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Rosé rising

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I like rosé wine, but for the longest time I didn’t think California had many good ones. There were all sorts of problems. I found a Renwood 2005 “too watery for recommendation,” a fairly common problem for a type of wine that’s delicate to begin with. Another set of issues arose with a Dominari 2005, from Napa Valley: “heavy, with bizarre medicinal flavors and a sugary finish.” That’s pretty common, too. I’m not sure what causes the medicinal stuff, but residual sugar in a thin, simple wine is awful; and R.S. was one of the biggest problems Cali Rosé had. Then there was the vegetal smell I found in a 2005 Big House “Pink Wine.” Unripe and pyraziney.

There used to be a restaurant in the Financial District called Vertigo. (It’s no longer there; Vertigo Bar, in the Tenderloin, is decidedly not the same place!) I had read that Vertigo claimed to have the biggest rosé wine selection of any restaurant in San Francisco–maybe America, for all I remember; this was about 12 years ago. I called them up and asked if I could drop by and taste through the lot. They said, Sure. (Being a wine writer does have its advantages!) I sat at the bar and went through 25 or 30 wines. Just about each was stunning. Blew me away. Some pale and delicate, others darker and fuller. But all dry, dry, dry, and crisp, crisp. Those are rosé’s first duties: to be dry and crisp. And not a one of them was from California. All French.

Oh, now I get it (I thought to myself). This is what rosé is supposed to be. I never forgot that tasting. It remains the bar to which rosé must rise, in my mind.

Then, for the next decade or so, I didn’t pay much attention to rosé. If it came in, I reviewed it. There wasn’t much, maybe 50 bottles a year.  Every once in a while, a wine writer would write about rosé, usually as spring or summer was coming on, and claim it was enjoying some kind of comeback. I never believed that. Some years ago, there was that group, Rosé Avengers and Producers, that my old friend Jeff Morgan was behind. But they didn’t seem to gain much traction.

Starting about a year ago, I found myself thinking about rosé again. It started subtlely; I’m not sure why. Then the new year was upon us, and people started sending me a lot of rosé, to get reviews in time for the warm season, I guess. And all of a sudden, I was talking about rosé to anyone who would listen. I recently told Chuck, my intern, that in a way, rosé is the most interesting wine now being produced in California.

Really!?!? That’s a pretty radical thing to say. But I just said it. There’s more good rosé (which is to say, dry and crisp) than ever before. Is it the recent cool vintages (2010-2012)? Is it a change of mindset among producers? The influence of sommeliers? It is true that the best new rosés are coming from very small producers who may be in close touch with the on-premise market. As usual with such things, it’s impossible to pinpoint a reason.

Here are some rosés I’ve really enjoyed over the past year: Kokomo 2011 Pauline’s Vineyard Grenache (Dry Creek Valley); Minassian-Young 2011 (Paso Robles); La Grand Côte 2011 L’Estate (Paso Robles); Sanglier 2011 Rosé du Tusque (Sonoma County): Muscardini 2011 Alice’s Vineyard Rosato di Sangiovese (Sonoma Valley); Birichino 2011 Vin Gris (California); Balleto 2011 Rosé of Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley); Luli 2012 (Central Coast); Lynmar 2012 Rosé of Syrah (Russian River Valley) and Chiarello 2012 Chiara Rosé of Zinfandel (Napa Valley). All over 90 points, and not one of them more than $22, except for the Chiarello, which is $35.

Rosé, along with Champagne, is the most versatile food wine. It’s also a nice gateway wine for Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio and Moscato drinkers looking to get into red wine. If I was a winemaker today, I’m not sure what my main focus would be, but I’d definitely have a rosé on the list. (The one variety that I think is hard to do rosé with is Cabernet Sauvignon. Too heavy and full-bodied. Merlot is tough, too.)

  1. Yes we are finding our way on rosé. Thanks for spreading the word. But I would not say it has much to do at all with the recent cooler vintages and is all about style and attitude. 12 was slightly warmer for us but we picked early enough to keep the natural acidity slightly higher than 11. Picking in that 20 to 21 Briix range makes a naturally crisp, bright and fresh wine. Exactly what so many us crave when the sun is shinning brightly.

  2. Keasling says:

    Grabbed a bottle of Gary Pisoni’s “Lucy” Rosé of Pinot Noir from a wine merchant in downtown Pismo Beach, CA and loved it. Pairing it with the locally-caught clams didn’t hurt the cause either.

