Glass of rosé wine on a dining table with different foods

A Napa Valley Rosé Renaissance

by Catherine Bugué

American wine enthusiasts have embraced pink for some time, accepting rosé as easily as a white or red wine for parties, with dinner or any other time a wine is enjoyed. The style appears on top restaurant wine lists, in great quantities at retailers and throughout vintners' portfolios today.

Rosé is hardly a new phenomenon. If we step back in history, we find that red wines were considered barbaric by the ancient Greeks; they were drinking pink. As grapes and wine traveled from Greece to southern France, rosé continued to appear at the dinner table, and the pink wines of the south gained fame around the Mediterranean. Its popularity seeped into everyday culture in countries such as France, Italy and Spain, where it remains steadfast today. And while it took its time, the allure of rosé finally made its way to the United States.

Americans have always loved the idea of the exotic, and when imported pink wines hit the market in the 1940s, we fell for Portugal's Mateus and Lancers. We had already been drinking sweet (fortified) wines, and these pink wines were easy sippers. U.S. producers started to churn out sweet rosé styles like pink Chablis, and when California's white Zinfandel came onto the market in the 1970s, Americans went crazy for it.

Napa Valley vineyards

The fact that these wines were sweet and inexpensive, however, alienated many wine drinkers. Serious enthusiasts stuck to their white and red in defiance of the sweeter style of pink wines. It would take a few more decades for dry rosé wines to climb up the popularity ladder, but once they did, their easy drinking nature came on in force.

The very style of rosé says, we've got you covered; there is no pressure to understand best vintages (the wines are meant to be enjoyed young and fresh), discuss ratings or know top producers. Could you dive into these details? Certainly. There are star-studded and famous brands from top wine regions, but the very nature of rosé, linked as it is to summer playgrounds, is intricately tied to pleasure, relaxation and enjoying the moment.

And when it comes to deciding which wine style to share with colleagues or friends, rosé has a trick up its sleeve: It is a truce to any quibble over whether it's red or white with dinner. The refreshing nature of a white wine meets the fruit flavors of a red.

When Americans finally embraced the dry, rosé style, all eyes (and palates) turned to California and Napa Valley—epicenters for fine wine in America.

male hand holding a glass of rosé wine in front of a winery building

Given the ease with which a glass of rosé is consumed, it would stand to reason that its winemaking is just as simple and carefree. But this is not true.

Styles of Napa Valley Rosés

Napa Valley is made for rosé. It's not just that our long, sunny summers and stunning vineyard views seemingly implore us to stop and enjoy a lovely glass of rosé, but also that the Mediterranean sunshine seduces Napa Valley's grapes into juicy, fruity flavors while our ocean fog and breezes keep the wines bright and fresh. Both of these are essential to the Napa Valley style.

Napa Valley's challenge is being able to make enough rosé wine. The region produces only 4 percent of California's wine, and rosé is just a small percentage of that production. For many of the grape varieties used to make Napa Valley's rosés, producing large volumes is just not possible.

Many Napa Valley wineries started to produce small amounts of rosé in order to have something refreshing to offer guests, especially if any white wines they were making were created in small lots and distributed. That is not to say you won't find many Napa Valley rosés distributed throughout the country today. With the category's growth in the market, vintners are working to meet that demand.

Because our spectrum of grape varieties is diverse in Napa Valley, the colors of the wines range from pale salmon to dark pink. Some burst with fruit intensity and others give a lovely hint of strawberry juiciness. Napa Valley offers a wide variety of rosé styles; choosing one comes down to personal preference.

Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Sangiovese, Charbono, Syrah, Grenache, Carignane and more are vinified to produce an array of pink wines in Napa Valley.

Let's take a look at some of the top grapes and their rosé styles:
In general, Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon rosés display the grape's core of black fruits and some of the structural backbone from tannins, providing extra intensity and complexity. The grape's thick, pigmented skin is to thank for the wine's deeper color and structure.

Merlot keeps its silkiness and richness on the palate even when it comes to rosé. Still full of bright acidity, the rosé wines show great t plummy fruit flavor.

Napa Valley Pinot Noir, especially from the cooler Los Carneros region where much of it is planted, produces very elegant rosés that showcase the grape's perfumed aromatics. Vibrant red cherry flavors can have a hint of white blossom freshness.
Napa Valley's Syrah rosés often have the grape's violet, raspberry or blackberry flavors, with a hint of the variety's inherent smokiness, making these some of the more hedonistic rosés.

The Sangiovese rosés have bright acidity and a delightful, tangy, sometimes sour cherry flavor with herbal complexity.

Grenache is a grape variety that builds up high sugars as it ripens, so there are generally generous amounts of sugar for the yeast to convert to alcohol. This gives the wines more weight—a richer texture that works well with the red fruits and spice that are inherent to the variety.

As a general guideline, the deeper the color, the more flavor intensity the wine will have. That is not always the case in reverse, though: Some pale colored rosés are brimming with flavors. Getting familiar with producers and styles is the best way to find your favorites.

male hand holding a glass of rosé wine in from of an aqua blue water fountain

Making It Pink

Given the ease with which a glass of rosé is consumed, it would stand to reason that its winemaking is just as simple and carefree. But this is not true. Napa Valley winemakers explain that it requires elements of both red and white winemaking, with the need to merge the two thought processes. Color, which is less of an issue with white wines, must be considered as well as the phenolic character of red varieties. There is also acid balance to maintain, as rosés are prized for their refreshing nature. Rosé, it appears, is not as easy to make as one might assume.

We understand if it's starting to sound a bit threatening, but these are the terms for rosé production.

Let's start with maceration. 

The juice of almost all red grapes is clear and only gets color by spending time in contact with the skins of the grapes after being crushed. This process is called maceration and is the determining factor in how deeply colored a rosé wine becomes. The longer the contact, the deeper the color. Once the desired hue is reached, a winemaker will separate the juice from the skins to begin fermentation as a pink wine.

Bleeding off, also called the saignée method, is essentially maceration, but the term bleeding off is used when the vintner's intent is to produce a more concentrated red wine. When the juice starts to turn pink, some of it is removed and put into a new vessel to continue fermenting as a rosé.

Intentional is a term used in the industry when the vintner's intent is to create a rosé wine only. Vintners are choosing their varieties and tending their vineyards from the outset with the goal of creating a pink wine. Here, the vintner will generally macerate the juice with the skins for a short period of time to create the pink color.

Direct pressing is the term used when the maceration period is shortened. Once the grapes are picked, they are put in the press, which separates the juice from the skins. Because the contact time (maceration) between skin and juice is minimal, the color of the juice is very pale pink.

Why did we say almost all rosé wines use maceration? How else can a wine turn pink if it does not have some time in contact with red skins? A vintner could blend a white and a red wine together. This is rarely done in Napa Valley, and it is not allowed in Europe except for in Champagne.

The refreshing nature of a white wine meets the fruit flavors of a red.

Rosé wine, bread, and cheeses on a wooden cutting board

Rosé by Any Other Name

Why do we call pink wines rosé?

Rosé is the French term for pink, and as Americans first started to discover rosé wines, we were enamored by all things French. Pink could be a preferred name, but sometimes the wines take on a salmon or a pale onion skin hue, which doesn't quite fit under the pink umbrella. Rosato and rosado are the Italian and Spanish terms for rosé, respectively. Heard the term blush? It's not used much anymore. The term was popular when white Zinfandel first came onto the market, but later became synonymous with that sweeter style.

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