Pink, but not sweet

Despite misplaced stigma, rosé wines are finally on the rise in America

Sangiovese rosé from Chico’s Bertagna Son Kissed Vineyards.

Sangiovese rosé from Chico’s Bertagna Son Kissed Vineyards.

Photo By jennifer leonard

When a guest comes for dinner, one of the first questions asked may be, “White or red?” But we rarely offer pink.

Rosé wines have been a category overlooked in America for years. Though nearly always popular in Europe as a summertime hot-day refreshment, wine drinkers in the United States have kept a distance from this misunderstood style of wine, which is usually bone-dry (not sweet, as often expected by consumers familiar with syrupy white zinfandels) and can be just as intellectually stimulating as the most complex and well-made reds and whites.

At one time, even wine professionals barely thought twice about rosés. Fifteen years ago, local winemaker Phil LaRocca was making a sweet white zinfandel—pink, though technically not a classic rosé—but he had not made a dry rosé.

Then he went to Italy, to explore the land of his roots, and there—in the country of big reds like sangiovese, primitivo and barbera—the American made a surprising discovery.

“They drank rosé at lunch,” said LaRocca, who owns and operates LaRocca Vineyards in Forest Ranch. LaRocca had always known Europeans were midday drinkers, but was intrigued that Italians liked pink wine.

Inspired, LaRocca began making a dry rosé of his own in the years after he returned, and he was none too early. The wine—dry, rosy-hued, and made with zinfandel grapes most years (the current release is a cabernet sauvignon)—has sold well, for pink wines have caught on among the American wine-drinking cognoscenti.

At Creekside Cellars (250 Vallombrosa Ave.), owner Brenda McLaughlin has seen the upward trend. She says customers at the shop and tasting bar now ask specifically for rosés. This almost never happened a decade and more ago, she says—“unless they had just returned from the South of France.” Each week, McLaughlin features a different rosé in the tasting room’s line-up, and at all times about a half-dozen can be found on the menu.

Berton Bertagna, who owns and operates Bertagna Son Kissed Vineyards just south of Chico, observed the rising interest in rosés and added one made with sangiovese grapes to his repertoire two years ago. He says interest in the style appears to be up, but concedes that his pink sangiovese is a tough sell. Frequently, he must convince his customers that the wine is not sweet before they’ll even have a taste.

“A lot of people see a pink wine, and they think it’s going to be sweet,” Bertagna said. “Only when I say, ‘No, this is dry and crisp, a lot like a white wine’ will they try it.”

Perhaps it’s inevitable that the odds would be stacked against a wine colored like cotton candy. Resembling white zinfandel hasn’t helped rosés, either. While white zins are still the fourth most popular wine in America (after chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and merlot), they are also soda-sweet and reviled by most of the wine-drinking elite and not-quite-elite.

“Until the last few years, pretty much the only pink wines the public had access to were sweet,” Bertagna said. “Now, you’ll see a handful [of rosés] where there used to be one, but a lot of people assume they’re all sweet.”

Thus, white zins have had a dampening effect on dry pink wines—in America, anyway. In Europe, though, this process never occurred, and rosés have been enjoyed there for at least 2,000 years, since the style first appeared in the scrubby oak-and-olive hills of southern France.

While Americans have been reluctant, they are finally drinking pink. In 2012, rosé exports to the United States from the French region of Provence jumped by 41 percent, while American consumption of imported rosé in general climbed by 28 percent.

The traditional French rosé is dry and crisp, with aromatic suggestions of strawberry, watermelon and cream. For those wanting to buy local, many California rosés capture this style, including Clos LaChance’s estate rosé, made mostly of grenache grapes, the dry rosé of Clarksburg Wine Company in the Sacramento Delta, and the rosés of LaRocca and Bertagna, both of which wineries have adhered to French styles using alternative choices of grapes.

For a slightly different take, Mumm Napa has infused Champagne-style bubbles into pink wine for their Brut rosé, while the newly launched Sequin Wines in Manteca has released a faintly effervescent rosé intended, in part, for use in cocktails.