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The Reluctant Sommelier: On Summer Water and Other Things

by Nina Sventitsky

The week of April 23rd began with aromas of ripe strawberries, hues of onionskin, pale salmon, and deep ruby, all captured in bottles of chilled zesty freshness. For me, rosé season kicked off that week and I fully expect it to last through Thanksgiving.

It started out on a super-bright, warm Monday in Los Angeles. As a first-time ‘blind’ volunteer panelist for a well-known wine publication, I would be working through 33 wines, including 16 rosés, still and sparkling. Coming up later that week, I’d be tasting through 6 rosé wines from the Lodi region of California with my own consumer panel.

Following, notes on rosé wines in general, old vine rosé, playing at professional wine reviewing.  Cheers!

The Professional Blind Tasting

I sat with another colleague, both of us across from one of the most important wine journalists and reviewers in the country. Row after row of sharpie-numbered wine glasses appeared in front of us all morning in sets.  Our mission? To winnow out wines with faults and flaws and vote yea or nay on what should be reviewed later that week.  That morning the subjects were Rosés and Rieslings from around the country.  Clear winners were a Finger Lakes rosé of Cabernet Franc, a Pinot Noir rosé from Willamette Valley’s Dundee Hills, and Seneca Lake/Finger Lakes Rieslings, dry, semi-sweet and late harvest.  In all, there was a great balance of fruit and acid; for the white wines the intense fruit aromas of white cherries, peaches, pear, lychee balanced by vibrant acids and stone minerality; for the rosés bursts of bush berries and floral (blue and violet). Purchase the June issue ofWine & Spiritsmagazine for what I can tell you will be excellent guidance on what to buy now in these categories. Buy at retail, call the winery, anything – these wines showed that well. The Rieslings (dry and not) could be cellared for 5 years, but don’t hesitate to drink now.

Rosé Notes

Rosé is fun, pretty and it can turn the most ardent red wine drinker into a devotee given a few days of 90+ degree-days.  While rosé is most traditionally associated with the Provence region of France (and famously the AOCs of Bandol and Tavel) these days most global wine regions produce enough pink wine that a glut is forecast for 2018.  On the West Coast, we don’t have to rely on imported pink wines because every domestic wine brand seems to have a rosé associated with it. In the past decade, rosé styles have gone dry enough to lure more wine drinkers to the category.  The choices are within reach to all. Literally, the retail end aisle pink wine case stacks are set up so you can simply slow the cart down to 5 mph and grab a few bottles on your way to the register. Pink has been a boon to the industry for sure; I don’t see it abating, because it seems to have broader appeal than white wine.

You already know that rosé is not a grape; it’s a wine style.  It is generally made from red/black grapes that are gently pressed after a very brief maceration on the skins (hours) or it’s grape juice that’s ‘bled off’ of just pressed juice destined for premium red wine production.  There is a third related method, in which white and red grapes go in to the tank together for pressing and fermentation. Maceration, the grape varieties and method determine the colors and aromatic intensity. Grape variety determines the structure too – tannins and acids. Alcohol comes from the region’s climate and weather, and from the variety. Cooler climates retain acids well, and keep alcohol down. Don’t buy rosé that just says it’s from California, France or Italy. Splurge that extra buck and go for a wine region on the label.

Here is my rule of thumb when purchasing:

  • Alcohol levels. The refreshment aspect of rosé disappears with 14% abv and above. You should be able to drink 2 glasses of rosé in 98-degree heat without getting snockered. Try Austrian, German, northern Italian, Oregon, Finger Lakes rosés, and California rosés with 13.5% abv.
  • Grape variety. Fruity, savory, mineral, or tannic wines will still show the same character in their lighter forms. If you don’t like Pinot Noir red wine, don’t buy it as a rosé. If you love Cab Sauv, you’ll be able to find the rosé version. French rosé that we find here is generally made from the Rhône varieties grown around the Mediterranean (Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Cinsault, Carignane, etc.) You can also find a California version of these wines – made from our Central Coast vineyards. Italian rosatos always seem to be savory, great food pairing wines, and are made from whatever is grown in the region. Spanish rosé is often Grenache or Tempranillo, and will be moderate in alcohol if from Rioja.  Portuguese rosés are really interesting and we are getting more of them here each year, try those.
  • Sugar levels. It is fairly impossible to determine from the color if the wine will have more fruitiness and sweetness than you can bear. Ditto the label, unless the alcohol level is lower than 11%. You’ll have to try it or buy from a reputable retailer.
  • To ice cube or not to ice cube. Yes. It’s too damned hot to fuss over protocol.
  • $40 for a rosé that has not seen a touch of oak and is not meant to age? Really? $25 is my limit. Those people from Domaine Ott are laughing all the way to the bank. (Stupid Americans! Paying top dollar for our ‘Summer Water’!)

