Making Great Illinois Rosé

Historically, the processing of rosé wine was likely either accident or afterthought.  Wines would have a lighter hue because of poor color development in the skins of grapes, or producers would bleed off some juice (saignée, in French) from a regular red wine fermentation to help improve color and structural components of their reds. This juice would then be fermented and sold as rosé, which in reality was little more than a by-product of the red winemaking process.

However, in the 20th century, pink wines really began to take off.  Provence began making in earnest what we now perceive as the current standard of rosé wine.

animal house
Mateus, in a supporting role, in the film Animal House

Mateus, a Portuguese sweet, fizzy rosé became popular in America after WWII, and soon thereafter gave old-world Chianti a run for its money as a hippie candlestick. By the mid-70’s, Sutter Home launched White Zinfandel, and the world of wine has never been the same since. White Zin was pretty, approachable, and easy for the casual consumer to enjoy. I used to teach an entry-level wine appreciation course, and every year I would slip a White Zin into a blind tasting for my students. They were instructed to conduct a thorough sensory evaluation of the wine, and then finish things off with a likeability score for their own use in the future.  Over the course of 15 weeks, these early-20s novice wine enthusiasts would evaluate between 80-100 wines from all over the world. Without fail, White Zin would show up on the end-of-year collective top ten list.

sutter home white zinI’m not here to sell you on White Zin. They do a great job of that already. My point is that the producers understood what much of the wine world forgot – wine doesn’t always have to be this complicated, elitist beverage – it can be fun too! It’s a successful product because it’s an easy step into the world of wine for new consumers.

Over the last 30 years or so, the success of White Zin paved the way for a return to the classic, dry rosé style of wine most closely associated with Provence. From a production perspective, it’s hard not to see it as a industry-driven response to the soft, sweet, and powerfully-aromatic “grotesque” nature of the industry leader. Wines are now being crafted that have beautiful color, delicate aromas and flavors, and crisp acidity that work tremendously well with food. These purposeful wines are being made from virtually every traditional red grape cultivar out there, from Grenache to Cabernet Franc to even Pinot noir.

So why not give it a go with Midwest cultivars? In recent years, wineries in Illinois have been making tremendous rosé wines from grapes that thrive in the Midwest, including Chambourcin, Cabernet Franc, Marquette, Frontenac, St. Croix, and many, many others.  These grapes have great color, flavor and acid profiles that lend well to rosé, and our wines compare favorably to their traditional counterparts. I’ll discuss that more in a future post. For now, I’d like to go into a few details on how great rosé wines are made.

Great Wines are Made in the Vineyard

250px-Marechal_foch_clusterWell, they’re not completely made in the vineyard, but grape production is an obvious critical part of the process. Standard quality-driven production practices are essential, such as canopy management to allow sunlight and air to move through the entire vine, and pest and disease control to ensure a clean, reliable crop. Picking fruit at the right time is critical. We have to think a lot about color, flavor, sugar, and acidity in the the fruit when determining the right time to pick.  We want the finished wine to have delicate color, moderate alcohol, bright flavors, and crisp acidity. As it turns out, this means harvesting red grapes for rosé earlier than a grower would for red table wine.

Crushpad Decisions

Winemakers have a lot of decisions to make right at the beginning of the process. The biggest is how to manage color during processing. Traditional red grapes have all the color in their skin, and the flesh, or pulp, of the grape is colorless. However, there are some other grapes that have colored flesh as well. These are called teinturier cultivars, and their wines tend to be much more highly-colored.

Teinturier Illustration from winefolly

Some Midwest cultivars, namely Chambourcin and Frontenac, have this quality, which makes color management more challenging for rosé production. These grapes often require strategies to minimize color extraction at the crushpad, including:

  1. Whole-berry pressing – choosing to avoid crushing the fruit to minimize color extraction.  Whole berries are gently pressed to squeeze out the juice. They often use this method in Champagne production with Pinot noir, which is why these wines often have little to no pink hue.
  2. Crush and immediate press – most common because it yields more juice than whole berry pressing.  In traditional red wine production, grapes would be crushed and then fermented on the skins to extract color, flavor, and structural components.  This method avoids skin contact as much as possible.  Free-run juice, that which runs freely from the crusher, if often separated from the press fraction, and is lighter in color.
  3. Saignée – explained above, but generally not used because of excessive color extraction.  The fruit was also harvested for red wine production, which throws of the flavor/sugar/acid balance.
Grape Press for 2018 Rosé – Photo Courtesy of Megan Shelato, Winemaker at Alto Vineyards

Other Impactful Decisions Prior to Fermentation

If the fruit chemistry wasn’t perfect, winemakers can make small adjustments to sugar, acid, and structural components prior to fermentation.  Additionally, the yeast strains chosen can make an impact on the sensory properties of the finished wine.  Winemakers will often divide the lot into several independent fermentations, adding variables such as free vs. press juice, different fermentation temperatures, and different yeast strains, with the intent of blending the parts together later to improve complexity.


Most of the work post-fermentation is a basic clean-up process similar to white winemaking practices, with an emphasis on getting the wine brilliantly clear and beautiful. Blending also plays a prominent role in crafting the perfect wine. The finished wine should be attractive, with delicate but complex flavors, and a clean, crisp acidic finish.

There are so may different variables at play, from site and cultivar to crushpad decisions to yeast and fermentation characteristics that it should be no wonder that there are so many unique rosé wines available! The wines from the 2018 vintage are looking great right now, so keep your eyes open in early 2019 for their release.

juice out of the press
2018 Rosé Pressing – Photo courtesy of Megan Shelato, Winemaker at Alto Vineyards

Happy Holidays!


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