American Rosés Without Clichés
Cynical producers have flooded the market with bad rosés to meet fad demand, but the wine panel found some excellent American bottles.
By Eric Asimov
July 5, 2018
In these mad times when rosé-mania reigns over summer, the sad fact of the matter is that most rosés are not made for people who love wine.
Mass-market rosés are made for people who wear rosé puns on their T-shirts, who think that marketing creations like National Rosé Day (June 9) are a real thing, who believe that what they are drinking somehow suggests a lifestyle, who find it witty to add “o’clock” to their favorite alcoholic beverage when they are thirsty.
It’s perhaps natural for the wine industry to want to whip up enthusiasm for its cash cow. Many producers try to slake that rosé thirst with cynically made pink wines that have the life span of a tsetse fly before they fade away like the Cheshire Cat, leaving only the marketer’s smile.
It’s thought to be snobbishly pedantic for one to think critically about these wines, as if preferring a good bottle robs everyone else of the lighthearted diversion that is rosé.
I’m not buying any of this.
Rosé is a wine like any other. Some are good, even excellent. Some are mediocre, and some are sweet pink confections like the white zinfandels of the 1970s and ’80s. If you do care about the wine you drink, why settle for the bad stuff?
Rosé can be wonderful. It can be exactly the wine that you want in all the cliché rosé-drinking situations — at summer pool parties, out on the deck, on the stoop, on the roof or anywhere outside. It can also be wonderful year-round, when the food and the occasion are right.
Pink wine, and all that it connotes, may be satisfying enough to some, but good pink wine is worth seeking out.
The wine panel recently sampled 20 American rosés, all from the 2017 vintage, with the aim of suggesting some that are exceptional wines as well. And we found plenty to like.
For the tasting, Florence Fabricant and I were joined by Marika Vida-Arnold of Vida et Fils, a wine consultancy, and Victoria James, beverage director at Cote in the Flatiron district and author of “Drink Pink: A Celebration of Rosé,” one of the more discerning rosé guides available.
Rosé wines are made all over the world, so why American rosés? Many of them are superb. We have long ago discarded the stereotype that American wines are by nature thick, heavy, powerful and bordering on sweet. If anything, the best American rosés today are exactly what one would want: brisk and refreshing, subtle and savory, never cloying or fatiguing.
Rather than restrict ourselves to, say, California rosés, we sought them out from all over. For our tasting coordinator, Bernard Kirsch, this effectively meant four states: California, Oregon, Washington and New York. No doubt, interesting rosés are available in states like Idaho, Michigan and Texas, but current shipping rules make it difficult to source wines from these more esoteric origins.
We were all pleased by the high level of quality. Most followed the prevailing Provençal fashion: rosés the color of pale onionskin. The best had depth, minerality and a lip-smacking vibrancy that made you want to keep drinking them.
Almost all were dry, and displayed varying levels of citrus flavors and earthy fruitiness. We rejected a few, though, that seemed harshly acidic.
Marika said she was happily surprised. “They were not at all what I was expecting,” she said. “They’re dry, savory, and some are hard-core, year-round rosés.”
Florence, too, was expecting more sweetness but found instead freshness and balance. “These are serious wines, not crowd-pleasing junk wines,” she said.
If anything, Victoria suggested, some of the wines had gone overboard in reaction to the once dominant style of powerful fruitiness. To her, those wines seemed to be a little underripe. But she was pleased over all.
“The white zin days are long behind us,” she said.
Our No. 1 bottle was an old friend, the Edmunds St. John Bone Jolly gamay noir rosé from El Dorado County in California — savory, saline and simply delicious. Gamay noir is the grape of Beaujolais, hence the egregious Bone Jolly pun. Nonetheless, Steve Edmunds has pioneered modern gamay production in California, making both a red and this rosé, which has been superb year in and year out.
Perhaps coincidentally, our No. 3 wine was also a gamay noir rosé, the Folk Machine from Arroyo Seco in the Central Coast. It was dry and succulent, but a very different style: more delicate and ephemeral than the Bone Jolly, which could easily age a couple of years.
Sandwiched between the two gamay noirs was the North Valley pinot noir rosé from Soter in the Willamette Valley of Oregon, lively and refreshing, with flavors of herbs, berries and the bloody tang of iron. Rounding out the top four was the high-toned, earthy Porter Creek, made from old vines of carignan from Mendocino, blended with a small percentage of zinfandel grown next door to the winery in the Russian River Valley.
As you may have inferred, rosé can be made of any red grape. Rather than allow the grape juice to macerate for long with the pigment-bearing skins, as they would a red wine, producers whisk away the skins after the juice has absorbed the preferred amount of color.
In another method used more rarely, a small portion of the juice is bled off to be used for rosé, leaving the remainder for red. This method, saignée, from the French word for bleed, concentrates the remaining juice intended for red by increasing the ratio of skins to juice. Except for sparkling wines, it is not permitted to blend white and red wine to make rosé.
No. 5 was another old friend, the Robert Sinskey vin gris, a French term for a pale rosé, made of pinot noir grown in Los Carneros, a lively wine with floral, citrus and herbal flavors. The Sinskey was followed by the tart, juicy Fausse Piste Oyster Sauce, made from grenache from the Rogue Valley in southern Oregon, and the fresh Macari — from the North Fork of Long Island, and made of malbec and petit verdot — which had an unusual tutti-frutti, watermelon flavor.
Three more to keep in mind are the stony, citrusy Matthiasson, made from a combination of grenache, syrah, mourvèdre and counoise grown in three different sites in Northern California; the savory, floral Flower, Flora and Fauna from Idlewild in Mendocino, made from nebbiolo, barbera and dolcetto; and the subtle, soft, Gramercy Cellars, made of cinsault grown in the Olsen Vineyard in the Columbia Valley of Washington.
These 10 wines represent a mere thimbleful of the rosés produced in the United States each year. Obviously, American wine is not immune to the annual flood of bad rosé, but the good stuff is out there if you want it.
A rule of thumb: If you like a particular producer’s reds or whites, you are quite likely to enjoy the rosés, too.
Best Value: ★★★ Folk Machine Arroyo Seco Gamay Noir Rosé 2017 $20
Bone-dry and succulent, with aromas and flavors of citrus, flowers and minerals.
Forget Provence for a moment. There is much to appreciate in bottles of well-made, energetic American rosés. They need a dish to match. In place of a salade niçoise, here’s grilled swordfish, dressed for summer with the fixings for that all-American sandwich, the BLT. No, I’m not adding a slice of grilled fish to a sandwich, though that might not be a bad idea in some other context. I’ve made it dinner party fare fresh off the grill. Bacon, arugula and tomatoes in a lemony dressing, bolstered with bacon fat, top and sauce the fish. As an added bonus, I’ve brushed some of the bacon fat on the fish before grilling. The BLT mixture can be assembled a couple of hours in advance, so grilling is the only last-minute task. The finished dish has a bright, beautiful presentation that suits the season and the wines especially.