Rosé — a bland, surplus-driven boom

Rose’s long predicted moment in the sun may, at last, have arrived – in a very small but dynamic way.

According to A.C. Nielsen, Australian retail sales of bottled rose grew 108.3 per cent by volume and 79.5 per cent by value in the year to November 2004.

By the end of December, says Orlando-Wyndham’s Paul Turale, dollar growth had accelerated to 86 per cent. And Woolworth’s John Allen reports that sales of bottled rose in its BWS outlets increased 366 per cent by value in the year to February 27, 2005.

However, for all its talking up over the last thirty years, rose still represents less than two per cent of the Australian wine market and remains a country mile behind mainstream reds and whites – or even of other niche players like riesling.

The Nielsen moving annual totals to November, 2004, put Australia’s rose sales at about one million litres – small change when compared to riesling’s 4.4 million, chardonnay’s 26 million, sauvignon blanc’s 3.6 million, shiraz/shiraz blends’ 16.8 million, cabernet/cabernet merlot’s 14.3 million or merlot’s 6.4 million litres.

But what excites winemakers is rose’s rate of growth and the fact that it can move from vineyard to consumer in a matter of weeks, providing cash flow and profitability in a glutted and difficult market.

Indeed, the glut of red varieties pouring from new vineyards is one of the driving forces behind rose’s mini boom. Just a few years back, winemakers unable to meet demand for full-bodied reds, would never have dreamed of making rose from these varieties.

Today it’s not only possible but also a profitable adjunct to red-wine making. By bleeding juice from vats of shiraz, cabernet or any other red variety, following a short period of skin contact (the colour is all in the skin), the winemaker has a lovely pink component for making rose. And what’s left in the vat enjoys a higher skin to juice ratio – meaning more colour and substance for the resulting red wine.

This bleeding process, generally known under its French name, ‘saignee’, probably lies behind most of the hundreds of bland roses now seeking our attention.

A proponent of the saignee method — one of Australia’s most successful rose producers — Geoff Merrill, made his first rose in 1976. But to Geoff, the first and most critical step towards good rose lies in the vineyard.

You have to get the fruit right to establish varietally correct flavour”, says Geoff. For his benchmark Geoff Merrill Grenache Rose – a regular medal winner in shows — that means harvesting fruit of quite high potential alcohol from 85-year-old McLaren Vale vines.

Because Geoff seeks the same fruit flavours in his grenache-based table wine, the saignee method works well. After 24 hours soaking on skins the now pink juice – about 45 per cent of the total – heads off for cool, protective fermentation as if it were a white wine. (The portion destined for red-wine production undergoes a warmer fermentation on skins).

The rose component retains a delicious natural fruitiness and achieves a high alcohol content as it ferments to dryness – its opulence eliminating any need for the residual grape sugar that props up less fruity roses.

The result is one of the most lovely, fruity, dry roses with the distinctive musk and pepper notes of grenache.

In the Barossa Valley, Charlie Melton, too, chooses grenache as the base for the superb Rose of Virginia but seasons it with a little cabernet sauvignon and pinot meunier “to stop the confection character that grenache sometimes shows”.

Charlies sources his fruit from 15 different vineyard plots, purpose managed to produce rose. So, for Charlies, there’s no ‘saignee’. All of the juice makes rose.

The various components reach the winery over a six-week period and undergo skin contact of varying duration – from eight hours to three days, depending on the structure of the fruit and the components made to date – prior to cool, protective fermentation.

Like Merrill’s McLaren Vale wine, Rose of Virginia is a benchmark of the rose style. And Charlie tells me he doubled production in 2004 and sold all of it – but he’ll be sitting pat for a while now.

Rose’s recent explosive growth, albeit from a low base, has drawn in the big players as well as hundreds of small makers to join accomplished makers like Merrill and Melton.

While Hardy’s Banrock Station White Shiraz slugs it out with Orlando’s Jacobs Creek Shiraz Rose for number one spot, countless new labels continue to appear from all over Australia and made from every red variety.

Many are just crap. Take the sugar and alcohol out and there’s nothing left. But there are some lovely gems for those prepared to sift through the dust — or is that bulldust.

Geoff Merrill McLaren Vale Grenache Rose 2004, $13.49 to $18.99
Geoff Merrill has been making rose successfully from McLaren Vale grenache since 1976 – turning what was once an undervalued variety into delicious, fruity, crisp and slightly sweet pink wine. Over the years the style has become almost completely dry as the opulent, musky/peppery fruit quality became more pronounced and mouth filling. The latest one is simply scrumptious when you want a full-flavoured, fruity and crisp dry wine. It’s at its best served slightly chilled in warmer weather, especially outdoors where the brilliant purple-tinged pink colour often becomes the centre of attention.

Tigress Tasmania Rose 2004, $23-$25
This 100 per cent pinot noir rose provides an absolute contrast to the fleshy, fruity, opulent Geoff Merrill, warm-climate style. Winemaker Fran Austin says she draws juice from particularly ripe batches of pinot noir destined for the red wine vats.  The drawn off juice, because of its brief skin contact and the inherent paleness of pinot, has just a wash of pink through it. But it offers what Fran calls an ‘essence of pinot’ character: there’s a subtle, raspberry-like fragrance and flavour on a dry and delicate palate with pleasing backbone and a racy acidity that refreshes beautifully. What the Merrill and Tigress roses share is a purity of regional and varietal expression. That, to me, is good rose.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2005 & 2007