It’s pink wine season and pink wine is delicious and, for the 10,000th time, this is a friendly reminder that pink wine is not just White Zinfandel.
So, where does pink wine come from and how does it get pink?
There are two (well, three) ways to make pink wine. The first and most common way to make pink wine is through a process known as “saignee” from the French word for “bleed.” This type of pink wine is essentially a by-product of red wine production. In order to achieve greater concentration of color and flavor in a red wine, the wine maker will bleed off a portion of the grape juice early in the pressing process so as to have less grape juice in contact with the same quantity of grape skins since its only though contact with the skin that red wine obtains its color and tannin. Because the juice that was bled off was only in contact with the grape skins for a short period of time, the juice is light in color, ranging from pale salmon to a deep strawberry or watermelon. Rather than throw this juice away, wine makers ferment it into a pink wine instead.
The problem with the saignee process, however, is that traits that are desirable in red wine (ripeness, concentration) are not necessarily the same traits that are desirable in a pink wine (freshness, acidity). Because saignee pink wine is made from red wine grapes, the wine tends to be high in alcohol and low in acidity due to the riper fruit. Saignee pink wines often have to be watered down or acidified (have fruit acid added to it) to produce a desirable pink wine. Or they’re just made into juicy 15% alcohol pink, which can be interesting but are far from ideal for what we associate with pink wine drinking: patio dining on a warm summer day or sipping on a lounge chair by the pool.
The better way, in my opinion, to make a pink wine is what I’ll call a “purpose-built” pink. The wine maker sets out to make a pink wine and every step of the process is with that goal in mind. Grapes are harvested earlier so they are less ripe and higher in acidity, the grapes are macerated (squished and the juice left in contact with skins) long enough to achieve the ideal color and flavor/tannin extraction, and then fermented into wine. These purpose-built pinks are generally drier, crisper, and lower in alcohol than saignee pinks. They also tend to be better with food and more refreshing as a summer beverage. Although generally paler in color than saignee pinks, hue alone is not sufficient to distinguish a saignee from a purpose-built pink wine.
(The third way to make pink wine is to actually blend white and red wine together, but this practice is only common with bulk producers of pink jug wine.)
Unfortunately it’s hard to know how a pink wine has been made just by looking at it. You’ll have to do your own research on the producer or ask the staff at your friendly neighborhood wine shop for guidance. Generally, the pink wines from Provence, France are purpose-built, while those from the United States and Australia are almost always saignee (but there are numerous exceptions). Saignee is the common pink wine production method in other areas of France (and Europe, for that matter), but certain producers make purpose-built pink. To further confuse things, saignee wine from Alsace (vin gris) and other cooler wine growing regions can share quite a few similarities with purpose-built pinks due to the higher acid red grapes used in these regions.
For a more militant take on the topic, check out this interesting article in The Drinks Business.