Rosé, the versatile, pastel pink-hued wine that originated in the Provence region of France, is increasing in popularity across the U.S. In 2013, retail sales of dry rosés increased by 40 percent in America. In the Midwest, winemakers are crafting a range of food-friendly rosés to meet this uptick in demand – both sweet and dry – with the latter becoming something of a game changer for the regional wine industry.
Jamie Jamison, a wine consultant on the judging committee of two major Missouri wine competitions, the Governor’s Cup and the Jefferson Cup, says these fruit-driven wines attract a wider swath of consumers.
“Midwest wineries are making some great rosé-style wines,” Jamison says. “They tend to be on the sweeter side, which I think everybody doesn’t like to admit, but everybody likes,” he adds.
But despite having a sweet reputation, more traditional styles of rosé are emerging in the region.
“Dry rosés have definitely seen an increase in consumer interest, with more Missouri wineries producing in this category,” says Danene Beedle, marketing director for the Missouri Wine and Grape Board, a state agency that supports the research and promotion of the Missouri wine industry. Many of these wines are made from Norton, Chambourcin and St. Vincent grape varieties.
Doug Frost, a Kansas City-based wine consultant, lecturer and author with both Master Sommelier and Master of Wine qualifications, sees something else happening, too: It’s not just dry wine drinkers who are interested in drier styles of rosé.
“What’s been rather curious, frankly, to me,” Frost says, “is that so-called traditional White Zin[fandel] drinkers have been completely comfortable switching to drier styles of rosé wines.”
White Zinfandel, the sweet blush wine made from red Zinfandel grapes, was created in the 1970s and became America’s first mass-produced sweet rosé.
“What people are really looking for now,” adds Frost, “are the fruit aromas and fruit character, rather than the sweetness that so often used to stand in for that.”
Daphne Bowman agrees with Frost. Bowman runs Willow Spring Mercantile, a retail wine, gift shop and restaurant in Excelsior Springs, Missouri, that specializes in Missouri wines. She says the switch from sweet to dry rosés is a result of Midwesterners becoming more educated about the grapes that grow in the region. Because rosé has the refreshing qualities of a white wine, with some of the more robust flavors of a red, she says it’s an especially versatile wine to pair with food.
“[Rosés] make great spring and summer wines; it’s like moving from your winter red to your spring pink,” Bowman says. “It will go with pork, chicken and fish, and you can even do it with barbecue.”
Jamison thinks that if sweet blush drinkers can move toward fruity, dry rosé, perhaps consumers who prefer sweet Riesling and Moscato wines, two of the most popular wine styles in the Midwest, can do the same.
“You start off comfortable with sweet, and then you realize that your comfort is in the really luscious fruit flavors that give the mind the association with sweet, but not necessarily the sweetness on the actual palate,” Jamison says.
This means that light, fruit-driven wines, lower on tannin, like rosés, have the potential to act as a bridge to transition from sweet wines to dry reds and dry whites. Frost sees that coming in the near future: “I think smart Midwestern producers are going to start drying up some of their rosés,” he says.
Some Midwest winemakers already have.
At Augusta Winery and Montelle Winery, both located in Augusta, Missouri, owner Tony Kooyumjian uses a technique called saignée, or bleeding off, to make two of the winery’s dry rosés using Chambourcin and St. Vincent grapes. According to renowned wine writer Tom Stevenson’s fifth edition of The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, saignée creates pale, rich, fruity and “exquisitely fresh” rosés.
“With this saignée method we’re putting whole, destemmed grapes in the tank,” Kooyumjian says. “Through a process of gentle squeezing by the weight of the grapes themselves, we express some of the juice and pump just that juice out to make our rosés.”
The fermentation of that gently derived pink liquid produces Augusta’s La Fleur Sauvage, a blend of 70 percent St. Vincent grapes and 30 percent Chambourcin, and Montelle’s La Rosée, which has the opposite proportions – 70 percent Chambourcin and 30 percent St. Vincent.
“La Rosée is probably more like a Provence wine, so the characteristics would be strawberry, raspberry and melon aromas that follow through into the flavor,” Kooyumjian says. “La Fleur,” he continues, “has a higher proportion of St. Vincent and tends to be more floral, with lily of the valley-type aromas and some hints of fruit, generally peach and cherry.”
Kooyumjian stops fermentation before it’s complete, leaving both wines with a very small amount of residual sugar, though they’re still classified as dry. He believes the pendulum in the Midwest is starting to swing toward drier rosés. Thinking back on where the industry was 25 years ago, he says they were selling 70 percent sweet wines and 30 percent dry, but today those percentages have been almost totally reversed.
At Holy-Field Vineyard & Winery in Basehor, Kansas, co-owner and winemaker Michelle Meyer makes a sweet rosé, Racy Red, produced from a combination of two red grapes: Chancellor and St. Vincent. “We make it in a traditional rosé style where the juice is pressed off so it’s lighter in color,” Meyer says, “but unlike traditional rosé, it’s sweet, with about 2.5 percent residual sugar.”
Pressing, or pressé, is one of three methods usually employed to make a quality rosé wine, and the most commonly used method in Provence. The grapes are gently pressed, separating the juice from the skins, before fermentation begins, just like making a white wine but with red grapes.
Meyer explains, “There’s no ferment on the skins, so you don’t get all the tannin impact and dark color of red wine.”
The amount of each grape variety in the Racy Red blend changes each year. “I’m just working with what Mother Nature gives me,” Meyer says. She describes the wine as having a distinct strawberry characteristic. “And that’s approachable for a lot of people.”
Another method of making rosé is known as limited maceration, based on the maceration method used to make red wines. The limited maceration used to produce rosé is the preferred production method of François Millo, former president of the Provence Wine Council. Before harvested grapes are pressed in the maceration process, they’re crushed and left soaking in tanks to extract the red color and flavor from the skins, seeds and sometimes the stems. For the limited maceration used to make rosé, the winemaker must shorten this soaking process and stop it once the juice has reached the desired color and characteristics.
At Chaumette Vineyards & Winery in Ste. Genevieve, Missouri, the rosé winemaking process includes a very limited maceration. Owner Hank Johnson says this is key to the flavor of his rosé. “Less than an hour is all the contact it has with the skins,” Johnson says. “It’s enough extraction to put together a beautiful, deep rosé color.”
When guests visit the winery, Johnson likes to show them two bottles of wine: The first, his Chambourcin, is the result of up to 10 days soaking or macerating in its skins.
“Then I pull out the rosé and I say, ‘This is rosé of Chambourcin – less than one hour on the skins,’” he says. Johnson enjoys the surprise on people’s faces as they marvel at the wine’s lustrous pink color and learn about how it’s made. The winery describes the rosé as having delicate aromas of strawberries and a hint of raspberries, crisp acidity on the palate and a clean, refreshing finish. Johnson says sweet wine drinkers can appreciate his dry rosé. “When they taste it, they like it and they want it,” he says.
Johnson sincerely believes that his rosé stands up to the best he’s tried from across the country and the world. “We make it a point, any time we see a rosé on a wine list in a restaurant, to order it and compare it with ours,” he says. “And I have to be honest – we’ve had some huge disappointments trying to find a rosé that we think is on the same level.”
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