenache or the Syrah or both, so stay tuned.” She plans to whole cluster press and use the same yeast. 

Winemaker David Ramey of Ramey Wine Cellars has seen more than a few tours of harvest duty (Matanzas Creek, Chalk Hill, Dominus, Girard, Rudd) but frankly, hadn’t made rosé in a few years. When asked about the 2016 Sidebar Russian River Valley Rosé, a project he started so that he and his daughter, Claire, could have a little fun, he told us the wine was made totally as if it were a white. It is made of Syrah from the Russian River Valley.

David Ramey
David Ramey, Ramey Wine Cellars

Notes Ramey, “Bleeding 24-26 Brix juice is no way to make a crisp, refreshing rosé—you have to add water, acid, etc. We make a pink white wine, harvested at 22 Brix—lots of natural acidity and freshness.”

He’s a big fan of lees stirring, considering it important for adding texture to a wine which otherwise might be a tad linear and lean. He explains, “That’s the obverse of crisp—lean.” The wine delivers a strikingly clean, yet spicy mélange of cranberry, smoky chipotle raspberry and a dash of pepper. Definitely Syrah.

Ramey reflects back on how he arrived at the process he uses now. “I haven’t made rosé since my days at Simi Winery in the early ‘80’s. There, we tank fermented and finished it off-dry, at 10 g/l sugar. We now use stainless steel drums specifically to allow interaction between the wine and the lees—which cannot be achieved in a tank ferment, even if you leave the lees in place, because it forms a thick coating of sludge on the tank bottom. One needs the smaller container and bâtonnage to ensure the mixing of the lees with the wine.”

Of the upcoming 2017 rosé for Sidebar, a label dedicated to varietals best consumed young, at the peak of freshness—like Sauv Blanc and the rare Kerner, a cross between Riesling and Trollinger—he says he won’t change it in any way he can envision at the moment. “We’re really pleased with our process, which after all, even though I wasn’t making rosé, I was still perfecting our white wine techniques. We did add one change with the 2016 vintage, though—we bottled it without any filtration. So, whole-cluster pressing, native yeast fermentation, un-acidified, aged sur lies, bottled dry, with no sugar, and bottled without any filtration—edgy winemaking!”

Another winemaker who never shies away from edgy, is John Benedetti of Sante Arcangeli in Santa Cruz. We caught him in the process of making 2017 rosé of multiple lots of Pinot, with approximately 25-50% being direct-press, with some whole cluster. Explains Benedetti, “With the direct-press rosé, some lots are thrown right into the press whole cluster. My first lot of the year was picked at 22.5º brix, with a mix of Swan and 667 clones and pressed whole cluster with no treading or skin contact. It was then chilled for a couple of days to clarify, then transferred to stainless steel 59 gallon barrels to ferment native in a 50º cold room. Once dry, it will see batonnage every two weeks for three months.”

He expects to direct-press the next lots with some treading first, and around four hours skin contact, possibly using a Bandol yeast strain.

After that, he will saignée a few of his Pinot fermentations after around 12 hours skin contact, saying, “I don’t bleed everything (rarely Split Rail, because it usually doesn’t need it), just the ‘juicy’ lots. Usually Saveria and Lester get a little bit of saignée, as does McConnell.” After fermenting to dryness in a small tank, they will go to stainless and neutral oak barrels.

Benedetti notes, “I like to treat each small rosé fermentation slightly differently and then bring them all together just before bottling. I do the same kind of thing with my Pinot. Everything ages sur lie, with batonnage.” The neutral oak lots are allowed to go through malolactic fermentation. He keeps as much oxygen off the wines as possible, practicing reductive winemaking to prevent the loss of all the aromas before bottling the wine.

Says Benedetti, “I was once told by a successful winemaker that I was an idiot for direct-pressing expensive Pinot Noir fruit into rosé. Here’s to idiots!”

Joe Nielsen
Joe Nielsen, Donelan Family wines

Winemaker for Donelan Family wines, Joe Nielsen, has a blended approach to making his rosé for the boutique Sonoma county operation specializing in Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Grenache and Roussanne. The sold-out 2016 Donelan Family rose was a saignée of 38% Grenache, 38% Syrah, 12% Mourvèdre and 12% Pinot noir, each fermented separately, as the fruit comes in.

Nielsen says that he has pressed red grapes for rosé in the past, but does so infrequently. Asked about skin contact, he says, “Skin contact depends on the vineyard and variety. Syrah, usually once the fermentor is filled, I drain the juice, meaning about 1-2 hours of skin contact. Pinot gets 24 hours, while Grenache and Mourvedre go anywhere from 12—24 hours. I usually check the color every 6—10 hours for the color I’m looking for. However, the length of time varies from vintage to vintage.”

To my query about whether the inclusion of Pinot was intentional, or if it was added to “tune” the wine, Nielsen replied, “Yes, I like the Pinot Noir inclusion. It gives us another octave when blending the rose together.”

What is his view on oak usage? He’s definitely a fan. “All of the rosé is fermented in neutral barrels, specifically, French oak. I like the roundness on the mid-palate when fermenting in barrel, as it pairs nicely with the acidity in the wine. Also, I find the Rhone portion to be fresher aromatically when fermented in barrel.” He does not espouse battonage, however.

Asked if he will employ the same method for his upcoming 2017 rosé, he says, “Mostly, it’s like setting out to paint a sunset. I have the brushes and the paint, but I won’t know what colors I will be using until I see it.”