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06.26.2010

Why Does American Rosé Suck?

I was poking around in my wine cellar last night, taking stock of what I might be drinking soon, now that I'm through some serious crunch time at work. In particular I was looking for some nice bottles of rosé that I might enjoy on the back porch, on those rare evenings where the summer fog doesn't make such activities tantamount to frostbite.

I found some nice bottles that all had one thing in common: none of them were made in America. Most were French, some were Italian. I wouldn't have really given that much thought except for the fact that hours earlier I had been unboxing wine samples and groaning at the massive influx of rosé, or more correctly what passes for rosé in California -- clear bottles filled with a liquid so dark it might be Benadryl. Or Pinot Noir, for that matter.

Great rosé is light and lithe, and dances on the palate with bright acidity. It is crisp and bright with faint floral and fruit flavors twined with rivers of wet stone and maybe fresh herbs. Hints of orange peel or hibiscus, strawberry and watermelon are all welcome.

Bad rosé, which includes 95% of the rosé made in this country, is overly fruity yet with a bitter aftertaste. It tastes of cherry and cranberry and cough syrup, and in some cases, it's actually sweet. Of course, let's leave aside White Zinfandel for the moment, which is its own category of beverage that isn't exactly trying to be a proper rosé. The folks who make that stuff and the folks who love it get a pass in this rant.

Of course, this isn't the first time I've cursed in frustration at the sorry state of rosé in this country, but what I don't understand is why it doesn't really seem to be getting any better. It's not like there aren't plenty of examples of how to do it well. It's not like American winemakers haven't managed to figure out how to make decent Pinot Noir. It could hardly be as difficult as growing The Heartbreak Grape.

The only reason I can think of for the pitiful state of rosé in this country is that most consumers don't know the difference between good rosé and bad. Otherwise why in the world would they keep drinking Merlot that is only one or two shades of red lighter than the wine it was pulled out of a few days earlier? Or maybe it's just that most American winemakers are too lazy to be bothered with learning how to make rosé properly and can't be bothered to pick their grapes before they hit 26 Brix?

Well in the event that you're a consumer who's not sure if you know the difference between good rosé and bad, here's a quick lesson.

Good rosé is simple to spot, and you don't even have to open a bottle to get pointed in the right direction at least.

Unless your rosé has the word Tavel on the front label (the rosé-only appellation in France's Rhone Valley that tends to make darker -- but very good -- rosé) a proper rosé should not look like this:

bad_rose_wine.jpg

Instead, this is what rosé should look like:

good_rose_wine.jpg

Or ideally even lighter -- light copper, pale salmon, or even just a hint of pink. As light as possible. Not ruby colored. Not garnet colored. Never to be mistaken for a red wine.

And, unless the grapes are in the hands of one of the world's most talented winemakers, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot really aren't viable options for making good rosé. Try Grenache, Cinsault, Carignan, Pinot Noir, Gamay, or even Sangiovese or Tempranillo.

While I'm not a winemaker, and couldn't even pretend to know what I'm doing, I do know that the most important step in making proper rosé is deciding to grow the grapes as if they're going to be made into one, rather than growing the grapes as if they're going to be made into red wine. This means, at the very least, picking them earlier.

Yet so few American winemakers seem willing to do so. What they do instead is make a red wine, and then bleed off some of the juice, in a process known to the French as saignee. While this method itself does not spell problems, as much good rose is made that way, but invariably winemakers don't do it soon enough (hence the rosés that are darker ruby than pink). And because the grapes have been grown, harvested, crushed, and soaked like they are going to be a darker red wine, they have far too many tannins, and other bitter compounds that are fine and dandy in a big red wine, but death to a proper rosé.

Of course, there are a few American winemakers that do know how to make a proper rosé and have proven it by doing so. One of the best rosés made in this country comes from Robert Sinskey, whose ever-so-pale rosé of Pinot Noir has made its way into Whole Foods with some regularity. Other producers who know what they're doing include Tablas Creek, Fort Ross Vineyard, Clos Saron, and York Creek Vineyards. If you're buying pink wine from America, I'd stick to those names.

But by far the best way to ensure you're going to enjoy a proper rosé this summer is to buy French. Look for words on the label like Aix en Provence, Côtes de Provence, Cotes de Ventoux, Bandol, or even Côtes du Roussillon.

Thanks to the efforts of folks like RAP, the Rosé Avengers and Producers organization, we've thankfully reached a point in this country where rosé is actually somewhat fashionable. Now we need to take the next step and actually make it good.

