Modern American rosé is not your parents white zinfandel
Wed., Aug. 3, 2022
Harvest arrived early to Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley in 2004, so Kathleen Inman rose at 2 a.m. on Sept. 1 to do the first picking run through her pinot noir vineyard. As she was about to leave the house, her husband, Simon, surprised her with a gift for their 20th wedding anniversary.
Caught off guard, having forgotten the occasion, Inman ad-libbed. “I’m making you a special wine,” she said. “A rosé!”
Inman harvests her pinot noir in multiple stages of ripeness over a period of weeks to blend the juice into a harmonious wine. That first pass captures grapes in the earliest stage of ripeness, when acidity and floral aromas remain prominent. It’s also when the grapes are ideal for rosé.
The result a few months later was Endless Crush, a wine that over its 18 vintages is consistently among the best rosés made in the United States. But it hasn’t always been an easy sell.
“I couldn’t get people to taste it at first,” Inman told me in an interview. “Everyone thought it would be white zinfandel.”
That started to change around 2012, when U.S. wine drinkers discovered the joy of dry rosé. Wineries in Provence, rosé’s spiritual homeland, began promoting heavily in this market. “Rosé All Day’’ became a catchphrase, and “Brosé” reassured us that real men do indeed drink pink.
Winemakers responded, and today Inman’s Endless Crush leads a crowded field of high-quality rosé made in the United States. Some resemble the pale dry pinks of Provence, others the more robustly colored rosados of Spain or rosatos of Italy. But they are best enjoyed on their own terms as uniquely American. Like other American wines, they tend to be riper and fuller-bodied than their European counterparts. They’re also usually more expensive.
They come from national brands that can be found in supermarkets, such as organic pioneer Bonterra, and boutique wineries like Inman Family that rely on direct-to-consumer sales. And they come from everywhere. Some of my favorite rosés each year hail from Virginia, where Stinson, Early Mountain and Boxwood shine. Maryland answers with fine pinks from Old Westminster and Port of Leonardtown. Whenever you visit a winery, don’t overlook the rosé.
Here’s a pro tip: Ask whether it’s an “intentional” rosé or a “saignée” (pronounced san-YAY). These describe the two basic ways of making rosé. For an intentional rosé (this is not an official term, but people will know what you mean), the grapes are picked early in the ripeness window, when the acidity is still high, with the intent to make rosé. The red grapes are pressed and drained quickly from the skins; the wine is then fermented much like a white wine. Saignée (a French word, therefore official) means “to bleed.” With this technique, grapes are picked riper with the intent of making red wine and some juice is drained off shortly after pressing to concentrate the color, extract and tannins in the remaining wine. The saignée could be discarded, but hey – it’s free wine! Why not add some acid and bottle it as rosé?
Saignée rosés can be quite tasty, and there’s no shame in enjoying them. But intentional rosés tend to be more vibrant and expressive. They also last longer, so if you like rosé at Thanksgiving or throughout the winter, look for these. Some creative winemakers have combined the techniques, blending early-picked juice with saignée to combine that natural acidity with the body and sweetness of the riper grapes.
The rosé revolution not only prompted more wineries to up their pink wine game, but it also led to the founding of at least one winery devoted exclusively to wines modeled on Provence. The Crimson Wine Group had produced a saignée rosé at Chamisal Vineyards in Central California’s Edna Valley since 2006, and founded Malene winery nearby in 2015 to go all-in on the rosé trend.
“We saw the trend in rosé and wanted to be part of that,” winemaker Fintan du Fresne told me. “But it was important from the get-go to do it with intention and have a brand focused on rosé, not an offshoot of something else.”
Malene now makes five rosés based on different grapes or blends typical of Provence, using fruit primarily from Santa Barbara County. The main cuvée blends cinsaut, mourvèdre, grenache and a little vermentino (called rolle in Provence). This wine gets into wholesale distribution and is sold primarily to restaurants. (Sales have taken a hit because of the pandemic.) They also make single-vineyard wines from grenache and mourvèdre that are available from the winery.
One consistent theme is minimal skin contact, du Fresne said. “We experimented with a darker-colored rosé, but consumers didn’t like that. They’ve been trained by Provence to want it as pale as possible.”
Randall Grahm was an early proponent of rosé with his Bonny Doon Vin Gris de Cigare, which he tweaked to a drier style over the years as pink wine became more popular. Grahm sold Bonny Doon in 2020, and last year launched a new partnership with E&J Gallo called the Language of Yes. The name is a play on “langue d’Oc,” the ancient language of Occitania in southern France and the name of the Languedoc region. He made 75 cases of 2020 rosé that sold out within 90 minutes of going on sale last September. The 2021 rosé will be released this coming September, once temperatures cool enough for reliable shipping.
Grahm is banking on an obscure grape called tibouren, which figures prominently in rosés grown around Saint-Tropez on the Côte d’Azur. It also produces light red wines in Italy’s Liguria region, where it is known as rossese.