  3. Well I didn’t make one from influence of Sommeliers. I produce a crisp, dry (or at least balanced to slight RS in my first effort) rose’ because I fell in love with rose’ of character from the moment I tasted a great one from Bandol (France). I was lucky, when I first moved to Napa Valley in the 90’s, to live next door to a restaurant owner/chef with a Domaine Tempier allocation who said, “you WANT to split this case with us.”

    As a lover of south-of-the-equator cuisines, my go-to wine all year is rose’, where freshness in the food is matched by freshness in the wine, not sacrificing complexity and character in either. Thai food and Rose’…. killer.

    Growing in a cool climate helps, but as correctly noted by Glenn above, picking with good acid is key. Nothing inherently wrong with the saignee method of bleeding the red tank just after crushing, but if you are picking for red wine, you’re picking later and possibly at higher brix if you’re growing in a warm sunny place. Higher brix means fatter wine.

    Nothing I love more than pouring at a consumer event, where hands are often put up in protest at tasting rose’ … then folks order a six-pack with the thrill of discovery.

    My question is: Why does great rose’ still score low? A 90-91 seems a miracle in the rose’ world. Has there been an inherent bias where critics assume (perhaps correctly so in many cases) that rose’s were after-thought byproducts of red-wine production and don’t seek access to the same scale (including the 90’s) as a great white wine? When I was first custom-crushing, this assumption was alive and well in the cellar for sure; as I sweated all the fine-tuning, I was constantly mocked by the cellar management and other producers with, “Emily, it’s only ROSE.”

  4. Russ Winton says:

    All it takes to fall in love with Rose is to spend a Summer evening dining in Provence. Saint Roch Les Vignes (50% Cinsault and 50% Grenache) is a steal. Two Paso small producers that hit the mark are Edward Sellers Vineyard & Wines and Anglim Winery. One that blew my socks off at the Rhone Tasting was the Margerum 2012 Rose of Grenache. Pink is beautiful!

  5. Emily: “Why does rosé still score low?” I this is a silent agreement among wine critics. Nobody wants to be the first to give a rosé 98 points, no matter how good it is!

  6. Barnaby Hughes says:

    Another problem I see is that rosé seems to be an afterthought for many wineries. How many wineries actually specialize in rosé or make multiple rosé bottlings? Or is rosé simply a way to fill out a wine portfolio and/or use up some odd grapes?

  7. i agree with emily about the low scores for rose. another inhibitor for producing world class rose is getting people to shell out the same amount of money for rose that they spend on red and white. i know that for a lot of wineries in the willamette, they are making half as much for rose than they would make turning those same grapes into red wine. it really is just a labor of love.

  8. Musing about scores, I thought perhaps about ageability? I presume that’s some measure of a high-scoring white wine, ability to develop further complexity in aroma/palate? Rose’s are presumed Dead by December of release year. I myself fell victim to that notion until my own 2011 surprised me – tastes better today than at release last Spring. I don’t decant it anymore (seriously). Major acidity helps. But I crave “freshness” in rose’ so it’s a debatable attribute.

    With age, some achieve a stunning minerality…makimg them dreamy with oysters & mignonette. Fine example in my frig right now is a 2011 Domaine Vacheron from Sancerre.

    One more producer-side comment; the stuff is NOT easy to make! Gabe is right it’s a labor of love. I cried multiple times over all three vintages I have released and threw out several lots. It struggles to finish primary fermentation, so RS is not always a choice! Enough acid, fine, but otherwise it’s fishtank heaters, carrying drums out into the sun during the day… It wants to oxidize, and nobody in Napa Valley wants to DEAL with it given more return for their time available doing good ‘ol Napa Cab. Although I note Sinskey Vin Gris is up to $30/bottle… and Azur is $28+ for CA sourced grapes…

    I love rose’ and plan to triple my production if I can find the fruit. Always looking for CabFranc from a cool spot in Napa that doesn’t ripen up well enough for great red wine.

  9. i’ll second both of emily’s statements. our 2010 rose is tasting as young and fresh as the day it was released. and our 2011 rose was never released, because one smoky barrel ruined the whole lot.

  10. First off, $35 is wayyyy too much for a Rose wine considering it takes a fraction of the effort/time/resources to make when compared to other varietals.

