Column: Arbor Vinous

The politics of rosé: Pinkos in Treetown
Joel Goldberg

Joel Goldberg

Don’t point the finger of blame at Hieftje, Lesko or even RichRod for this one. In-the-know locals assign responsibility where it clearly belongs.

It’s all White Zinfandel’s fault.

Last week, San Francisco Chronicle wine columnist Jon Bonné penned a sentence I wish I’d written to describe a peculiar phenomenon: “The more people drink rosé, the more mediocre rosé appears.”

During the 1980s, the national craze for mediocre-by-design White Zin so came to define rosé that no “serious” wine drinker wanted to be seen sipping something pink from a glass.

It’s taken the market for high-quality rosé nearly a full generation to recover from the hangover.

This phenomenon isn’t limited to rosé. Several years previously, a tidal wave of insipid German Liebfraümilch washed up on our shores to commit long-term mayhem on the demand for Riesling. More recently, the Merlot boom reached a precipitous end the instant its inherent mediocrity was declaimed by no less an authority than Myles in the movie “Sideways.”

Rosé’s recent comeback was long overdue, in large part because it’s the perfect warm weather wine. Fans of classic rosé prize its fresh fruit aromas and flavors, balanced by crisp acidity and, on occasion, a hint of sweetness.

Glasses of rose

A flight of rosé consists of many colors.

It also pairs well with summer foods from the grill, at a season when big, high-alcohol reds seem less appealing. Rosé is heartier and more flavorful than white wine; just as chilling but not as filling as beer.

Rosé lovers associate these characteristics with regions that don’t traditionally over-ripen grapes or manufacture wines with palate-numbing alcohol levels – primarily France and Spain. It’s not coincidence that no Ann Arbor retailer suggested a single California or Australia rosé to include in this month’s tasting.

As a fruit-driven wine, the normal rule for rosé-buying is, “The younger and fresher, the better.” You’re nearly always best-off with the most recent vintage – currently, 2009 – and should regard with extreme suspicion bottles more than two years old.

Multiple roads lead to rosé. But they begin with a single fact of grape physiology: except for a few oddball varieties (like the hybrid Alicante Bouschet) the juice inside almost every classic red grape is nearly colorless.

Go ahead and stomp on some Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir or Syrah. They’ll bleed clear.

We get red wine by crunching red grapes and leaving the fermenting juice to make nice with all those red skins in a tank or barrel. Color leaches into the juice as they soak together; so do the tannins and other flavor components. Leave ‘em together long enough and the embryonic wine turns red.

Now think of classic rosé – also known as direct-to-press – as red wine lite. Give the juice and skins a chance to canoodle for a few hours to a few days, then press the skins before too much color and tannins are extracted. Voilà! You’ve got rosé – or at least you will once the fermentation stops.

Winemakers who use this method can choose the optimal moment to pick grapes dedicated to rosé, typically before they ripen as much as the same varietals destined for red wine. These less-ripe grapes yield wines with lower alcohol, more acidity and lighter, fresher fruit flavors than fully ripe grapes from the same varietals – an optimal recipe for quality rosé.

The second approach involves what the French call saignée (say: Sayn Yay!) – but we’ll stick to its less elegant Yank translation, “bleed-off.” Instead of pressing the skins after a short soak, the winemaker opens a valve to let some of the juice bleed off the skins. Both batches continue their fermenting ways, one with and one without additional skin contact.

This double-barrel strategy lets winemakers turn a single batch of  grapes into two wines. The bleed-off goes into the bottle as rosé, while the red wine remains in the tank and gets a color and tannin pick-me-up from its super-sized skin-to-juice ratio.

Jim Lester

Wyncroft Winery's Jim Lester takes a sniff; Vinous Posse member Clay Johnson takes notes.

Think of it as blood-doping for red wine.

