There is California rosé, and then there is “serious” California rosé.
I’m not talking about blush wines such as White Zinfandel, White Merlot and White Grenache, which are sweet and simple, but rather dry, crisp, refreshing rosés that are being made in increasing numbers by California winemakers, because, finally, American wine drinkers have woken up to them.
Ten years ago and more, many a winemaker hid a batch of dry rosé in the cellar, for personal use rather than commercial sales. That’s because dry rosé wouldn’t sell. Now, the years of positive write-ups by the wine press, and the ongoing recommendations by savvy sommeliers and retailers, are finally being heard, and rosé is an unfolding flower on the wine-drinking garden, no longer a thorn.
More California wineries are producing dry rosés, yet some do it better than others. Too many -- most of them newcomers to the category -- have the notion that rosé should be more red than pink, and more tannic, alcoholic and gutsy than the European rosé models, in order to be accepted in the United States. These are the rosés I do not consider to be serious. They’re not bright, racy and easy to sip on a summer day, and to enjoy with a wide range of foods. Rather, they are heavy, potent and clumsy, closer to being red wines than classic rosés. With these wines more is less. A lot less.
One particularly egregious example is a “dry rosé” I tasted from a new-ish Central Coast producer. It’s made from Syrah and Grenache -- two lovely grapes for making rosé -- yet what likely were fresh-fruit characteristics and a brisk finish were clobbered by aging the wine in French oak barrels and super-ripe grapes that, after they were harvested, produced a wine with a whopping 15% alcohol.
The winemaker’s notes say the wine is “soft, round and jammy.” That’s not a description of rosé by any stretch. How can soft, round and jammy, plus heavy, tannic and hot, represent a wine style expected globally to be gently fruity, thirst-quenching and easy on the liver? Who would drink this wine on a hot summer day outside? With salads and delicately flavored foods? When you wanted to have more than one glass?
This winery is not alone in creating this sort of monster. But thankfully, there are many Californians who produce rosés with a great deal of care and passion. Some have visited rosé-producing regions -- Provence, the Rhône Valley and the Loire Valley in France, for example -- fallen for the clean, lively cherry/berry flavors and refreshing acidity of these wines, and returned home to duplicate the style.
They love rosé for what the grapes naturally give them and feel little need for enhancements. A proper rosé will have various aroma and flavor combinations, including flower blossoms, strawberry, raspberry, watermelon, yellow plum, tangerine, gentle herbs and spice, unadulterated by winemaking bells and whistles.
It gets hot in California during the growing season, so producing fine, focused rosés with plenty of natural acidity, and without over-ripe fruit and the alcohol that results, can be a challenge. Yet winemakers who grow red grapes specifically for rosé production have a fighting chance; those who use the saignee method can be successful, too, although it takes a deft hand.
With saignee, juice is bled from a tank during red wine fermentation, in order to boost the color and flavor intensity of the juice remaining in the tank (because it has more contact with the skins of the grapes). The bleed-off juice, which has picked up some color from the skins in the tank, is fermented to dryness and becomes rosé. The more contact it has with the skins in the tank, the darker the color and more tannic the wine. The riper the grapes, the more potent the pink wine will be; dry rosé doesn’t carry high alcohol well and still remain refreshing; 13.5% or seems to be the limit.
Some lovely rosés are being made in the vineyard, meaning the grapes are grown and harvested solely for rosé production. Chuck Mansfield, winemaker at Hop Kiln Winery in Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley, is one of them. He farms a vineyard block on the 250-acre property just for his HK Generations Rosé of Pinot Noir, using a specific clone (Jackson) and viticultural practices to encourage the grapes to develop their flavors earlier in the season, with their natural acidity intact.
“We know those grapes are going to be rosé from the start and we farm them differently,” Mansfield says. “For our red Pinot Noir, the vines carry a lower crop load, and we pull leaves earlier in the season so that the grapes get a little ‘tan.’ For the rosé vines, we leave a larger crop, which slows down the production of sugar in the grapes (and lowers the potential alcohol amount in the finished wine), and leave more leaves to shade the fruit, which gives us a fresh, bright strawberry character. Rosé grapes don’t require all that sun.”
In the winery, the rosé Pinot Noir grapes are crushed and allowed to soak for 36 hours, giving the wine its color, which is akin to unripe watermelon. The fruit is pressed gently, the skins and seeds removed, and the juice cold-fermented, further ensuring freshness. Mansfield’s still Pinot Noir grapes, on the other hand, are harvested riper, whole-cluster pressed and allowed to macerate on the solids for 14 days. They could be bled off, but not for rosé.
California winemakers who also shun saignee in favor of dedicated rosé production include Jon Priest of Etude Wines in Carneros (Rosé of Pinot Noir), Steve Beckmen of Beckmen Vineyards in Santa Ynez Valley (Purisima Mountain Vineyard Grenache Rosé), Steven Canter of Quivira Vineyards in Dry Creek Valley (Wine Creek Ranch Grenache Rosé) and John Williams and Paula Moschetti of Frog’s Leap Winery in Napa Valley (La Grenouille Rouganté “Pink,” a blend of Zinfandel and Valdiguie).
The use of oak barrels in the production of dry rosé can add texture to the mouth-feel and a hint of spice to a wine, but the barrels should be well-used and neutral, so that they don’t impart toast or vanilla notes to rosé. They simply don’t belong in such a delicate, pure-fruit-driven wine.
Some grape varieties lend themselves better to serious rosé than others: Grenache, Syrah and other Rhône Valley varieties, Pinot Noir, Sangiovese, and in the hands of the right wineries (Frog’s Leap, Pedroncelli Winery & Vineyards), Zinfandel. Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc are less successful due to their tannic structures and need for long hang times in the vineyard, although there are fine exceptions.
There is nothing wrong with liking big, bold wines labeled as rosé--just don’t call them that, please. It’s okay to enjoy White Zinfandel, and, in fact, it’s the gateway wine that led me to deeper exploration (thank you, Sutter Home). And let’s raise a glass to White Zin, which saved old Zinfandel vines from extinction in California. In the 1970s, red Zin fell out of favor, replaced by Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. But demand for uncomplicated, slightly sweet, affordable White Zinfandel soared, and the vines remained in the ground, rather than being ripped and replanted to trendier grapes.
A rosé is a rosé is a rosé--until it stops adhering to the unwritten rules of the rosé wine style. If a pink (or leaning toward red) wine isn’t dry and refreshing, with gentle red-fruit flavors, bright acidity and moderate alcohol, it’s simply not rosé. For those making their “rosés” in candy-apple colors with obvious tannins and alcohol, leave the good name of rosé alone and find your own category.