Michael Cimino of Damiani Wine Cellars

“We made our first rosé in 2004,” recalled Amanda Gumtow, the tasting room manager at Atwater Estate Winery. “At first people thought it should be sweet. The ‘blush people’ didn’t like it at first because it was too dry, and the ‘dry wine people’ initially couldn’t wrap their minds around the idea that a rosé was something they could like.”

A lot has changed with respect to rosé in the last 12 years. This light pink wine, so firmly associated with the 1970s in the minds of many Baby Boomers, never stopped being either popular or well thought of in the south of France, but in the last few years it has once again become popular in the United States. Popular, like when you are in a liquor store, you’re never quite out of sight of a bottle of rosé from somewhere in the world.

Many Finger Lakes wineries are fully on board with the rosé craze. In fact, several of them, like Atwater, were ahead of the curve.

Sheldrake Point Vineyards on Cayuga Lake started making rosé in 1997. Winemaker Dave Breeden said they made 200 cases that year and continued to do so until 2011. Rosés are released in late March or April and Breeden noticed that they had begun selling out by May.

“In 2012 we started doubling the volume we produced every year and it continued to sell out by May,” Breeden said. “We raised the price from $12 to $18 and that didn’t slow down sales at all.” This past year they produced 2,600 cases and while as of May it had not sold out, it was selling briskly. It now accounts for 40 percent of all the wine sold with a Sheldrake Point label on it, said Breeden.

“In the big cities rosé has been popular for more than 10 years,” said Michael Cimino, the tasting room manager at Damiani Wine Cellars on the east side of Seneca Lake. “White Zinfandel infiltrated the marketplace [in the 1970s] and people began to think that pink wine should be sweet. But now people are getting savvy about rosé.”

There are several ways to make a rosé, but Sheldrake Point, Atwater, and Damiani use the “cold soak” method. “You cold soak the juice on the skins,” said Breeden. “You don’t want any fermentation.” When they first started making it at Sheldrake Breeden kept it on the skins for three days. “We used 30 or 40 tons of grapes last year, so that method is really not practical now,” he said. The winemaker noticed that a three-day soak would produce a darker wine, but the color would fade, while a one-day soak produced a lighter wine, but the color didn’t fade.

“You press the juice and then ferment it like a white wine,” Breeden said. “To make it sweeter you stop the fermentation.” Finger Lakes rosé tend to be dry, so fermentation is allowed to continue with the sugar turning to alcohol until the winemaker feels there is a good balance among the sweetness, the acidity, and the alcohol content.

Sheldrake Point usually uses Cabernet Franc grapes to make its rosé, but over the years has used different vinifera grapes as the basis for the wine. One year, said Breeden, a little surprised at the memory, they even mixed a little Cayuga White, a modern hybrid, into the rosé. Several other Finger Lakes wineries, including Damiani and Atwater, usually use Pinot Noir to make their rosé.

“Pinot Noir is a delicate grape,” said Cimino of Damiani. “It translates well to a delicate wine.” Damiani also grows a lot of Pinot Noir; it is planted in four of its vineyards. (Not coincidentally, there is more Cabernet Franc planted at Sheldrake Point.)

Damiani is only in its third year of rosé production, making only 60 cases intially and selling out immediately. Last year they made 120 cases and this year, according to Cimino, there are 259 cases to sell. “But we can’t keep it on the shelves,” he said.

Rosé can also be made as bubbly wines, either by the Champenoise method, which employs a secondary fermentation and is how Champagne is produced, or by adding carbonation to the finished wine. Atwater Estate uses the latter method to produce a small quantity of rosé that they make with Pinot Noir grapes. (Their still rosé is usually made with Cabernet Franc.)

“We’ve been making it for the past four or five years,” Gumtow said of the bubbly rosé. “We made 318 cases with the 2013 grapes and the 2014 will released soon.” 

Atwater makes more still rosé—about 500 cases—and it has proved both popular—it sells out in about three months—and competitive, taking a double gold in a recent California contest.

Breeden said that he has been pleased with how consistent the Sheldrake Point has been from year to year, although he admitted that he hasn’t been able to figure out exactly why it is so.

“I’m not sure what quality makes a great rosé,” he said, “but I know it doesn’t have to do with the grapes getting to full ripeness. Tannin content and color improve with time on the vine, but fruitiness appears before that.” Tannin and color are important to a good red wine, but for a rosé you want a clear fruit taste.

Cimino described rosé as a wonderful addition to the dining experience. “It goes with many different kinds of food,” he said. “It is a really versatile wine. It has a little more weight than a white wine, and it is really refreshing.”

Cimino said that Finger Lakes do not oak their rosés, so it is more like a Pinot Grigio than a Chardonnay, but has a little more heft than either of those wine varietals.

The taste of the grape with which it is made is quite evident in a rosé. It is a wine that is made with red wine grapes, but using a method more like the one used to make white wines.

Like white wines, rosés are not meant to be aged. Sheldrake recently held a “vertical tasting” event during which they tasted wines made as long ago as 1998. It was a somewhat academic exercise; the older rosés really weren’t that good, Breeden admitted.

“It is a wine that is meant to be really pleasurable right now,” he said. “It is not generally meant to be very complex.”

In addition to Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir, some Finger Lakes wineries of used Lemberger (aka Blaufrankisch) to make rosé, and Barnstormer Winery has even used Sangiovese.

While summer is the time to drink this wine, the industry tends to celebrate it in the spring. Each April 30 wineries, and several distributors, and journalists gather at Fox Run Vineyards on the west side of Seneca Lake to try 11,000 cases of wine, 40 different rosés from the Finger Lakes. 

In the first weekend of June for the past three years the Rosé Soirée has been held in the open air on Linden Street in Geneva. Rosé, it seems, is back. §

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