Rosé – a wine we love to drink on that warm summer afternoon; and perhaps the most difficult wine to make well.

Rosé wasn’t originally part of the plan. But, we had a really pleasant surprise in the vineyards.  The farm responded very well to our greater attention after we took over the farming practices in 2017, which resulted in greater yield levels faster than we expected.  As a new winery, we were cautioned about building up our Pinot Noir wine quantities too fast and we really didn’t want to sell many grapes. So our anticipated harvest yield for the 2020 vintage became an opportunity for another creative effort.

Did you know that there are three ways to make rosé wine? The first is to pick a block of grapes specifically for rosé. This is the most intentional approach to making rosé, and is our stylistic choice at Charmant Vineyards. The second and most popular approach is to drain off some juice from a batch of red wine after a few hours.  And of course the third is to take a white wine and add a bit of color.

Taking these in reverse order:

The third method – taking white wine and adding color – seems fake and therefore we won’t even discuss it.

The second approach to rosé is what is most commonly seen with Pinot Noir Rosé wines. The technique of ‘saignee’ or bleeding free run juice off the Pinot Noir must is such a popular approach as it is believed to “concentrate” the flavor of the remaining grapes. The idea being that there is little flavor component in that free run juice and pretty much all the character for the remaining Pinot Noir comes from the skins. We can leave that discussion aside here and discuss the rosé wine that results. Unless adjustments are made to the °B and the acidity level you usually end up with an oddly balanced wine. The resultant wine is high in alcohol (since it was picked for red) and relatively low in acid and usually with a darker hue to the color.

Finally we arrive at the more intentionally made rosé wines – sometimes referred to as the ‘direct press’ method. This style emphasizes lower alcohol, bright fruit acidity, no residual sugar and a very pale blush of color. This is our strong stylistic choice when it comes to rosé wines.

The pick decision is made on the total acidity of the field samples.  We look for a 10 gram/liter measured level of tartaric acid. At this level of acidity, there is about 5 grams/liter of malic acid (the acid found in apples). The anticipated sugar at that physiological level of ripeness is about 20°Brix, give or take. The anticipated pH is below 3.0 which ensures a very crisp wine.  Then there is the kicker – you want uniform color and ripeness to produce a harmonious wine.  Green flavors and green berries must be avoided. As they say in sparkling wine production – we’re looking for uniform ripeness at lower sugar levels – not unripe fruit!

The fruit is handled much like the Chardonnay – no destemming, only crushing.  The must is pressed immediately to give a very light color. If we had allowed the must to rest together for an hour or two, you will get more color – but also more risk of contamination.  Fermentation starts immediately in stainless steel drums.

Upon completion of alcoholic fermentation in a week or ten days and hopefully before any other grapes are received into the winery, the new wine is racked off it’s lees and an appropriate SO2 addition is made to prevent a secondary malo-lactic (ML) fermentation. The drums are sealed and should not require any more attention until well after all the frenzy of harvest has died down.  Our goal is to retain as fresh a character as possible.

About three weeks before bottling, the wine is pulled from the stainless drums and treated for protein (heat) stability. Then on to bottling – this is the first wine to be bottled in the winery year’s sequence.  This helps avoid possible contamination from any earlier bottlings and gives the wine it’s needed rest in the bottle before release.

So what’s so difficult in making this wine?

Well for starters, our stylistic choice for making our rosé wines requires a completely separate harvest date, separate from the Pinot Noir harvest dates, which could be a month later. This involves significant scheduling and labor considerations, all adding incremental costs.

But then there is the obvious difficulty of making a wine without ML fermentation in a cellar where everything else has undergone ML. Rosé made in a ML complete style is pretty clumsy, and not our stylistic choice.  Then there is the lower alcohol of our method, which can invite some other contaminant issues such as brettanomyces.  This is somewhat offset by high acidity, low pH and no residual sugar.  This is indeed the major “why” for no residual sugar.  But, no residual sugar makes a pleasing balance in the wine more difficult to obtain as we are depending almost entirely on the apparent sweetness from the alcohol content to provide the desired weight in the mouth.  Finally, we need to avoid any potential harshness by picking a yeast which gives fullness and clean fruit expression.  All of this speaks directly to the need for optimum fruit quality at harvest and a balancing act all the way with plenty of pitfalls for the inattentive.

It is rare to find a Rosé of Pinot Noir from the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA. Especially a Rosé of Pinot Noir that was intentionally made as such, like we do.  For those of you looking for this rarity, we’re pleased to pour it for you!