The downside is that bleed-off requires a built-in compromise. Winemakers who bleed off in order to improve less-than-optimally ripe grapes will get some additional concentration in the red wine, but they’ll still face an unripe flavor profile. Or if they use grapes that have reached full ripeness, the bleed-off juice carries less acidity and a full wallop of alcohol – not exactly a desirable recipe for the best quality rosé.

But if purists find bleed-off rosé slightly unsavory, they go livid over the third (and cheapest) route to make pink wine: blending white and red wines together to create ersatz rosé. Essentially, it’s white wine with color added from a tiny percentage of red.

Last year, this internal spat turned into a highly public political free-for-all, as old-school European rosé producers – led by Francefought and successfully defeated a European Union proposal to let EU winemakers produce rosé this less expensive way, in order to compete more successfully in export markets.

Boycotts were threatened. Individual EU countries vowed not to allow such wines to cross their borders. On more than one occasion, the word “sacrilege” came into play.

Of course, while the debate ran its course, our French friends conveniently overlooked an exception already in place for one of their own famous exports: Rosé Champagne, which marries Chardonnay and  Pinot Noir in just the manner they found so objectionable.


What’s to Drink?

The Vinous Posse corralled 18 rosés, half from France and the rest a hodge-podge of origins: Spain, Italy, South Africa, and Chile. With one exception, all came from the 2009 vintage. Many are available at multiple places around town; the stores and prices listed indicate the source of our samples.

Jim Lester, owner/winemaker of southwest Michigan’s tiny, high-end Wyncroft Winery, sat in with the Posse for this month’s tasting. “My mouth is just ringing with rosé,” he was heard to mutter at the end of the evening.

With some trepidation over the less-than-ripe 2009 vintage, we included two Michigan rosés you won’t find on local shelves. Old Mission Peninsula’s 2 Lads, whose website calls last year “the most challenging growing season in Michigan history,” makes a top-notch but idiosyncratic Cabernet Franc Rosé that’s only available from the winery.

Tabor Hill’s well-priced Cab Franc Rosé frequently finds its way to my dinner table alongside summer fare. We cadged a bottle of the just-released 2009 from the winery; it will show up on local shelves once stocks of the currently-available 2008 are exhausted.

Though the price tag squeezed our tasting budget until it screamed “Ouch!” we included a bottle many wine lovers consider the peak of the rosé-maker’s craft, Domaine Tempier from France’s Bandol region, just off the Mediterranean coast. At $37 – nearly double the next-highest priced wine – I had to wonder: would the Vinous Posse deem it worth the money?

We tasted all wines blind and rated them on a scale from (White Zin be better) to (Forget summer – we’d drink this anytime). Only small differences separate each category, wine styles vary widely, and tasters often disagree (sometimes vocally) over the bottles. So check the notes along with the ratings to pinpoint styles, grapes and regions that match your palate.

Bottle of Chateau de Lancyre

Top rosé: Chateau de Lancyre, the "after" picture.


Bragging rights go to the Syrah and Grenache-based CHATEAU DE LANCYRE from Pic Saint-Loup in southern France, which flaunts the balance of vibrant fresh fruit and acidity that defines top-drawer rosé. It’s available at several local stores, priced in the upper teens, and just nosed out the spendier and more elegant DOMAINE TEMPIER, another group favorite, for top score.

If you, like most people, treat rosé as a summer sipper rather than wine for contemplation, three good values stand out in the $6 to $12 range. South Africa’s MULDERBOSCH CABERNET SAUVIGNON earned consistently high scores among all the tasters, who enjoyed its juicy, watermelon character.

Michigan-grown TABOR HILL CABERNET FRANC makes a good choice for those who prefer their rosé on the light, crisp side, with a hint of sweetness. And the least expensive wine tasted, the mass-produced and widely available LA VIEILLE FERME, also from southern France, shows less fruit than many of its peers, but merits consideration at $6 or $7 as a pleasant, refreshing quaff.


