Rosé Colored Glasses

Writer Staci Nugent

Folks ask me how I know what wines to make. For many wines there’s an easy answer: I’m just making what a winery has already produced and is popular with consumers. While I might fine-tune these selections, perhaps by adding a touch more oak or fermenting a bit drier, the style has been established and I’m respectfully following what has been done before. But other times I get to start from the beginning. Last year at Keuka Lake Vineyards I made our first rosé, and what follows was my path from inspiration, through sourcing and research, to finally production and reflection.

My inspiration was the Sheldrake Point Rosé, specifically how it was eating up a substantial chunk of my personal summer wine budget. One of the many perks of being a winemaker is the substantial discounts I receive on our wines, which serves as a solid motivator to make wines I enjoy drinking. Fortunately, my will to introduce a rosé coincided with our recent purchase of five shiny new 500-gallon stainless steel tanks, so I had plenty of cellar space for this project.

I originally planned to make a rosé from Cabernet Franc, a variety that ripens consistently well in the Finger Lakes. Each year, we grow about a half a ton of Cabernet Franc from our own vineyards and purchase about six tons from Harry Humphreys’ Overlook Farms on Seneca Lake and we combine them to make a barrel-aged red that we sell at $22/bottle. As we sell out of this wine every year, it didn’t make financial sense to earmark any of this fruit towards a rosé wine that would likely sell for less than $20/bottle. I needed to source additional grapes. The vineyard manager and I made calls to local growers, but there were no open contracts for Cabernet Franc. Nor Pinot. Nor Cabernet Sauvignon. I had hit a roadblock.

I decided to walk down the road less traveled as I turned my attention toward using a red hybrid variety. Red hybrids are trickier to work with as they are inclined to have color instability, low tannin and high acid levels. These are qualities that most consumers are not accustomed to in red wines, but I rationalized that these same qualities are pretty apt for a rosé.

I had limited experience working with red hybrids, so research was needed to determine which hybrid grapes make the best rosé wines. I called up a bunch of winemaker friends and, following their sage advice, I assembled a blind tasting of New York State rosés made from Marquette and De Chaunac. The cherry aromas of the De Chaunacs won me over, and their profiles best fit into the style that I aimed to produce: a fruit-forward rosé, balanced dry, with a smooth mouthfeel.

By this point it was the last day of August, and luckily our long-time partner Harry Humphreys had De Chaunac available for sale. We quickly agreed to purchase 3.31 tons, which arrived a few weeks later on a drizzly day in mid-September. My hardworking harvest intern, Jen, and I loaded the fruit into the press, stopping only to rescue a snail from among the grape clusters in a one-ton picking bin.

With most red varieties, De Chaunac included, the red color is contained in the skins so when first pressing on the grapes the juice comes out just slightly pink, and pressing harder the juice comes out darker, all the way to a dark red. An important task I faced was to decide when the De Chaunac juice coming out of the press was too red for rosé, and at that point to pump the more deeply colored juice to a separate tank. The final color of a rosé wine is important in terms of consumer expectations: too light and it is perceived to be weak in flavor; too intensely pink and it perceived to be sweet.

After making the press cut, Jen and I peered into the top of the tank and marveled at all 488 gallons of our luscious pink De Chaunac juice. For fermentation, I utilized a wine yeast that is able to partially degrade malic acid, supporting my goal of a softer mouthfeel in this high-acid variety. The De Chaunac color was indeed more unstable than other varieties I have worked with; after cellar aging the color of the rosé settled into a lovely salmon pink color.

A thoroughly gratifying first effort, this 2018 Keuka Lake Vineyards Rosé. Time will tell if it is popular with the customers, and if so, we will make it again, fine-tuning the process every season. In the meantime, you can find me out on a picnic, enjoying the fermented fruits of my labor. Cheers!

Staci Nugent is the winemaker for Keuka Lake Vineyards, a small farmstead producer making minimal-intervention wines. She enjoys cooking all the local food things with her son in Trumansburg, NY.

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2019 edition of the magazine.

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