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 — ros&eacute) a proper rosé should not look like this:

Instead, this is what rosé should look like:


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.