Don’t Call It Rosato

A new movement, dubbed Rosautoctono, aims to assert Italy’s historic rosa wines as more than just an afterthought.

These past few years have seen many misconceptions about rosé fall by the wayside. Wine drinkers finally understand that it’s almost never sweet, and that it comes in a wide spectrum of colors, from a broad range of grape varieties. And enthusiasts are now aware that rosé vinification can be a painstaking process that can result in truly great, ageworthy wines.

But one misconception persists: The idea that rosé is a “new” style of wine.

It isn’t, of course. All over the world, production zones have quietly fostered their own rosé traditions for eons. In Italy, for example, many regions—from the Austrian border to the southern shores of Sicily—have their own long-lived, low-pigment heritages. “We have been drinking rosa here for centuries,” says Raffaele Librandi, manager of his namesake family winery and president of the Cirò and Melissa winery consortium, in Calabria. “We don’t have a tradition of reds made with long macerations. Rosa for us is our everyday wine—all year long.”

The term “rosa,” according to the style’s proponents, describes a quality Italian wine that is pink by intention, not as an afterthought. As one winery owner explained it to me: “Rosato is a color. Rosa is a style of wine. Italians have a long history of rosa.”

And yet, Italians were largely ignorant of this vinous history until recently. “In Italy we have a problem with rosé wines. Italians don’t know rosé. They don’t drink rosé. In France, 35 percent of the wine drunk is rosé,” says Angelo Peretti, a journalist and wine consultant.

To address the lack of knowledge, Peretti cofounded a new organization, the Istituto del Vino Rosa Autoctono Italiano. The members of the Istituto, who call their movement Rosautoctono, are wine regions with long histories of quality-oriented rosa production. For example, Chiaretto—meaning “light” or “clear”—wines come from the shores of Lago di Garda, where the practice of pressing rather than crushing grapes dates back to the Roman era, when this zone was part of Cisalpine Gaul.

Though a 16th-century agronomist wrote about the region’s signature pale wines, the first printed definition of Chiaretto appears in the 1806 Veronese edition of the dictionary of the Accademia della Crusca. In the late 19th century, a Venetian-born politician, attorney and author named Pompeo Molmenti traveled to Provence to study vinification techniques, returning with a method he called vinificazione a lacrima (or “vinification of tears”) a vino di una notte. That is, after just one night of maceration, he collected the free-run juice from the press and made a pale-pink wine.

The Chiaretti of Lago di Garda are relatively low in alcohol and high in acidity, and thus make a strong counter to the increasingly heady and bromidic rosés of Provence. These aren’t beach-blanket quaffers. They are food wines, meant to be enjoyed alongside fresh-caught fish from the lake, or pasta con le sarde.

The growers here are dead-serious about their pink-wine production, from the vineyard to the cellar. “You must dedicate the vineyard and the vinification to rosé. In Tuscany, wineries are producing rosé as a second wine. As a saignée, a salasso,” says Alessandro Luzzago, co-owner of Le Chiusure and president of the Valtènesi (Lombardian Chiaretto) consortium, in reference to the practice of bleeding off and bottling pink wine so as to make a more-concentrated red from the same tank. “They are harvesting very late, for the red. So the rose is flat and a little dead in the mouth, and heavy with alcohol,” he says with evident disgust. “In Valtenesi, rose is our first wine.”

Another key point in the Rosautoctono rubric is the use of indigenous or autochthonous—autoctono—cultivars. No Super Tuscan Bordeaux blends, thank you very much. (On the shores of Lago di Garda, the varieties used to make Chiaretto are either corvina Veronese or groppello, depending upon whether you’re on the Veneto side or the Lombardy side.)

This earnest movement flies in the face of the rosé market of the past decade, which saw exponential growth thanks to its aura of yacht-chic joie de vivre more than any noticeable commitment to winemaking quality or sense of place. Dreamed up by marketing teams and sold on the basis of the graphic-design work that went into the packaging, Big Rosé is produced via cost-cutting techniques such as a single harvest date for red and pink wine, its juice collected via saignée or even spillage off the sorting line. Its fruity characteristics are plumped up by carefully selected commercial yeasts, and it is vinified en masse in tank farms, then subjected to multiple clarification techniques to strip its natural color. The result is a beverage that has driven home the consumer notion that all rosés taste more or less the same.

Times have changed, of course. Gone is the pool party with the free-flowing pink wine that was just a backdrop to the entertainment. The summer of 2020 is the summer of sitting at home alone with a bottle of refreshing, inexpensive wine, googling its backstory. And Rosautoctono wines—generally priced more affordably than their French counterparts—have backstories in spades. Rosautoctono may have begun as an Italy-centric campaign, but its ruminative message is primed to reach a wider audience in this moment.

In other words, we’re ready for the wide range of hues offered by Italy’s rosas, including brooding, hearty, nearly-red wines that are the result of a leisurely maceration and a long tradition. These wines “have more savory notes, more depth of flavor,” remarks Alissa Wilmina Diaz, wine director at Centrolina and Piccolina in Washington, D.C. “These are wines that really beautifully match the food.”

The members of the Rosautoctono group include Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo, the translucent fire-engine red wine from the Montepulciano grape that locals have been pairing with heirloom tomatoes since before anyone can remember. (This category includes one exception to my above statement about the affordability of these wines. The rare Cerasuolo from cult producer Valentini—where ancient Greek texts are used as farming manuals—is priced at $100 and up, if you can find it.)

Rosautoctono, too, includes rosas that are like liquid roasted red peppers, from the Salice Salentino and Castel del Monte DOPs in Puglia, the watermelon-hued Cirò of Calabria and the aforementioned pale, brisk and lively Chiaretti from the Bardolino and Valtènesi DOPs in Veneto and Lombardy. Each of these regions has its own long, colorful tradition of rosa production.

But given the vast number of indigenous grapes in Italy, there’s no reason to believe that the Rosautoctono movement will be limited to those six appellations for long. From the Valle d’Aosta to Campania, every region has its own quirky native grapes, and, frequently, its own corresponding rosas. The whole classification of wines has been under our noses all this time—for millennia, even—and it’s finally getting its due.

Rosa is its own category,” notes Rocco Scordella, the Italian-born chef and owner of Vina Enoteca and Tootsie’s in Palo Alto, California, and a proponent of Italy’s indigenous rosas. “It’s not just a pink wine.”

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Tagged: Italy, rose, wine

The longtime wine columnist of The Oregonian newspaper, Katherine Cole has contributed to many national and international food and wine publications, and was featured in the acclaimed documentary American Wine Story. Her third book, How to Fake Your Way Through a Wine List, will be published in fall 2015 by Sterling.