Talking Rosé: A Lighter Shade of Pale is in Vogue (Tendance) in Provence. With a Little Help of a Clay Discovered in Montana.

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A prefigurement of the rage for rosé wine in the states were the hundreds of drained bottles of Domaine Ott that found there way to the morning trash bins of Eurotrash boites in New York City in the mid-90’s. The jet set caché of this high-priced Chateau Romassan Bandol rosé endures.

Whispering Angel

Whereas the craving for Domaine Ott was propelled by the sensual feminine amphora shape of its bottle, demand for rosé wines today is encoded in a color – a lighter shade of pale.

Just step into the rooftop bar of the SoHo House in Manhattan where pretty people quaff 500 cases a year of a limpid translucent peach colored rosé “Whispering Angel,” produced by Chateau d’Esclans in the Var. It’s seductive tint is chatted up at tony tastings enlivened by silky out-of-work models. Whispering Angel as a brand has a multiplier effect on popularizing light pale rosé because it appears on the by-the-glass lists of many upscale bars.

Rosé is no longer a wine – it’s a concept, a self-indulgent one – a blend of insouciance and relaxation, stressless obliviousness to whether it is a good drink or not.

During the last year, exports of Provence rosé to the U.S. have jumped a stunning 41% according to the Provence Wine Council, with the Chateau d’Esclans accounting for about 20% of the Côtes-de-Provence category.

In a somewhat tendentious meaningless exercise, the Wines of Provence reclassified its color schema for Provence rosé wines, a move that PVB termed the Lipstick Factor – a cosmetic gesture to feminize the brand.

The darker side – excuse the pun – is that too many consumers equate color with quality. There are countless insipid rosés on the market whose only merit is the color. Think again: rosés of great taste and beauty are the ruby-tinted Tavels of the eponymous appellation.

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Across the Southern Rhone and the Var, wine producers are turning out rosés with a lighter shade of pale.

At the Chateau Unang in Malemort-du-Comtat, over the last few years the Scottish winemaker James King has gradually been converting the estate’s Provence rosé vinification from ‘bleeding’ to ‘direct press.’

The 2012 rosé of the Chateau Unang is its first that is 100% direct press. “A light color can be achieved with pressurage direct for all but the very last part of the press, it might help to have a red wine that these colored juice can be added to. But I have run with the whole, there is a little color and I don’t see a problem with that,” Mr. King told PVB. (Chateau Unang imported by Vintage 59.)

A brief tutorial on the two dominant methods to make rosé:

Direct Pressing or Pressurage Direct. The grapes – either destemmed or in clusters – are immediately pressed in a wine press to release the juice. The maceration lasts only as long as it tasks to load the grapes into the press. The result is a rosé lighter in color as the skins stay in contact with the juice for a short period of time. The freshly pressed juice is transferred to the fermentation tank.

Bleeding or Saignée: Crushed grapes soak in a vat at controlled temperatures, and as the juice and skins soak (a process called maceration), the skins release their pigments and aromas. The length of time that the crushed grapes soak determines the color of the wine. When the desired color is achieved, the juice is drained or bled via a filter at the bottom of the vat. Time varies for this process which yields a darker colored rosé than in Direct Pressing.

The traditional color of the rosés from the Southern Rhone is deep blackcurrants. Earlier this year, wine consultant Pierre Sanchez told the Feiring Line that “Provence grapes are harvested relatively ripe and at rather high temperatures. The juices are generally quite colorful in the press but with oxidation and bacteria sometimes colored juices can turn dark or orange.”

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Before bottling a pale rosé, it may require a fining agent to remove the haziness in the wine. Philippe Cambie, the uber oenologist in the Vaucluse, told PVB that the producers are very rigorous in the Vaucluse in obtaining a pale rose, beginning with harvesting the grapes at 12 or 12.5 degree,” and “then not pressing the grapes but allowing the free run juice to be collected,” assisted by the natural lack of color of the grenache and cinsault grape varieties. Note: capturing free run juice is employed by Chateau d’Esclans where the juice has only 4 to 5 hours contact with the skins.

The process is not sufficient to eliminate wine proteins that render a rosé hazy and threaten its stability when stored. M. Cambie noted that two organic fining agents may be used. One is a pea protein, a non-genetically-modified non-allergenic protein used in vegan wine production.  The preferred organic agent is Bentonite, a natural clay. “In general, the domaines certified as Bio use only the Bentonite.” concluded M. Cambie.

Benonite requires careful administration as too much finings can diminish the color and the aroma of the wine as some of the color and aroma molecules are attracted to the bentonite plates. Thus, there is a risk of a loss of varietal character.

Photo: A rosé of the Bastide du Claux, 100% direct pressed.

Basics of Bentonite Fining:

An organic natural substance, Bentonite is a fine clay of aluminum-silicate which takes it name from Fort Benton, Montana, where it was first discovered.

It is a fining agent that removes particles that make a wine (red, white, rose) hazy.  This process involves negatively charged Bentonite plates that electrostatically bind to the wine proteins that have a faint positive charge.

Bentonite is hydrated by mixing it in hot water to make a slurry, and this mixture is added and stirred in the wine. The process is complete once a sludge, called bentonite lees, settles at the bottom, requiring the racking of the wine.

The wine’s appearance is improved – rosé wine is remarkably clearer – and the wine is stabilized so that when stored there are no changes in taste, color and aroma.

Now brace yourself. Rumor has it that at some large industrial wineries the sludge formed at the bottom is recovered and used in low-quality wine products. Ugh.

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