2009 CHATEAU DE LANCYRE, Pic Saint-Loup, France (Arbor Farms, $19). 50% Syrah, 40% Grenache, 10% Cinsault. Touches all the right notes for a big-boned southern French rosé – rich floral nose, ripe, bright fruit flavors and reasonable acidity. “A ballerina of a wine in pink tulle!” enthused one imagery-obsessed member of the Vinous Posse. OK, fine.

2009 DOMAINE TEMPIER, Bandol, France (Morgan & York, $37). Unmistakably unique. Pale onion-skin color, elegant, pitch-perfect balance, with some tar and Oriental spice, thanks to the Mourvedre grape. Consensus reaction to sipping this alongside some homemade black olive tapenade on a slice of baguette: “Oh my God!” Definitely worth trying if you’re up for the splurge.

2009 MULDERBOSCH, Cabernet Sauvignon Rosé, Coastal Region, South Africa (Everyday Wines, $12). TOP VALUE! Toast the World Cup with this gem from the Cape. Deep salmon color, described by one taster as “Costa Rica sunset.” Slightly herbal, spicy and dense, watermelon flavors. A rich, juicy rosé that should hold its own alongside well-seasoned fare from the grill.

2009 CHATEAU MORGUES DU GRES, Nimes, France (Village Corner, $14). Salmon colored and full bodied, with interesting lemony aromas and flavors. Beautifully balanced but fairly simple.

2009 TABOR HILL Cabernet Franc Rosé, Lake Michigan Shore, Michigan (Currently available from the winery; in stores soon at about $11). TOP VALUE! Paler than previous versions, with a slight sulfur nose that blows off, from its recent bottling. Light, elegant, berry fruit and great acidity, red pear finish. Several tasters thought this was French; “A daily wine that should be on everyone’s table,” said one.

2009 VILLA DES ANGES, Languedoc, France (Arbor Farms, $11.50). Predominantly from Cinsault grapes; viscous mouthfeel and more concentration than many of the others. Bright berries and red fruits. Several tasters agreed with the suggestion that it would match well with grilled lamb.

2009 CHATEAU DU DONJON, Minervois, France (Village Corner, $15). 40% Syrah, 40% Cinsault, 20% Grenache. Medium pink. Hints of melon, strawberry and cotton candy; one taster likened it to “watermelon Jolly Rancher.” Slightly hot finish.

2009 DOMAINE DU POUJOL, Languedoc, France (Morgan & York, $15). Vibrant light pink color. Everyone branded this as a lightly fragrant, simple summer quaffer with a hint of lean and salty mineralty on the finish that led one taster to suggest it would go well with oysters. “Boat wine,” said another.

2009 DOMAINE DU SALVARD, Cheverny, Loire Valley, France (Morgan & York, $17; Sold Out). From northern France’s Loire Valley, an unusual blend of Gamay and Pinot Noir. Pale pink, strawberry and cherry notes, with its northern origins evident from a higher-than-average level of bright acidity.

2009 LA VIEILLE FERME, Ventoux, France (Trader Joe’s, $7.50; Plum Market, $6). TOP VALUE! Another Grenache/Cinsault blend from southern France. Watermelon color and a red currant nose. Nicely balanced with a rich, round mouthfeel, but not a lot of fruit.

2008 MAGHINARDO Rosato, Emilia, Italy (Everyday Wines, $15). The lone Italian in the tasting, we made an exception for this vintage 2008, the most recent rosé from this late-releasing winery. An unusual, somewhat rustic wine that had tasters reaching for “sweet and sour” descriptions – boiled sweets, red apples and grapefruit, berries and acidity. Sweet wins out at the finish.

2009 MUGA, Rioja, Spain (Plum Market, $12). Lightly fruity but austere, with some tannins in evidence. “Like pink Champagne without the bubbles,” said one taster. Another suggested it would be best served alongside a Zingerman’s ham sandwich.

2009 ROSÉ DES KARANTES, Languedoc, France (Whole Foods on Eisenhower, $14). Mourvedre/Syrah/Grenache. Darker color and some spice from the Mourvedre, but only moderate amounts of simple fruit and a finish that drops off quickly. An attractive label, widely available around town.

