Alcohol Levels Matter in Rosé—Here’s Why

Are winemakers just relying on unripe grapes to make stereotypically light, fresh rosés? Experts weigh in on this controversial issue

A group of glasses of different rosé wines, each varying in color
Rosé has a reputation for being an inherently fresher, lower-alcohol wine—but is it?. Photo credit: Adobe Stock.

In today’s wine landscape—where fresh, lower-alcohol styles seem to reign supreme—rosé is fashionable. Its pale color and perceived lightness set it apart from most reds, and even some popular styles of whites. 

Indeed, some winemakers feel that rosé must be an inherently fresher wine with higher acidity and lower alcohol. For others, rosés need not have reduced alcohol or boosted acidity when compared to their red counterparts, despite their paler color. In their view, the lightness of the average rosé is often achieved by harvesting unripe grapes for a wide variety of reasons, such as prioritizing the wine’s color and acidity—or commercial pressure to produce a low-alcohol wine.

Despite rosé’s reputation as a technical, winemaking-driven style, its final alcohol level is decided in the vineyard, not the cellar. The most important factor is the timing of the harvest. Once the grapes are picked, the wine will have the same potential alcohol, regardless of whether it is vinified as a red, a dark rosé, or a pale rosé.

The alcohol level of a wine is not simply a number on a label or an analytical footnote. Having tasted over a thousand rosés every vintage for the last four years, our experience is always the same: the lowest-alcohol wines are more often unbalanced, green, underripe, and dilute, while the rosés with the highest alcohol levels are the most balanced, ripe, concentrated, and enjoyable.

We spoke with several producers to get their take on whether the alcohol level matters for their rosés. Some defy our conclusion by making excellent wines with low alcohol, and others agree that the best rosés are made from riper, sweeter grapes.

Balancing Acidity Against Ripeness in Rosé

Many winemakers feel that rosé should first and foremost be a wine that prioritizes freshness. The grapes must be picked early, while acidity levels are good. Philippe Bru, the director of Chateau Vignelaure in Provence, says that “for many, the priority is not low alcohol, it is high acidity.”

“We have to harvest early for acidity, but by doing so, the tannins are green, so we cannot macerate for long,” says Nathalie Estribeau, the former head winemaker at Vignobles Foncalieu in the Languedoc. Rosé made from grapes harvested early for acidity will also have less pigmented grapes and lower sugar levels. “Earlier harvests reduce color, but also impacts complexity and brings unwanted harsh, spicy green aromas,” says Rami Bar-Maor, the owner of Yakev Bar-Maor in Israel. “But dark colors drive away consumers.”

Other producers choose to wait before harvesting. Filarole in Emilia-Romagna, Italy, prioritizes intensity over freshness, which they believe results in a higher-quality rosé. Their Onda D’Urto relies on very old vines planted in the early ’50s at high altitude and harvested in mid-October. The result is a genre-defying rosé at 15.5% ABV. “We do not only want acidity, but also taste,” says owner Barbara Pulliero. “Old vines give more balanced grapes and are able to keep a sort of round acidity.”

From left to right: Left to right: Paolo Pulliero, Barbara Pulliero, and Nicola Pulliero of Filarole.
Filarole owner Barbara Pulliero, pictured above in the center, makes a genre-defying rosé at 15.5% ABV. Photo courtesy of Barbara Pulliero Azienda Agricole Filarole.

For those aiming to make more full-bodied rosés, ripeness of the tannins is essential. For some, such as Freidrich Schatz of Bodegas F Schatz in southern Spain, high-altitude vineyards are helpful in achieving these structured, intense wines. At these sites, it’s possible to harvest later, while still maintaining both balanced acidity levels and alcohol at 12% ABV. 

