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WSU wine researchers working to improve the color and taste of rosés

Most people think of rosé wine as a pink drink.

Those who love rosé and admire its appearance in the glass will tell you it is something different.

A good rosé often is closer to salmon or coral in color – distinctly not pink although pink is OK.

Achieving consistency in color and flavor is apparently the challenge for top winemakers.

Kristina Mielke van Loben Sels, wine director at Arbor Crest Wine Cellars in Spokane, said she tried to make a rosé from the Italian sangiovese grape, but wasn’t pleased with the outcome, so she used that wine for blending instead of marketing it as a rosé.

Now she has plans to make rosé from pinot noir grapes out of the acclaimed Conner Lee Vineyard north of Pasco. It should be released in early 2019, she said.

“I love dry rosés. They are wonderful this time of year,” she said. Her color preference is coral. “You’ve got to preserve that gorgeous color,” she said.

To help winemakers, a pair of Washington State University wine researchers is coming up with techniques to achieve consistency in color and flavor as part of the university’s outreach to the growing wine industry.

Rosé is normally sold in clear glass bottles so color is the first thing consumers see when they make a purchase, Jim Harbertson, an associate professor at WSU Tri-Cities, said. “I would say what sells dictates the market.

Making that good first impression is critical. “There is a lot in psychology that goes into perception,” he said.

Rosé is made from dark-skinned grapes. In the initial fermentation, the juice is left to soak with the dark skins from two to 48 hours to impart color into the wine, but not too much color. The length of time on the skins depends on what the winemaker is trying to achieve, Harbertson said.

According to the WSU news service, Harbertson has become “an expert in the science of pink-esque pretty” for the viticulture and enology program at the university.

For years, one of the most popular rosés has been white zinfandel, which shows a pinkish hue but has been frowned on by wine aficionados for being too sweet, cheap and of lesser quality.

Rosé can be made from numerous types of grape varieties, including Grenache, sangiovese, syrah, mourvedre, cinsault and pinot noir, even obscure European varietals.

“There is no right or wrong answer to what someone likes,” Harbertson said. “Consumers like variety.”

As the years go on and consumers become more sophisticated, Washington winemakers have responded by offering more rosés.

But not all of them.

Michael Haig, winemaker at Lake Roosevelt Wine Company, grows the Bordeaux varietals of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and merlot at his family’s estate on the south shore of the lake. He said he would never try to make a rosé from those grapes because they are intended to be used in dark red wine. That said, he is always a fan of well-made rosés, especially those from Spain.

The website for Townshend Cellar on Green Bluff features a photo with two glasses of brut rosé sparkling wine, a longtime favorite of wine drinkers locally. Winemaker Michael Townshend said he is planning to make a still rosé from Grenache or sangiovese from the Willard Vineyard.

“Everyone is into rosé this time of year,” he said during a wine and food event Wednesday in Spokane. “Rosé is magnificent in the right place.”

Rosé’s popularity started growing maybe a decade ago, led at first by trendy types in large urban areas.

Over time, consumers have discovered that a chilled bottle of rosé goes well during warm weather. Grocers already know that as summer approaches, it is time to put more rosés on the shelves.

Many drinkers consider rosé a perfect patio wine. And to stay true to good entertaining, rosé should be served with a variety of foods such as cheeses, charcuterie, fruit, grilled vegetables, salmon, shellfish, salads, olives, chewy breads or light pasta.

“Rosés are so food-friendly. I just love them,” Mielke van Loben Sels said.

Sparkling rosés like the one from Townshend are always a popular choice. There are any number of bubbly rosés imported from Europe and widely available in the U.S.

Harbertson said consumers generally expect a lighter flavor in rosé if the color is lighter. A darker color signals a fuller body in the taste. The color essentially is a clue to what’s inside the bottle, he said.

But getting consistency can be tricky. Bottling causes the color to lighten by as much as 60 to 70 percent. Time in the bottle allows the wine to regain color, he said.

The problem of consistency paired with flavor was brought to Harbertson’s attention by a winemaker who was having issues. The winemaker urged Harbertson and graduate researcher Caroline Merrell to work on the problem.

They discovered that by proper management of sulfur dioxide used in winemaking, the vintner can approach consistency. They also found that spectral and other analysis helps in the blending process. Using more science in the winemaking is a key to rosé success, Harbertson said.

Mielke van Loben Sels said that means using lighter amounts of sulfur, which is typically applied to control fermentation in winemaking.

Across Europe and especially in France, winemaking is governed by a multitude of laws and rules. American winemakers on the other hand are not shackled by a wine bureaucracy, giving them more freedom to be creative, Harbertson said.

Linda Weiford of WSU News said there is even a National Rosé Day on the second Saturday in June. She said one vintner is offering kegs of it for sale.

For many wine drinkers, the color of rosé is the magical thing. Not always pink, it could be a rouge like colors offered at makeup aisles. Other ways to see rosé might be as a blush, berry jam, strawberry, melon or cerise.

WSU’s Weiford came up with one of the more creative rosé hues – ballet slipper pink.


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