By Glen Frederiksen
Ask a winemaker the questions posed in the headline, and it’s enough to make him or her blush.
Most casual wine drinkers know the basic differences between red wine and white wine. Aside from color, they know that red wines are good for you (or so their doctor says), they are dry, some can be very expensive, and some can age for quite a while. As to white wines, Joe Drinker is aware that they can be sweeter, sometimes smell and taste like buttered popcorn, and are generally “easier” to drink.
But what of rosés? And what does it mean when a bottle is labeled White Zinfandel or White Merlot?
Here, things can get tricky. Let’s see if we can (no pun intended) throw some light on the subject.
By definition, a rosé is a type of wine that incorporates some of the color from red grape skins, but not enough to be considered a red wine. This can be accomplished in three ways: reduced skin contact with the grape juice, bleeding off some juice early in the fermentation process (the French call this Saignée), or adding red wine to white wine.
Rosés can be bone dry, such as those that hail from the Southern Rhone in France; a bit sweeter, like those hailing from the Loire Valley; or clearly sweet, such as the White Zinfandel bottlings from (mainly) California. There are other examples from nearly every wine-producing region in the world.
While the aforementioned are still table wines, rosés also are popular among the sparkling wine estates. The primary grape varietals grown in the Champagne appellation of France are Pinot Noir (red) and Chardonnay (white). Most Champagnes are a blend of these two grape varietals, but the color is nearly light straw, as the juice from the grapes is quickly removed before color leeches out of the skins. To make a sparkling rosé, the juice of a red Pinot Noir wine is added into a traditional blend.
The bottling of rosé wines can be traced back to the beginnings of winemaking, as the practice of extended skin contact and hard pressing of the must likely were not practiced (or even contemplated) early on.
But what of White Zinfandel, White Merlot and White Cabernet? Contrary to what many Joe Drinkers believe, these are not grape varietals. Rather, red grapes (Merlot, Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon) are made in a rosé style by pulling their juice off the skins after minimal contact.
In the mid-1970s, Sutter Home struck gold by marketing a lightly hued Zinfandel with some residual sugar as White Zinfandel, and the rest is history. A few years later, Mill Creek Winery in Sonoma County released a lightly colored, off-dry Cabernet Sauvignon as Blush Cabernet, and the wine public embraced the “blush” term to refer to any off-dry wine with a lighter, rosé-style color.
While the sweeter New World versions of rosé (like White Zinfandel) have dominated the marketplace — at least here in the United States — for several decades, there has been a resurgence in the popularity of the more traditional dry styles of rosé.
There are a few factors feeding into this more prominent placement of rosé:
• The Old World wine-producing countries have cleaned up their winemaking act and are producing clean examples of rosé now.
• The price of rosés tends to be lower than traditional bottlings of red and white wines (you’ll find a good number of “Value Vinos” in this category).
• Rosés have a great affinity for the dinner table, as well as being enjoyable, stand-alone aperitif wines.
With warmer weather finally here, it’s time to add some rosé and blush bottlings to your wine-drinking rotation. Check out our most recent reviews here.