Rosé Double Standard

Paul Blow

Over a lunch of roasted chicken the other day, a friend ordered a bottle of rosé. It came and was poured, though I hardly noticed, as we were thoroughly engaged in conversation. Yet at one point I was yanked out of the flow of talk and said to my friend, “Wow, this is really good rosé.” And it was: Domaine Tempier 2007 Bandol rosé. Its pink color was almost orange, and its flavors of wild strawberries tinged with a little lemon juice were long, deep, and persistent.

This delicious wine was a surprise. We tolerate a lot of bad rosé; it often gets a free pass from today’s wine drinkers. My wife’s uncle said the other day, “I love rosé and have been drinking a lot of it this summer.” I love it, too—it is the perfect summer wine. Its simplicity and cool ease are the perfect foils for the brightness, energy, and tangle of life that is summertime. And, while it’s nice that Americans have fallen for dry rosé in the past few years (for a long time it was stigmatized by a confusion with white Zinfandel, and no one drank it; now it’s on every wine list, and American vintners, emboldened by the success of European dry rosé, have started to produce it in quantity), I’m continually astonished by how much bad rosé there is in the world. It’s gotten to such a state that as simple a thing as finding a very good rosé has become a momentous occasion.

What exactly is wrong with rosé? The problem is that it is often insipid, flavorless, and marred by excessive alcohol. To be honest, I find this more in American versions. Plenty of American red wines are troubled by high alcohol, but they at least still have fruit and character. Not so the rosé. Most is made by a method called saignée, which comes from the French verb “to bleed.” Winegrowers will “bleed off” some of the juice from their red-wine fermentations into a separate tank. This serves two purposes. First, by removing some of the liquid, what’s left in the tank with the grape skins becomes more concentrated, making darker, more intense red wine. And second, the juice that was removed, which has touched the red skins for a few hours or so, is used to make rosé wine. It’s fermented, settled, bottled, and ready to drink that year. Now, if the grapes are balanced with good ripeness at moderate sugar levels, both the rosé and the red wine will turn out well. But if the grapes are overripe and saturated with excess sugar, what’s taken out of the tank for the rosé will be bland and alcoholic.

The Domaine Tempier is made from Mourvèdre, Cinsault, and Grenache, typical grapes of Southern France and the Rhône. I don’t, however, think these grapes work as well to make American rosés, because they produce wines too high in alcohol (with one exception: Tablas Creek Vineyard in Paso Robles, California, makes an unusually dark rosé based on Mourvèdre that is more ruby than pink, and is delicious). When it comes to stateside pink wine, my favorites are made from Pinot Noir, and of those there are quite a few good ones from which to choose—some of my favorites being Sinskey, Etude, Handley, and Soter. These Pinot Noir rosés have the vibrance, freshness, and juicy raspberry/strawberry brightness that just sing of summer. So don’t give your rosé a free pass. Just because it’s light and breezy doesn’t mean it should be bland and flabby.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.