Australian rosé has come a long way, baby. Forget the sweet, candy-coloured styles of the past… These days, local winemakers are crafting drier, paler wines with broad appeal.
There was a time, not that long ago, when no self-respecting wine aficionado would be caught dead drinking a pink wine, especially the males of the species. It was often relegated to the lower shelves of the wine store fridge, obscured from the eye’s line, out of sight, out of mind.
It got a bad rap. In truth, it only had itself to blame; glow-in-the-dark pink, propped up by sugar, cloying and sickly. Rosé was often produced as an afterthought; a by-product from the saignée method – the act of bleeding a red ferment early in the process, often during a cooler vintage, to “beef up” the resulting red wine.
In hindsight, the other wine styles should have had an intervention. But now rosé is having its revenge.
Things have never looked rosier for rosé in Australia. The sharp rise in quality is obvious, with winemakers taking the style seriously. And so they should. Rosé sales have been rising steadily for some time now.
It’s the perfect summer wine, able to be served at temperatures from bracing to room temperature, and its versatility when paired with food is enviable. From Thai through to tapas, barbecued meats to medium-bodied fish such as tuna, it takes on all comers. Picnic? Rosé, it's that simple.
Rosé can be a tricky genre to navigate. There’s great diversity, from pale in colour to deeply-hued, and bone-dry to off-dry, but the pleasing thing is that those sugary-sweet numbers of the past have been relegated to a bad memory and grapes are being harvested earlier to keep the sugar levels in check. Many producers are flagging that the wine is dry by wisely specifying the fact on the label. In recent times there has been a push to declare that pale rosés are dry rosés; true in many cases but not all, further adding to the confusion.
An argument could be made for the need of further clarity. You may have noticed the International Riesling Foundation’s Taste Profile scale on the back of some rieslings – this graphic demonstrates how sweet you can expect the wine to be. Perhaps that would work for rosé wines also. Or perhaps no-one pays attention to such scales?
Barossa winemaker Charles Melton explains the conundrum in relation to his Rose of Virginia: “When 50 per cent of our customers say ‘That’s sweeter than last year’ and 50 per cent say, ‘Gee… that’s drier than last year’, we know we’ve got it right.
Today, many Australian rosés are influenced by the wines of Europe, in particular the regions of Provence, Languedoc-Roussillon and Tavel. They are savoury, food-friendly, leaning towards the more crisp, linear end of the taste spectrum, perhaps with a touch more fruit. To a lesser extent, the Portuguese, Spanish and Italian examples also influence the antipodean styles, but for the most part, it is the French to whom we turn for inspiration.
Spinifex winemaker Peter Schell, whose deliciously savoury, onion-skin hued rosé, produced from a blend of grenache and cinsault with a touch of ugni blanc [trebbiano] mentions, “I guess two vintages making wine in Provence has been an influence. We produced bucket loads of rosé and I tried many memorable rosé wines during my time there”.
Charles Melton’s much-loved Rose of Virginia has its influence closer to home. “We’ve been making the Rose of Virginia for 29 vintages now and, to be honest, we used to produce a wine during my time at Peter Lehmann, the Hoffman Rosé. It was a dry, deeply-coloured style and that’s the direction we wanted to go,” says Charles. “Geoff Merrill and Houghton’s were making some great rosés in those days, too.”
One thing you will notice is that rosé can be produced from many red grape varieties. In France, rosé is made from syrah, grenache, carignan, mourvedre, cinsault and many others. The rosado of Spain leans towards tempranillo, garnacha, cabernet sauvignon, graciano and merlot. The rosato of Italy adds to the varietal mix with nebbiolo and other international varieties such as pinot noir.
In some cases in Europe, appellation laws define what varieties can be used, or indeed if rosé can be produced at all, but here in Australia we aren’t stifled by such bureaucracy. If it tastes good, we’ll make it. Any red variety is fair game, as a single varietal style or a blend, sometimes even with a splash of juice from white varieties.
You’ve noticed that rosé is mainly produced from red grape varieties; the juice inside those grapes is, in fact, clear. A brief period of skin contact gives the resulting wine its light blush of colour. There are several production techniques that can be used to craft rosé.
The most common method is the early pressing of red grapes after a very short period, usually 12 to 24 hours, of skin contact to extract the pigments, anthocyanins, tannins and flavour compounds that reside in the grapes’ skin. This process adds the faint colour and flavour components to the must, and the phenolic compounds in the skins act as antioxidants and provide a buffer from any degradation of the wine from exposure to oxygen.
We’ve previously mentioned the process of saignée (French for “bleed”). The idea is to “bleed” off some juice from a fermenting red must to concentrate the colour and flavour in the resulting red wine. The juice that is bled off the primary ferment is lightly coloured and then fermented as a rosé wine.
Then there is the blending of red and white wines to produce a rosé, and the process of decolourisation, stripping colour from a wine using activated carbon or absorbent charcoal – although this process often removes other more desirable compounds and is not generally used in the production of quality rosé. Of these methods, limited maceration and saignée are considered the superior options.
We’ve never had such a great selection of serious rosés to choose from. And they’ve never been more popular. On social media the #RoseRevolution initiative provided a sounding board for people to enjoy and share their experiences with the wine style.
In more recent times, the #brose hashtag has been trending on social media. Bearded brothers and savvy urban gents have been ditching the craft beers and enjoying rosé with impunity, sharing their experiences on Instagram and Twitter. Perhaps it’s not so much a ‘collective awakening’, but rather the realisation that rosé is one of the most delicious and versatile wine styles. The important message here is to cast off any preconceptions you may have about the cloying, shocking-pink wines of the past and celebrate one of this summer’s most delicious wine styles.