“Tibouren may be the best variety for pink wine,” Grahm said, “because of its inherent core of fruit, a succulence that makes it appealing. It also is very persistent on the palate.”
Tibouren has lost favor in much of Provence because it’s disease-prone and doesn’t yield a reliable crop. Grahm is basing his blend – which includes cinsaut and mourvèdre – on the only known commercial planting of the variety in California, in Paso Robles. He is also trying to propagate strains of tibouren at his Popelouchum vineyard in San Juan Bautista, an outdoor laboratory where he is crossbreeding grape varieties to create new ones adapted to the California terroir and climate.
“I’m not trying to isolate the uber clone of tibouren,” Grahm told me. “I’m looking for the weird ones, the funky oddball variants that may be the source of unique complexity. The best result may be a composite of a number of strains.”
Grahm may be tilting at vine rows in his quest to create an American rosé based on a model from ancient Provence. But his fans – and I am one – won’t count him out. We’ll join him as he helps develop a growing, fascinating and delicious genre of American wine.
Here are a few of my favorite American rosés I’ve tasted this year. Some of my other favorite producers not mentioned here include Tablas Creek (California), Brooks (Oregon), Ankida Ridge (Virginia), and Wölffer Estate (New York).
Bonterra Rosé 2021
From Mendocino County’s organic pioneer, this is the rosé the word “zippy” was coined for. It’s a grenache-based blend from certified-organic vineyards throughout California. Look for flavors of ruby red grapefruit, watermelon, rosewater and persimmon. This may be the best value in California rosé. Certified B Corp., Climate Neutral, CCOF Organic. Alcohol by volume: 13 %. Bottle weight: 410 grams (Light).
Alexander Valley Vineyards Dry Rosé of Sangiovese 2021
Sonoma County, Calif., $20
A reliable favorite, this sangiovese rosé bursts with flavors of strawberry, raspberry and watermelon. There’s nothing subtle about this beauty from winemaker Kevin Hall – just lots of delicious fun. Certified sustainable. ABV: 13.5 %. BW: 560 grams (Average).
Boxwood Estate Rosé 2021
Middleburg, Va., $22
Winemaker Stephen Rigby harvested cabernet franc (and a little sauvignon blanc) for this wine two weeks before the rest of his reds, while the acidity in the grapes was still high. After fermenting them like a white wine, with minimal skin contact, he blended in some saignée juice bled off from the riper red wines. The result is a juicy Jolly Rancher ride across the palate, ending with a slight appealing bitterness. ABV: 12.2 %. BW: 510 grams (Average).
Julia’s Dazzle Pinot Gris Rosé 2021
Columbia Valley, Wash., $22
A rosé from pinot gris? Wait, isn’t that a white grape? Well, yes, but pinot gris has dark skins, so it easily takes color with any amount of time on skins after pressing. Coming from the Pacific Northwest, perhaps the salmon color of the wine suggests the ideal food pairing. This is more on the melon side of the fruit spectrum rather than berries – think cantaloupe and honeydew, with a hint of citrus peel. ABV: 13.4 %. BW: 730 grams (Heavy).
Stinson Vineyards Rosé of Tannat 2021
Tannat is known for dark-colored, deep and tannic red wines. With Rachel Vrooman’s skillful handling, it becomes a zesty rosé redolent of red grapefruit, wild herbs and honeysuckle. This is a vibrant wine that seized my attention with the first sip and never let go. ABV: 12.9 %. BW: 425 grams (Light).
The Language of Yes “Le Cerisier” 2021
California, $25 (Not Yet Released)
The debut vintage of Randall Grahm’s project with E&J Gallo Winery sold out within hours of going on sale last September. The 2021, to be released online this September, is 65 % tibouren, an obscure grape from Italy and southern France that Grahm says once was fundamental to Mediterranean rosé. The rest of the blend is cinsaut and mourvèdre, two grapes more familiar to fans of Provençal rosés. The color is more onion-skin than pink, and the wine reminds me somewhat of fermenting. There’s a wild herb note of garrigue and some bright cherry with a rich, velvety texture. ABV: 12.5 %. BW: 540 grams (Average).
Anaba Rosé of Grenache 2021
Sonoma County, Calif., $34
Winemaker Katy Wilson combines grenache from two Sonoma County vineyards into a spicy rosé with flavors of Rainier cherries and cranberries, balanced by a perception of sweetness on the mouthfeel. ABV: 13 %. BW: 630 grams (Average).
Inman Family Endless Crush Rosé of Pinot Noir OGV Estate 2021
Russian River Valley, Sonoma County, Calif., $40
Kathleen Inman offers us a garden in a glass – this beautiful wine swings between floral and fruity with each sip. Aromas of roses, lilac and honeysuckle mingle with strawberry, raspberry and watermelon. Plush texture carries the flavors through a long finish. I have only one complaint: The bottom of the bottle arrives way too soon. ABV: 12 %. BW: 470 grams (Light).
Prices are approximate. For availability, check Wine.com, Wine-searcher.com and the websites of the wineries, importers or distributors.
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