Many remember the worst of times for pink wine: when it was sweet, oxidized, made from terrible hot-climate grapes, and awful.
Even today, people remember the universal badness of rosés made in the 1960s. Most had the delicacy of demolition derby, the vibrancy of a mud pit, and made food taste bad!
There’s a world of difference between that swill and the glorious elixirs called dry rosé being made worldwide in the last two decades and which are dramatic scene-stealers.
Several problems led to the terribleness of pink wine 50 years ago, starting with poor, high-tonnage grapes that were badly handled at harvest time, allowing the juice to oxidize.
Also, fermentation science was still in its infancy and few wineries had the refrigerated tanks needed to keep ferments cold enough to retain fruit.
The first signs of dry rosé’s potential hit shelves in 1972 in a form few people remember today. It was called Sutter Home White Zinfandel, and it was a startlingly delightful dry wine.
After years of underground success, and rapid sales to true wine lovers, Sutter Home’s White Zin hit what I predicted would be pothole. One vintage of White Zin refused to go dry in the fermentation tank, and the result was a sweeter version of the formerly dry wine.
At release, I told Sutter Home co-owner Roger Trinchero, “You’re gonna have a hard time selling this one, it’s so sweet.”
I was wrong. Very wrong.
Soon, I began seeing other wineries making dry pink wines that were more delicate — and captured the amazing fruit that most red wine grapes have but that is lost in the quest to make dark red wines from them.
Some of the earlier “bad era” rosés had been made from grenache grown in hot climates in large volumes, guaranteeing diffuse character. But when grown in smaller tonnages and in more moderate climates, grenache has aromatics that are superb for pink wines, including cranberry, maraschino cherry, and strawberry.
So grenache became one of the first dry rosé wines to excite wine lovers, and most notable were wines from Spain (where it is called garnacha) and the south of France such as in the Provence or the Rhône Valley.
The secret to these wines was the fact that grapes were harvested at low sugar levels (as low as 18 percent and 19 percent!). Grapes for red and white table wines usually are picked at 22 percent to 26 percent.
The best way to make such wines is to ferment the juice cool after a period in which it sat in contact with the grape skins long enough to gain a bit of color.
The technique works well with the lighter-colored pinot noir grape, which can make an extraordinary pink wine, but at a cost. The best rosés made from pinot noir usually are made from the best fruit, and that fruit when made into a red can command prices upwards of $50 a bottle.
The benefits of making pink from such pricey grapes is (a) the winery needs no expensive barrels (the best rosés are not aged in barrels for added flavors), and (b) they can be sold three months after harvest, not 18 months, as are most red pinot noirs.
Even so, when pinot noir grapes are $5,000 a ton, wineries have to charge at least $25 to $30 for the pink wines they make. A few are more expensive than that.
In the 1980s and 1990s, several California wineries began to adopt a European technique in which to make their pink wines. The idea was called saignée (san-yay), which in French means bleeding.
Bleeding refers to the tactic of draining some liquid out of a tank of fermenting red grape juice after just a few hours, after color and grape flavors have been imparted to the bled-off juice.
The idea makes a nice pink wine and helps to concentrate the remaining liquid in the fermenter. So, in theory, it benefits both the red and the rosé.
But saignée often makes clumsy rosés because they are typically made from later-picked, higher-sugar red grapes, which yield higher alcohols.
The majority of today’s rosé buyers want a more fragrant, delicate, and still characterful rosé so they prefer those made from earlier-harvested grapes and have lower alcohols.
It’s not hard to tell them apart. Rosé wines that have alcohols over 14 percent usually were made from grapes harvested for red wine. Even if the winery says the rosé it came from is dry, that sort of wine usually is anything but delicate.
Rosés that are 12 percent alcohol or even less (some from Germany are under 9 percent alcohol!) can be more fragrant of flowers, berries, and citrus and can have better acidity.
But not always. There are exceptions to every rule, and when it comes to wine, generalities such as these can have more exceptions than can be codified.
Young, fresh, vibrant pink wine is a delight any time of the year (people who say it is best in summer are missing some delightful moments) and in typical fashion it is fine to serve a great dry rosé with almost any food.
And though it is usually best consumed young, a dry rosé that is well made from a quality grape often has a second life — as a mature wine! But that’s a story for another day.
Dry rosé today is a legitimate and fast-growing category. Bottle Barn in Santa Rosa at one point months ago did a special floor-stack of rosé wines that reached well over 75 different brands from around the world. Even last week, during the Christmas rush, dry rosé was still selling at Bottle Barn!
Wine of Feb. 14, 2018: 2017 Inman Family Dry Rosé of Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley, “Endless Crush” ($38): One of the world’s finest dry rosé wines over the past decade, the 2016 sold out in days at $35 a bottle. It will be released about Valentine’s Day and will probably sell out even faster. I have not yet evaluated this wine, but it should be worth consumers’ attention. Contact the winery before this wine sells out.