How France’s Favorite Seasonal Wine Won Washington Over
BY SEAN P. SULLIVAN
Rosés are typically produced from red wine grapes—the pale color comes from limiting skin contact during fermentation. These pink wines, which range in style from dry to sweet, have long been popular in France, particularly in the south where they pair well with Provencal food and a warmer climate. Rosé was introduced to the U.S. in the ‘70s and ‘80s in the form of White Zinfandel, a sweet, low-quality, supermarket wine that did not win many fans. “Fifteen years ago, I couldn’t give rosés away,” said retailer Michael Herndon of City Cellars in Seattle.
American winemakers weren’t helping matters. In Washington, most were making rosé as Busch did that first year—taking fermenting juice intended for red wine, siphoning some off to concentrate the flavors (a process called saignée), and bottling this, often leaving a little residual sugar. The result: a wine that was dark, sweet, and high alcohol; consumers had little interest. Now, less than ten years later, rosé has not only turned around, these wines have become some of the hottest on the market.
“The response is huge,” said on-line retailer Paul Zitarelli of Full Pull Wines about the rising interest in rosé the last several years. “Shockingly huge.” Casey McClellan of Seven Hills Winery in Walla Walla saw the recent popularity with his inaugural rosé offering this spring. “We were hoping to sell out in five months,” he said, “but the wine was entirely pre-sold in Seattle before it even arrived.
The transformation began in the Northwest in earnest about four years ago, when more growers and winemakers started growing grapes specifically for rosé. “I can’t stress enough how important that is,” said winemaker Rob Griffin of Barnard Griffin in Richland. Griffin said growing for rosé requires hanging a slightly larger crop and picking earlier to retain acidity. “The trick is to get all of the ripe fruit flavors at lower sugar levels and with higher acidity,” he said.
Local winemakers also began using more traditional rosé varieties—those used in Provence and the Loire Valley. “You can make a rosé out of almost any red grape, but only a few have the acid and finesse that makes great rosé,” said winemaker James Mantone, who made his first rosé at Syncline Wine Cellars in Lyle, Washington in 2001.
McClellan agrees. “A given varietal may release color too quickly, or have intense green or unripe flavors at the lower alcohols typically desired for rosé,” he said. “All these things need to line up.” Varieties like Grenache, Mourvèdre, Syrah, and Cabernet Franc can make divine rosé. The Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grapes that Washington has in such abundance? Not so much.
Different varieties bring an assortment of aromas and flavors as well. “Cinsault brings melon rind and strawberry aromatics along with leanness and freshness,” said Mantone, who produces a rosé blended from several different varieties. “Grenache brings red fruits and flesh. Mourvèdre provides spice and structure.” Busch said of his Cabernet Franc Rosé at Sleight of Hand Cellars in Walla Walla, “I always think of summer salads and pomegranates. That’s what it reminds me of when I smell it.”
Styles too have changed, with many winemakers and consumers now preferring dry, higher acid wines over the semi-sweet, flabby wines of old. Griffin said of the style that he is going after at Barnard Griffin, “I want the wine to be piercingly tart—without being painful—with a very refreshing, dry finish. It’s all about fresh fruit.”
This dry, higher acid style helps these wines pair with an abundance of food. “After Champagne, rosé may be the most versatile food wine out there,” Mantone said. Many noted that rosés can pair particularly well with salads. “Usually you are kidding yourself if you think you’re doing a good job matching a wine with salad,” Griffin said. “But rosés actually work nicely.”
The rainbow of colors rosé offers is also part of the appeal, from copper to salmon, pale strawberry to hot pink. While the color makes them pleasing to the eye, it can be more than just an aesthetic. “Color makes a statement,” said winemaker Jon Meuret of Maison Bleue in Walla Walla. “The color shows the degree of extraction. Too much extraction of tannic varieties can lead to bitter flavors. Lighter colored rosés are more delicate, less alcoholic, and show more varietal character.”
While many winemakers have recently preferred making lighter colored styles, Mantone says there is a limit. “It should have some color,” he said. “After all, a good chunk of the fun of drinking rosé is the sun shining on that great wine in the glass.”
As rosés have increased in popularity in the Northwest, some now sell out almost immediately upon release, achieving near cult status. This fleeting nature is part of their charm. “They’re ephemeral,” Zitarelli said. “I think folks like that these wines are released in springtime and then are gone by autumn.”
For others, their popularity has more to do with summer itself. “There is no wine that conveys a sense of season like rosé,” said winemaker Kerry Shiels of Côte Bonneville in Sunnyside. “There is something really magical and special about rosés. Even if you open a bottle in the middle of winter, all of the sudden there is summer in your glass.”
For Busch, whose rosé-making career started with a disaster but who now makes some of the state’s best, the change in attitudes has been rewarding to watch. “People are starting to realize that these are serious wines,” he said. “Wines to be appreciated, not an afterthought.”
Sean P. Sullivan is a contributing editor for Wine Enthusiast magazine and the founder of Washington Wine Report—an online publication focused on the wines and wineries of the Pacific Northwest. A regular contributor to Seattle Metropolitan, Vineyard & Winery Management, and Washington Tasting Room magazine, he resides in Seattle.
SEAN’S ROSÉ RECOMMENDATIONS FOR 2014
Rosés should be served chilled at a temperature slightly warmer than the average refrigerator (usually taking a bottle out for ten minutes or so will do). Most rosés are not made to be aged but rather should be consumed young. “I like to drink rosé in the year after it was harvested, when it’s at its most fresh and fruity,” said retailer Paul Zitarelli of Full Pull Wines.
Labeled alcohol level can serve as a good indicator of whether the grapes were grown intentionally for rosé or not. While not perfect, less than 14% is generally a good guide. Determining whether a rosé is dry or off dry can be more difficult, though occasionally wineries will put this on the label. When in doubt, ask your local wine merchant.
Below is a list of recommended wines.
Barnard Griffin Rosé of Sangiovese, Columbia Valley 2013; $13
“It’s a good wine for lots of adventurous food pairing,” said winemaker Rob Griffin. “I like it with Asian food but it goes with almost anything.”
Côte Bonneville Cabernet Franc Rosé, Yakima Valley 2013; $30
“It has some nice red fruit – raspberry and strawberry – along with ruby red grapefruit,” said winemaker Kerry Shiels. “Salmon is a classic pairing.”
Renegade Wine Co. Rosé, Columbia Valley 2013; $11
Trey Busch makes 3,000 cases of this wine, which typically sells out long before the spring is over. “It’s a porch pounder,” Busch said with a laugh. “It’s just good to chug.”
Seven Hills Winery Dry Rosé, Columbia Valley 2013; $17
“It’s fresh and light, while having some layers and flavor density,” said winemaker Casey McClellan. “You can sit back and quaff it or you can look a little deeper if you want. It’s a book that can be read at more than one level.”
Sleight of Hand Cellars Magician’s Assistant Cabernet Franc Rosé, Blackrock Vineyard, Yakima Valley 2013; $18
Trey Busch minimizes contact of the juice and grape skins on this pale colored wine. “There is this fantastic freshness that you capture just squeezing the juice out and going right into stainless steel,” he said.
Syncline Wine Cellars Rosé, Columbia Valley 2013; $18
“Our inspiration is Provence,” said winemaker James Mantone. “Dry, austere, leaner wines with more of melon rind, green strawberry flavors and aromatics.”