Comments (59)

Tim wrote:
06.26.10 at 4:11 PM

Have you tried Scherrer's Rose? It tends to sell out very fast, but it is well priced and probably the best American Rose I've had.

ryan wrote:
06.26.10 at 4:14 PM

color does not have anything to do with quality. Hell color has very little to do with flavor(try the black glass test)...I'm all for better rose, but please don't say that color has anything to do with it.

Wine is liquid with flavor. Last time I checked red was not a flavor, nor was yellow, green or blue...unless your a jelly belly! :)

06.26.10 at 4:20 PM

You are dead right, Alder. Send a mass memo to U.S. rosé producers and show 'em what rosé is supposed to look like!

And while you're at it, tell them all red wine isn't supposed to be as dark as possible. Enough with the syrah/zin colored pinot noirs! Enough with blending something extra in to give it a darker color.

Alder Yarrow wrote:
06.26.10 at 4:23 PM

Ryan,

Where, exactly in this piece did I say that when it comes to wine, color determines quality? What I am saying is that nothing in my experience is a better predictor of the lousy quality of American rosé than a dark red color.

Alder

Erin wrote:
06.26.10 at 4:41 PM

You're halfway there with the winemaking... yes most rose is produced from saignee of overripe juice. But the reason it's darker in colour is purely cosmetic. After the saignee ferments it drops most of it's colour (just like hyper-oxidised white must ferments brown and ends up straw colour). Your dark, cloudy, pepto bismol syrah fermenting in stainless steel with an innocuous white wine yeast will end up a dull musky pink. The bright fresh colour comes from adding 1-2% new vintage red wine, or other colour enriching enological tool. Commercial rose is often bulked up or freshened up (if not entirely based on) white wines too. They'll be acidified, sweetened, filtered and stabilised before their pretty little package ends up in your fridge.

It's a weird reality, but a lot of consumers do get excited about the glossy pink colour. I'm sure the commercial success of these wines is what is really preserving their place in the market. US is not alone... Australia has the exact same situation!

Colour does not necessarily indicate quality, but when encountering new world rose, a dark dense pink is a sign, more often than not, that the rose inside has been entirely constructed to meet the demands of a strawberry sweet rose.

John wrote:
06.27.10 at 4:59 AM

Another American Rosé worth a closer look is the 09 Donkey & Goat Isabel's Cuvée Grenache Rosé. Very small production (168 cases) and thus hard to find. Technical data on their website. Give this a try. About $16-17.

06.27.10 at 6:26 AM

I love light colored rose wines, like Tempier. Italy has their share and even some of the darker colored ones, such as a Cerasuolo (from Montepulciano grapes in Abruzzo) is wonderful. Clearly they are breaking your rule, Alder. I for one, am glad, as it is a perfect wine to drink by the seaside with a bowl of Penne Arrabbiata or Gumbo.

Michel wrote:
06.27.10 at 6:41 AM

I agree with you completely. I think California winemakers are afraid to make a 100% commitment to a dry rose because they are trying to make a rose that will appeal to the white zinfandel crowd. If you have not tried any, there are some very nice rose wines being made in the Pic St. Loup area north of Montpellier.

John Kelly wrote:
06.27.10 at 8:38 AM

The color in the top bottle looks suspiciously like Mega.

El Jefe wrote:
06.27.10 at 10:10 AM

It's actually worse than that. In my experience the American wine drinker has been conditioned to believe by white Zin that pink wines are not worthy.

We made a Rosado for a few years (made from Tempranillo and/or Grenache, depending on the vintage). It was an almost impossible sell, just because it's pink. Most of our TR visitors would refuse to try it. We even gave away "Don't Fear The Pink!" buttons to people to simply get them to try it. One time we sent a Rosado out as part of the wine club and a few people actually quit because of it (the only time we have ever had members quit because of a club wine selection!)

It's going to be a long battle to change this mindset...

06.27.10 at 12:45 PM

I had Gamay planted in a location where it ripens between 21 and 22 Brix, at which level it makes good red wine AND good pink wine. The rosé is a dedicated (not saignée) rosé, and it never touches wood; wood too easily compromises freshness, and rosé without freshness isn't much fun to drink.

Bill Dyer wrote:
06.27.10 at 1:32 PM

Another small production domestic rose that is delicious and deserves attention is the Lorenzo.

