As Gertrude Stein memorably wrote, “a rose is a rose is a rose”. Rosé wines, however, do not subscribe to that same rule. They come in a rainbow of colors, a spectrum of styles from bone dry to sweet, and are made from many different grapes, blends and techniques.
In recent years, dry rosés have become a leading category for sales growth all over the world. Sales are sparked by celebrity bottles such as Brangelina’s Miraval, further promoted by Millennial sommeliers looking for lightweight and versatile glass pours, and embraced by consumers who know a good thing when they taste it.
With Spring Release just around the corner here in Walla Walla, you can count on almost every tasting room pulling out at least one bone dry rosé, as these are the quintessential porch pounders.
Relatively light in alcohol and big in flavor, unpretentious but sophisticated, rosés are versatile accompaniments to salty snacks, cured meats, dips and cheeses, as well as classic picnic foods such as fried chicken.
But not all rosés are created equal, and there are no rules or regulations regarding them. So as you taste around the Valley, search out the better ones by asking how each was grown, harvested and made.
The simplest rosés are blends, generally a white wine with a splash of red added for color. They can be fruity and perfectly pleasant, but don’t expect them to show much complexity.
It’s also possible, with certain white grapes, to leave them on the skins before pressing, which adds a touch of color. This is most commonly done with Pinot Gris, and Dumas Station makes a roundly fruity rosé in just this way.
The opposite tack is to take a red grape and press it off the skins quickly, in essence treating the red wine like a white wine. This minimizes the color, but gives the wine a bit more grip and detail. Such single-variety rosés can be quite good, and over the years I’ve found that certain grapes seem to be especially successful as solo rosés. In particular I love the Pinot Noir rosés found in abundance in Oregon.
Willamette Valley Vineyards (producers of Pambrun and Maison Bleue wines here in Walla Walla) have spearheaded a special offering called the Oregon Solidarity 2018 Rosé of Pinot Noir to help growers whose contracts were abandoned by a California winery days before harvest. It’s a pale, coppery pink, tart and tangy, and a great picnic wine to boot.
My next favorite single-variety rosés are made with Grenache, both here in Washington and in Oregon’s Rogue valley. Vintner Herb Quady makes three different versions annually, all exceptional, but his Grenache is the star, an energetic, lively wine finished at just 12.5 percent alcohol. L’Ecole’s Grenache Rosé, a lovely pale salmon shade, is made with Alder Ridge vineyard fruit, and shows real power with a mix of strawberry and cherry fruit.
Grenache plays a major role in the most popular blended rosés — GSMs — mixed with Syrah and Mourvèdre. The Jack Rosé, widely available and wildly popular, is one such, with spicy flavors of watermelon and strawberry highlighted with hints of savory herbs. These are Mediterranean grapes, and such blends, common in France, often use different mixes of regional grapes.
Walla Walla’s Gramercy Cellars replaces the Mourvèdre with Cinsaut in its outstanding rosé, which captures the expressive detail of the finest Bandols. In a tasting of a dozen local rosés, the Gramercy was my personal favorite.
Not surprisingly, Syrah is also a local favorite, in examples such as the richly fruity Healy Rosé from Bledsoe Family. Winemaker Josh McDaniels ages the wine in a mix of neutral oak, concrete and stainless steel, leaving it on the lees, and giving it a creamy, almost buttery character reminiscent of Chardonnay.
A different Mediterranean blend, inspired by Italian grapes, is Saviah Cellars’ 60/40 Sangiovese/Barbera rosé. This wine is springtime in a bottle, a tongue-tickling mix of melon, grapefruit, lemon zest and mountain strawberries. If you want to see just how complex a rosé can be, look no further.
Perhaps the most commonly found Walla Walla rosés are made with Cabernet Franc, and winemakers seem to have found the magic formula for keeping them in a lighter, stylish groove. The estate Cabernet Franc Rosé from Three Rivers is a good example. It’s almost colorless, having been pressed immediately, and could honestly be called a Cab Franc blanc if such a category existed. It’s a fruity, substantial, creative and delicious wine that shouldn’t be missed.
Also in the Cab Franc camp are excellent bottles from Dunham Cellars and Seven Hills.
As the back label on the Seven Hills Dry Rosé explains, “each year we designate blocks ... to be used exclusively for rosé.” They are farmed differently and picked early, an important fact that distinguishes the best rosés, as opposed to some that are simply bled out of the fermenter (a process known as saignée) to concentrate the remaining red wine.
Any garden party makes the perfect setting for rosé wines, which can be lightly chilled and set out with appetizers and picnic foods. Avoid chilling them to the point of refrigerator cold, as that dampens both the aromas and the flavors. But do ask guests to each bring a bottle, and when you line them all up, what a lovely pastel display you will have!
Let’s put to rest the idea that a deeper color means a bigger or better wine; it does not. In fact, lighter colors are often the most interesting rosés, as color comes from skins, and skins have tannins, and tannins are for red wines, not for rosés. Don’t diss screwcaps either, which are often used in place of corks on wines meant to be opened young. Cork, screw cap, glass seal, whatever — it’s what’s inside that counts.
Note that all of the wines I’ve mentioned are from the 2018 vintage and priced between $15 and $20. You may find older vintages on retail shelves around town, and I’m not saying you shouldn’t try them, but the newest releases are going to be the freshest, and that’s where these wines, which are the first you’ll taste from the most recent harvest, really shine.