Here’s me thinking every day was Rosé Day, only to be recently informed that February 5th was officially New Zealand’s national Rosé day. It joins Chardonnay, Malbec and Pinot Noir to name but three varieties to have its own celebratory day. But Rosé isn’t a variety, rather a style of wine, a white wine made from red grapes and it comes in a myriad of styles and hues. You only need to wander the wine aisle of your local supermarket to see the breath of offerings on the Rosé shelves. Wines from each of New Zealand’s wine regions sit side by side with wines from all parts of the globe.
It wasn’t long ago that Rosé was viewed as a summer wine, predominantly bought by females, its pretty tones gracing tables filled with fresh summer fare. But a bottle of dry Rosé is arguably the most versatile of all wine styles and to be enjoyed year-round. At Esk Valley we’ve been producing Rosé since 1991. That inaugural vintage, a barrel fermented Cabernet Franc was undoubtedly the first of its kind and set the tone for forthcoming releases. We had joined a very select group producing a Rosé, a group I’m sure would have numbered less than ten, most of whom were making more a sweet light red than Rosé as we know it today. Always made in a dry style, the Esk Valley Rosé quickly became a benchmark wine, so much so that Michael Cooper stated in his 2009 Buyers Guide, “This is clearly New Zealand’s best Rosé. A potential New Zealand Classic”. By then the number of producers making Rosé had grown significantly.
Esk Valley Rosé may have been a bellweather of New Zealand Rosé, but we have continued to evolve with the times. Our Merlot Rosés from the early 1990’s would show little in common with today’s offerings were they to be tasted side by side. They would be noticeably deeper in colour, sweeter and more robust with an alcohol content often approaching 14%. This was Rosé made from the same Gimblett Gravel Merlot grapes with which we made our red wines. We employed the saignee method which involved crushing our grapes and soaking the juice on its skins in a red fermenter. When I felt we had achieved the desired colour, a small percentage of the juice would be drained off and fermented separately in another tank. This very traditional method is still widely practised, however I had come to realise that the red grapes we were harvesting for red wine had limitations for making Rosé. They were simply too ripe!
The alternative, now our norm, is to literally make a white wine from red grapes grown specifically for our Rosé. These vineyards are in the hinterland of Hawkes Bay, away from the heat of the Gimblett Gravels, sites in which Merlot should never have been planted. These cooler sites, better suited to Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay, allow us to harvest Merlot grapes with less sugar, more acidity and less colour than in the days of old.
There’s also a new simplicity to the winemaking. Once at the winery, the fruit is put straight to a press, and squeezed very gently ensuring the free run juice has had very little contact with the colour staining skins. The pale coloured juice is then settled in a tank till bright, and then fermented at a cool temperature as we would a white wine. The resulting wine is pale coloured, dry and delicious, a long way removed from our early vintages. It would seem evolution and refinement run hand in hand.
Judged Champion Rosé wine at the Hawkes Bay Wine Awards, two of the last three years this Esk Valley icon still shows the way.