Alder Yarrow wrote:
06.27.10 at 1:46 PM

Alfonso,

Thanks for the comments. I am sure there are more than a few exceptions to my "rule."

Alder Yarrow wrote:
06.27.10 at 1:47 PM

Ah yes, Steve Edmunds, thanks for reminding me -- your Bone Jolly rosé most certainly belongs on my list as well. As does Unti Vineyards' bottling.

I haven't had the Donkey and a Goat bottling in several years.

And Michel, YES! Pic St. Loup rosé is great.

Alder

Alder Yarrow wrote:
06.27.10 at 1:56 PM

Jeff,

Interesting that you faced such stiff opposition to the pink stuff. Maybe it's your neck of the woods? People too rugged out there in Calaveras? Mostly joking there -- as I'm sure your customer base is all over the place.

That surprises me a little bit. I think rosé sales in the US have been up double digits for the past few years if I'm recalling the stats correctly. Of course, that's off of a small base to begin with. What a shame that you couldn't make it fly. People really are close-minded sometimes.

El Jefe wrote:
06.27.10 at 2:15 PM

It may be that my base at the time (at least) just happened to not be receptive. We did of course manage to sell the wine to people who enjoyed it, but it was definitely a tough sell in general. It's been 4 years or so since we made one.

Bill Dyer wrote:
06.27.10 at 4:30 PM

Correction...misspelled the rose I mentioned earlier. It is Lorenza and their link is:
http://www.intersectionwine.com/Lorenza/index.html

Denise wrote:
06.27.10 at 4:31 PM

Unti is very nice...spent time in DCV yesterday and had a very nice Grenache of Rose' at Quivira - chilled very cold and over 85 degrees outside - one of the best of the day. Another one of my previous favs was from Eric Sussman (Radio Coteau)- although I haven't tried current vintage

06.27.10 at 5:41 PM

Rose's time will come. Just as soon as the North American palate will adjust to drier styles of roses. Just reviewed 10 roses for my email wine newsletter and yes, the Euro style was superior.

Chris Robinson wrote:
06.27.10 at 7:56 PM

One guy in Australia, Roy Moorfield, who is a wine consultant to airlines decided to push rose as a logical wine for daily consumption in the Australian summer. He started a movement called the RLF or Rose Liberation Front, invited a bunch of wine journalists to come to a rose tasting and promotion where each wss given plastic rose coloured sunglasses (yes the world did look rosier!)and a pink bow tie. I think we can probably date the take off of rose in Australia to that moment. The key is get the wine writers involved and cohesively.

Jason Haas wrote:
06.27.10 at 10:59 PM

Thanks for the mention, Alder.

I wanted to shed some light on why some California Rosés might be darker... we've found that in at least the Paso Robles climate, the grapes when they're ripe have enough glycerine and enough weight that even fermenting them completely dry, rosés taste a little sweet and a little heavy unless we give them some skin time and get some of the bite of the skins to balance that natural richness. That's one of the reasons that we don't use any Syrah in our Rosé; it's such a dark grape that it's already a red wine after the 48 hours on the skins that we give the Mourvedre, Grenache and Counoise that we use in our Rosé.

Interestingly in contrast to Jeff's experience, I think it has gotten easier and easier to sell dry rosé in California. Hardly anyone these days refuses to taste it in our tasting room :)

All the best,
-Jason

Bertrand wrote:
06.28.10 at 12:14 AM

Glossy dark rosé, salmon or onion-peel pale rosé, whatever the tone of pink, the color shouldn't be linked automaticly to a particular quality of wine. In France for example, pale rosés are very popular among the basic consumers and the commercial wineries use additives tricks like for any other wine feature to adapt their wines to the market demand.

See the picture on the 2nd page of this linked document to understand how certain additives, like enological charcoal or PVPP, can adjust the wine to the desired color...

http://www.centredurose.fr/publi%20vins%20roses/rosecom/110207p12a13.pdf

06.28.10 at 2:25 AM

Azur Wines of Napa should be added to your list of great American rosés... a Provençal style low-production rosé, made by an American-French couple, based in Napa...

Elan wrote:
06.28.10 at 7:14 AM

Alder,

My husband and I are dedicated rose producers in Napa.

We grow and harvest grapes at optimal ripeness for rose not red wine. My husband, Julien Fayard is the winemaker and brings his experience from making wine and growing up in Southern France.