The rosé category is so big right now – it’s difficult for me to simply recommend a couple of them to snag for the weekend. Try my guidelines above, and explore. And, when you do find one or two that you like, my advice is to buy a few cases now. Glut or dearth of pink wine, as we get closer to September these wines will be replaced at retail by more Fall reds so the time is now.

 Rosés from Lodi, California

A shipment of six rosés from the Lodi, California wine region arrived that same lucky week for review. Lodi is a region most associated with old vine Zinfandel, home to the greatest number of these old vines in the world. The Lodi region is actually home to old vine everything of German, Austrian, Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese and other origins. Many of these cuttings were ‘suitcase vines’ brought by the original gold diggers of 1849 and the generations that immediately followed.  The region now employs its own green initiative called Lodi Rules – the first sustainable protocol in California. Many vineyards and wineries follow this system.

After joining a group of wine writers from LA last September for an intense trade tour of the region, I was so impressed that I wanted to tell all about this undiscovered but nicely-set-up-for-wine-tourism place. On second thought, forget about that. Leave the expanse of rolling hills, stunning wineries, farm-to-table restaurants and super-charming old town to us Californians. (Fly in to San Francisco, Oakland or Sacramento, find out more here from the Lodi people)

I invited a group of friends to taste with me – no professional wine tasters here – since rosé in my opinion should be fun and shared with friends.  In the group, a diehard big tannin lover, a sauvignon blanc devotee, a sparkling wine lover, and a Pinot Noir nut. And me – as long as it’s balanced and works with my mood for the day and the food I’m eating (savory, salty) I’m good.

What we tasted from Lodi and liked:

  • Oak Farm Vineyards Grenache Rosé 2017. Best all around expression of fruit, moderately intense apricot and strawberry. Balanced acid/tannin/alcohol. The winery looks like a private Napa Valley estate house – barn house chic with beautiful gardens and trees. Drink as aperitif, and with grilled fish and tapas.
  • Scotto Family Cellars Sangiovese Rosé 2017.  Savory aromas of tomato vine, sun-dried tomato on the palate (yes) and some tannin for backbone. I would like to try this wine on a picnic with turkey jerky or a Slim Jim. Summer pasta-red sauce-with-fresh-mozzarella wine too.
  • Borra Vineyards Markus Zeal Syrah and Carignane Rosé 2016. A true French-style rosé with subtle aromas and a medium finish. Even better the next day. I would like this wine with Braesola and other salumi meat board with pickled veg.
  • m2 Wines Carignane Rosé 2017. Bright, pretty, with medium structure. This winery looks like a giant railroad car from the outside, and huge art installation on the inside.  It reminded me of Rioja Spain, with it’s old vines and uber-modern winery architecture. Best with hard cheeses, salumi.
  • Onesta Cinsault Rosé 2015 (Bechtold Vineyard). A delicate, balanced rosé made from 100+ year old vineyard. We liked this on it’s own.
  • d’Art Barbera Rosé 2017. Pale onionskin color, more floral than fruity. Seafood salad wine!

The best way to buy these wines is direct from the wineries. Prices around $20 to $25 per bottle.

As to the cases of pink wines in stores right now, message me with your comments, recommendations and favorites; I’m still tasting my way through them all.

** The Reluctant Sommelier is not actually a working sommelier. She has the certificate, which has served her well, but knows some things are best left to the actual professionals – like making lobster bisque, and developing a restaurant wine list.

1 Comment on The Reluctant Sommelier: On Summer Water and Other Things

  1. Being a red wine drinker, meaning not one to go with either white nor a rose’, the article makes me want to try these… maybe I can be changed? Kudos to Nina for her expertise and suggestions.

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