    Second, have you had the Belle Glos offering? I tried it at Caymus the other day and was blown away. For $17 I can’t think of many better ones.

  11. Phil Grosse says:

    So many excellent rose’s out there! Among the delightful Russian River rose’s I’ve enjoyed: Moshin, Cartograph, MacPhail, Iron Horse, Davis Family, VML, Paul Mathew, Truett Hurst, Emeritus. And Toulouse from Anderson Valley.

  12. Keith H. says:

    In my humble opinion, the key to balanced rose usually requires using early ripening varieties. I typically won’t ferment any saignee from fruit that’s brought in over 23.5 brix and preferably a bit lower. Slower ripening red grapes achieve higher brix before they taste physiologically ripe of course, and so you often need all the flavor characteristics you’d get from a big cabernet or zin to shoulder the 15+ % alcohol. For my money, rose has to be crisp, dry and refreshing. I’ve been drinking many lately that can easily rival the satisfaction of a cold beer on a hot afternoon. As far as pricing and scores, it seems to suffer a bit from “Sauv Blanc Syndrome”, a vast majority of folks love a well made rose but somehow don’t consider it to be as serious of a wine as their favorite reds. Sad that it seems some critics hesitate to give great wines (that aren’t red) their proper dues.

  13. doug wilder says:

    Is Etude the only domestic producer who dedicates a particular site to Rose? I think one of the factors that keeps a Rose from receiving a higher rating is that they aren’t built that way, or dare I say, aspire to it. When I assign a score in the upper tier (above 96) it is because a wine transcends pretty much 95% of what I taste. One of the factors that push that is complexity, a characteristic that I don’t think is that differentiated in Rose where balance is more important.

    To explain in another way, I may taste twenty Rose and find that I liked at least a dozen, maybe even 15 (and for different reasons). A lush grenache, or a delicate steely carignane have widely different profiles and can be just what I like but I am rarely left with the impression that there is one that is head and shoulders above all the others. If that happens, as in the case of 2012 Bedrock Ode to Lulu, it gets a 93 compared to an 89. Critical evaluation is based on what we have experienced in the past. Intuitively we know that every year there are swarms of delicious, refreshing pink wines yet they fall into a pretty narrow band.

  14. mike,

    at least in my opinion, making a rose is almost the exact same process as making white wine. if anything, it takes a little extra work. the market dictates the price, but i can’t think of any reason why making rose is less work than making a riesling.

  15. Barnaby: Exactly. That’s why, if I were a winemaker, I would specialize in it.

  16. be: Too bad about that smoky barrel.

  17. a valuable lesson for a young winemaker. this year’s rose turned out much better

  18. @doug wilder. Red Car make a single vineyard rosefrom the Bybee Vineyard, it’s quite tasty.

  19. I’m with you on Cab rose. I’m finding good ones from Chile, but generally speaking most CS roses tend to deliver many of the things we wouldn’t want out of Cab and fewer of the things we would want of it when it comes to rose sipping…

  20. An excellent observation from the Dude!

  21. As someone that has been working for a retail shop that has been the top seller of Rose for over 15 years, (like over 600 cases from March to September) I am thrilled to see such a lively conversation about Rose! Our shop (The Wine Country) has always sold more French, Provencal to be more specific, Rose than from anywhere else but as they buyer for those wines I have to say I have found some remarkable Roses from California this year. I always love the Quivira but Farmer’s Jane, Broc and Arnot-Roberts floored me this vintage and I find that I am excitedly recommending those right along side my beloved French wines. Really is very cool to find some dry Roses, from California, that can hold their own with our French Rose loving customers.

    Oh and Cabernet Sauvignon has no business in Rose. Flabby, green and anything but fresh…for the most part.

  22. Agree with Samantha. Cabernet rosé no mas! Por favor!

  23. Just opened a great California rosé last night. Lasseter Family Wines Enjoué 2011. Yum! And I have a friend who is waiting for her case of California rosé, from Unti Vineyards in Healdsberg. She raves about their rosés.

  24. Frederick Alma says:

    Also, there are some winemakers making Rose like a white wine. Michael Meagher (Vino V Wines) makes a gorgeous dry Mourvedre/Grenache Rose that is nice and bright with low alcohol. He also makes a dry Rose from Carignane for Old Creek Ranch Winery. Both wineries are just outside of Ventura on the way to Ojai.

    Keep an eye out for them!

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