We are a small producer yet one that focuses on producing quality rose. It's our goal to introduce this beautiful, elegant wine to those who think that American roses are sweet and not a quality, stand-alone wine.

We hope that not everyone that reads you're article disregards California rose as a quality wine.

Elan Fayard

Ian wrote:
06.28.10 at 9:30 AM

Stephane Vivier (winemaker at HdV) makes a killer rose of pinot noir under his own (new) label

Karen wrote:
06.28.10 at 10:51 AM

Agreed for the most part. The best roses are French and Spanish grenache; or vin gris of Pinot - like that from Cuvaison. It looks - and tastes - like a rose should. http://bit.ly/9gl8GU

tom barras wrote:
06.28.10 at 11:15 AM

Two things. I always felt that Randall Grahm was the first to bring pink wines to America's attention, and think that his version is still one that is closest to the French model.

Second, Tavel is definitely another beast. Lower in acid an higher in extract, it's definitely in a class of its own.

KK wrote:
06.28.10 at 12:44 PM

Are there any good Merlot Roses out there?

Ron wrote:
06.28.10 at 12:44 PM

Drink a Robert Sinsky Rose and you would never blog this nonsense.

Dennis Schaefer wrote:
06.28.10 at 1:16 PM

Point Concepcion, in Sta. Rita Hills, makes a Pinot Grigio---that's orange/copper/pink. Pretty refreshing stuff.

Diana Stockton wrote:
06.28.10 at 1:18 PM

Frog's Leap makes a rosé, La Grenouille Rougante, well worth trying, given the parameters of Vinography

NB: Blushing Spanish cavas are great summer accompaniments to ripe melon and prosciutto as the full moon rises.

Alder Yarrow wrote:
06.28.10 at 1:21 PM

Dennis,

The Point Conception falls outside of the rosé zone in my book, and squarely in the Orange Wine category (long macerated whites). I've reviewed it and others on Vinography.

Alder

nick wrote:
06.28.10 at 1:34 PM

Can anybody find me examples of Carignan rose? foreign or domestic

Riki wrote:
06.28.10 at 5:21 PM

Hi Alder. Solune Winery of Grass Valley Barbera Rose won Gold at the Cal State Fair. It has strawberry in the nose and finishes with good acidity with a hint of citrus. It is a refreahing dry rose. The wine maker is French/Canadian and judges in Paris. Definately worth checking out.

Mike wrote:
06.28.10 at 5:36 PM

I'll second the Clos Saron mention and add J.K. Carriere's "Glass" white pinot noir (Willamette Valley) to the list, which is close to the color of photo #2, bone dry, and deliciously acid-driven.

Mart S. wrote:
06.28.10 at 6:15 PM

Ron

I've tried Robert Sinsky Rose, and the taste is heavenly. :) Cheers!

pbm wrote:
06.28.10 at 6:42 PM

Dacalier makes a great rose'...grenache/mourvedre blend. Highly recommend it as it's not too sweet at all. A real thirst quencher that fits your description of a "real rose":

http://www.dacalier.com/uploads/2009_DPR_Specs.pdf

Gideon wrote:
06.28.10 at 9:45 PM

In my experience, rose is one of the simplest wines to make. The key is the time of harvest and the site.
Harvest at 18.5-21 brix, whole cluster press, ferment in a neutal medium, age until fermentation is over in a neutral medium, bottle.
The grape variety seems to be secondary in importance in this style of wine: in various vintages of our Tickled Pink and Tickled Noir, I have have good results (in my view) with Pinot, Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre, Cabernet, and Merlot...

VanVino wrote:
06.29.10 at 4:11 AM

Nice article and very true, except for the color piece. I'm under the strong impressions that Rhone varietals make the best rosé. That is probably because I tend to drink mostly rosé from southern France. However, my favorite rosé right now is American. The 2009 A Donkey and Goat Grenache Gris Isabel's Cuvée McDowell is unfiltered and fantastic.

Nick wrote:
06.29.10 at 7:33 AM

Tavel is made, principally, from Grenache and Cinsault...

BaroloDude wrote:
06.29.10 at 12:32 PM

Lynmar makes my favorite Rose' from Pinot. I tasted an Alpha Omega Rose' that was darker than most Pinots, and was effectively red wine. So i get your point Alder. Try the Lynmar. Around 20bucks and tasty!

BaroloDude wrote:
06.29.10 at 12:46 PM

Alder,
I understand your point. I tasted an ALpha Omega Rose' and, while it was tasty, it really wasn't a Rose' imho, given how dark and powerful it was. It was darker than some Pinots!