2009 2 LADS, Rosé of Cabernet Franc, Old Mission Peninsula, Michigan (Available from the winery; $17). Deepest color, easily a “light red,” and most controversial wine on the table, with divergent scores and comments. Cherry, significant sweetness, nice acidity and surprising tannins for rosé. Shows its pedigree from a less-than-ripe vintage with herbal and green pepper notes. “This is a stylistic statement,” noted one taster, approvingly. “The average consumer will find it puzzling,” said another.

2009 VEGA SINDOA Garnacha Rosé, Navarra, Spain (Whole Foods on Eisenhower, $9). Very consistent scores and comments on this Spanish version of Grenache. Fluorescent pink color, watermelon flavors and a round, nicely balanced palate fall off to an astringent, slightly hot finish.

2009 COMMANDERIE DE LA BARGEMONE, Aix en Provence, France (Whole Foods on Eisenhower, $16). A wine of much disagreement; “Overcropped saignée” was one taster’s assessment of this leaner effort, but not everyone agreed, as some folks found reasonable amounts of red fruit, with one reference to a “knuckle-dragging rosé.”

2009 CALCU, Colchagua Valley, Chile (Plum Market; $12). 50% Malbec, 40% Syrah, 10% Carmenere. “If you like strange, this is your wine,” said one taster – and that sums up the consensus. Descriptions not usually associated with quality wine flew around the table: Rhubarb, grapefruit rind, tar, burnt rubber, barnyard funk – though one taster did suggest it might work well with spicy sausages.

2009 LE PAVILLON DU CHATEAU BEAUCHENE, Côtes du Rhone, France (Plum Market, $8). Well-priced for a Rhone rosé, but not very much to like inside. Dull, slightly oxidized fruit, described by one taster as “bruised apple,” leads into a bitter finish. Possibly a defective bottle.

About the author: Joel Goldberg, an Ann Arbor area resident, is editor of the MichWine website. His Arbor Vinous column for The Chronicle is published on the first Saturday of the month.

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  1. June 5, 2010 at 10:30 am | permalink

    I believe Jim Lester is actually a poet disguised as a wine maker. -And what an awesome disguise it is!

  2. By Jay Baldwin
    June 6, 2010 at 2:24 pm | permalink

    Ahhh, Rosé. Thanks for the comprehensive review of the current crop, Joel et Posse! Gotta get my hands on some Lancyre and Tabor Hill…

  3. June 13, 2010 at 8:35 am | permalink

    One of my favorite, affordable sparkling rose’s is the Jaillance Cremant de B. Rose NV. Available around town at various places; the best price I’ve seen is $17 at Plum Market. Tastes like a pricey Champagne, but much better price. Perfect for a hot summer evening.

  4. By Eric Storhok
    June 15, 2010 at 10:16 am | permalink

    I love the resurgance of well crafted rese’s- makes for a much richer choice of wines.

    As for other US choices (and I’ll keep hoping Michigan keeps getting better), we were just in the Anderson Valley of California, and found a few really nice Pinot Noir based rose’s- the coolness of that valley makes some rather nice cool weather grapes. We had some Goldeneye that we enjoyed quite a bit.

    (for those not familar- Anderson valley is two passes west of Napa, one west of Sonoma, and one east of the Pacific- and quite isolated, relative to the other wine areas of California)

  5. June 15, 2010 at 10:56 am | permalink

    Eric, great shout-out to Anderson Valley. Because it’s just in from the coast, it’s California’s closer answer to Michigan’s cooler growing conditions — the dominant grapes and winestyles are those that also thrive here.

    Unfortunately, most Anderson Valley wineries are smallish, so we don’t see very many of their wines on our shelves.

    Lisa, we tasted the Jaillance Brut (non-rose) for our annual December under-$25 bubbly roundup back in 2008 — it got 3 1/2 stars — and I just put their rose on the list for this year. Thanks for the tip.