Devoted to Rosé

Swanson Vineyards focuses attention on creating a refreshing wine

By Janice Kleinschmidt

Photos Courtesy Swanson Vineyards
Seen Right: Swanson Vineyards Winemaker Chris Phelps checks grapes in the winery's Oakville vineyards.
Seen Below: Swanson Vineyards' tasting salon

Considering the high cost of growing grapes in Napa Valley, committing production to the typically affordable rosé wine amounts to “a bad economic decision,” says Swanson Vineyards Winemaker Chris Phelps.

That could explain why many rosés are essentially byproducts from making high-end red wines.

“Most people make rosé by bleeding juice off of a tank of crushed red grapes,” Phelps says. “There’s a French term for it: saigner, which means ‘to bleed.’ You fill up a red fermenter with crushed red fruit, which is now, technically, must: skin, seeds, pulp, and juice. After a certain number of hours, you bleed off a certain percentage of the juice, therefore creating a situation where there are more solids, skins, and pulp per unit volume of must than there were before.”

At this point, the winemaker must get rid of highly solidified juice or find a way to use it.

“Because the grapes were picked to make red wine, the sugar content — and therefore the alcohol content — is higher than you would choose for a rosé, probably 14 [percent] or above, maybe 15,” Phelps says. “With rose, you would like to be in the 12 to 13 percent range. The whole idea is a quaffable, warm-climate wine that doesn’t hit you over the head with alcohol. You want a light beverage; and, furthermore, you want more acid. You want something fresh. With high-end red wine, you want more weight, and alcohol gives more weight. A heavy rosé just doesn’t feel quite right in the mouth.”

To compensate for the high sugar content and low acidity, winemakers add water and acid to create a refreshing rosé.

Swanson Vineyards (yes, the Swansons of frozen-dinner fame) takes the less prosperous route, dedicating two to three acres of vineyards specifically for rosé. That means picking the red grapes a couple weeks earlier than the grapes that will go toward making a red wine.

The winery typically picks grapes for its rosé at 21 to 21.5 degrees Brix (sugar level), whereas red wine grapes are picked at 25 or more Brix. “We don’t want them to taste green, but we want them to be tart,” Phelps says. The grapes are squeezed in a press and the juice fermented in stainless steel tanks for three to four weeks. “We get it dry,” Phelps says. “We don’t want residual sugar in the wine.”The difference between the two methods of making rosé is that the latter method, with natural acid and without dilution, creates a wine with more intense fruit character in terms of aroma and flavor. Swanson, which calls its wine a rosato, has used sangiovese grapes and, more recently syrah grapes. “The variety becomes less important when picked less mature,” Phelps says. “You are getting [notes of] strawberry, rhubarb, watermelon — summer fruits — almost no matter what the variety.”

He admits that Swanson makes very little money on its rosato, relying on its pinot grigio and premium red wines for profit. The Napa Valley winery produces 500 to 700 cases of rosato for “pleasure — to create something that is unique,” Phelps says. “At the winery’s tasting room, “it’s our greeting wine.”

To read more about rosés, click here.


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