I am not very familiar with French Roses but want to be... the Rose' i like the most is Lynmar's Rose of Pinot Noir. Very nice and affordable too. Miner Family also makes an interesting Rosato from Sangiovese.

Troy wrote:
06.29.10 at 2:44 PM

There are some Virginia rose examples that I would hold up with anything I've tried that's French. Linden Vineyard's rose comes to mind.

You're spot on with CA rose however. I've had some made from either grenache or syrah that were dark and after a few minutes in the glass descend into syrup.

-Troy

Matt wrote:
06.30.10 at 5:54 PM

Another great article and so true.

Joanna Breslin wrote:
07.01.10 at 11:54 AM

Elk Cove Rose of Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley

boyd wrote:
07.01.10 at 3:53 PM

Alder,

Try our Rosé. I'll send you a bottle if you like.

boyd

jason Carey DWS wrote:
07.02.10 at 3:35 PM

The problem is that most producers use grapes picked later than they should be for good rose (or grown for red wine), because they are making saginee wine. Now there are good saginee roses, but the great roses, most likely should be from grapes grown especially for rose.
Quivira, A Donkey and Goat, Clos Saron, and actually Etude make what I consider proper Rose .. also both Navarro roses (Pinot Noir and Grenache based) are fantastic. Many Grenache and Syrah based roses from CA are heavy on the palate, even if dry and tend to have this awful cloying lack of tannin and mineral balance.
My favorite roses are actually some from the Loire such as Clos Roche Blanche, and Baudry which are very very light in fruit and more floral and mineraly than fruity.

JW wrote:
07.07.10 at 12:27 PM

Schramsberg?

StephCat wrote:
07.14.10 at 7:33 AM

I love Rose; it's my go-to choice for summer wine drinking.

Bella in Sonoma County makes a lovely Rose. Andrew Murray in Santa Barbara County does also. Shoot, I think there are plenty of small producers here in California that are making delicious pink wines.

FWIW -- we were just at Tablas Creek. Their Rose didn't do so much for me.

My first intro years ago to pink wine was something from Bonny Doon.

ikkaariainen wrote:
07.15.10 at 2:25 PM

Will completely second what pbm wrote above - Dacalier makes an absolutely lovely and very reasonably priced dry Provencal style grenache / mourvedre rose that is a very limited production wine and really should be a part of this discussion of American rose production...

GalvezGuy wrote:
07.15.10 at 7:23 PM

Another vote for Dacalier. Stands up to any rose from any region in the world. Very affordable and worth finding.

JRW wrote:
07.25.10 at 5:15 AM

All the American rose wines that I have tasted were beautiful and all with the light pink colours that you describe.... maybe I haveonly been exposed to just tasty rose wine from America ...?

GAB wrote:
08.23.10 at 7:06 AM

Another vote and strong recommendation for Azur. I discovered this with a friend who knows the winemaker's family in Provence. We were stunned that this was a California wine. The wine is pale, with delicate floral aromas and flavors. Refreshing acid, bone dry and it doesn't taste like fruit punch. The winemaker intends to make a rose from the start and so doesn't use saignee. He picks the grapes at a lower brix and keeps the acids high. (He's from Southern France).

SLK wrote:
09.06.10 at 1:58 PM

If more American roses were like Azur & Dacalier, we'd be in good shape. Another worth mentioning is Copain - delicate color & plenty of flavors, including dried rose petals & orange peel to match the fresh wild red fruit.

Romain wrote:
10.13.11 at 8:28 AM

Nice article,
I really agree with most things you're saying.
I'm a wine-importer and have a business in The Netherlands whitch specialises on rosés form the Côtes de Provence it's to bad you can't taste the wines I got in the US. But I might try to export them soon.
Anyway keep up the good work.
It's good to inform people about wine and learn them what wines are bad and more importent learn them whitch ones are good!

Greetings from Holland,

Romain

Michaela wrote:
09.04.12 at 11:57 AM

"Even" Sangiovese? Tsk, tsk. Sangiovese makes delicious rosé unless, like many CA wines, it's really a byproduct of red winemaking (soignée). Your photos on correct color make this point well: if it's nearly red, it's a byproduct rather than an intentional rosé.

Michaela wrote:
09.04.12 at 11:58 AM

Sorry for typo, meant "saignée."

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