Fabio Sireci, the owner of Feudo Montoni, harvests the grapes for his rosé in October, at the same time as the reds. “The latest harvests in Sicily are those at Montoni because of the high altitudes,” says Sireci. “At the end of September, the temperatures drop significantly and protect the acidity of the grapes, leaving the acidity and sugar levels in natural balance when we harvest.” His rosé from these ripe grapes comes in at 13% ABV, not far behind the red, at 13.5% ABV.

For others, earlier harvests are the answer. Vignobles Bonfils, in the Languedoc, prioritizes parcels whose grapes had “sufficient phenolic ripeness,” especially “specific Grenache and Syrah parcels, for their aromatic richness [and] strong aromatic potential,” says Michael Bertucchi, the PR manager at Bonfils. By relying exclusively on the most aromatic parcels, they can pick extremely early. 

Their Folie rosé is only 9% ABV because it’s not fermented fully dry. The small amount of residual sugar masks any unripe characteristics, affording it “drinkability whilst [the sugar] still being almost undetectable in a tasting.” This use of residual sugar to offset high acidity and underripe grapes is similar to many rosés from the 1990s.

However, Bertucchi acknowledges that the fruit used for this rosé “would not meet our standards” for their red wines. 

The Cost of Creating High-Quality Rosé

For Bru, the increased demand for rosé wines, coupled with its reputation as an inexpensive wine, has simply led to “rosés being made with lower-quality grapes from parcels that do not ripen as well.” Has the race to create fresh, lower-alcohol rosés created two distinct quality tiers within the category?

Fabio Sireci and Melissa Muller pose in a wine cellar at a table
Fabio Sireci, pictured above with Melissa Muller, harvests his rosé grapes around the same time as his reds. Photo courtesy of Alfio Garozzo and Feudo Montoni.

Gérard Bertrand, who makes a range of rosés from fresh and affordable to the super-premium Clos du Temple (a barrel-aged biodynamic rosé at 14.5% ABV, retailing for more than $200 a bottle), is clear that alcohol plays a part in his rosés’ suitability for aging. “We keep as much freshness [as possible] in our wines, especially those to be drunk in the first year and a half after harvest, for which we aim at 11.5% ABV to 12.5% ABV,” says Bertrand. “For fine wines, with lower yields, alcohol levels are higher because these wines have to stand up to aging in oak barrels; they need to be concentrated.”

Others have found that careful management of the vineyard can produce rosés with similar concentration and ripeness at a lower alcohol level. In Andalucia, Spain, Schatz manages intense ripeness and fruitiness by working with “fewer leaves [to] produce less sugar, and later, less alcohol. To have mature grapes with mature tannins, you need a perfect management of the yield and quantity of grapes.”

The distinction between these two categories includes price, especially in markets where duty depends on the alcohol level of the wine, such as the U.K. Moreover, many consumers of low-alcohol rosé prioritize affordability over age-worthiness or other traditional quality markers. Franz Schneider of Artisan Wines in Austria admits that in an increasingly competitive market, he is looking at creating lower-alcohol rosés to reach a wider audience. 

Rosé wine is not inherently lower alcohol than a red wine, nor does a pale rosé necessarily indicate lower alcohol. Although the timing of the harvest is of paramount importance—with later harvests (and higher alcohol levels) being more common amongst producers seeking structured, concentrated, and high-quality rosés—a high level of alcohol is not the defining characteristic of a high-quality wine. 

More significant perhaps is why producers are considering lower-alcohol wines: for balance, health, fashion, or tax levels. Whatever the reason, winemakers are learning how to restrain soaring alcohol levels in increasingly hot summers, and still produce great rosés.


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Elizabeth Gabay, MW, has been working with the wines of Provence since the mid-1980s and has lived in the region since 2002.  She has written two books on rosé and is currently writing a third on the rosés of southern France.

Ben Bernheim grew up in the South of France, becoming firmly involved with wine through his university tasting team, after which he worked on vineyards and then as a hotel sommelier. Since 2020, he has specialized in building awareness of premium rosés and is the co-author of the book Rosés of Southern France.

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