No One Wants Dark Rosé

What was the original offense that led every damned consumer to believe — unswervingly — that all darker-hued rosés are sweet?

It’s like some unwritten law. Among the pallets of rosé that do sell, it’s always the same thing … it’s gotta be pale.

I’ve quizzed customers on details about darker rosé’s Fall from Grace. What exactly was this first ‘sweet, dark’ rosé they found?  ‘I don’t know … I just find that darker rosés are too sweet’ is as far as our conversation gets, before the customer sprints to the register with a pale Provençal rosé.

Was it Sutter Home or Beringer White Zinfandel? Did some grandma pass every one of my customers aged 18-40 a glass of old, warm Beringer White Zin from a bottle sitting on her kitchen counter since before Obama?

The creature puts the Beringer White Zin on its palate.

White Zinfandel alone cannot explain this.

Are we in the same loose linguistic territory as Riesling — you say you object to sweet, but you actually mean fruity? And, if so, decoding your impoverished language further (it’s not your fault;  I know) what exactly was the unpleasant fruity rosé aroma?

I can make a conjecture. To a certain extent, I can relate to objections to rosé. And maybe even the sweetness bullshit.

WHAT DO YOU PEOPLE WANT, ANYWAY?

Maybe people are inferring that light-colored means light on the palate. Meaning: not heavy-handed, and hopefully elegant. If that is indeed what’s going on here, then I understand.

From a wine retailer’s perspective, though, it’s a tragedy.  Refusing to buy a rosé that isn’t pale salmon-colored simply because you’re afraid it’s sweet is tantamount to rosé racism: it forbids any saignée or longer skin-macerated rosés, and only allows for the paler hue of direct press rosés.

Curious about different rosés? Look at this French chart. A saignée, or bleed, simply concentrates a red wine by stripping off the palest 5-15% from the maceration vat, rendering a secondary rosé wine. A saignée rosé is darker, because it extracts more color from the skins during maceration. A direct press — the most popular Provençal method — skips the maceration step, and goes straight to vinification of gently pressed juice in stainless steel.

But whether it was direct press or saignée, it took me a long time to come around to rosé. Most of the time 10 years ago, I couldn’t imagine drinking it.  Too many rosés seemed to greet my nose with a green, vegetal aroma that brought to mind tomato stems or even geranium.  It marred so many direct press rosés that it seemed to be the very definition of rosé to me.

And if not that vegetal character, it’d be one of two other undesirables: either something too aromatic on the nose (think Viognier or Vermentino), or something downright saccharine on the finish.

It felt as if the entire world was hankering for a wine not at all built for my sensory apparatus. The entire planet seemed to be speaking a language I couldn’t fathom.

You must tell me more about these delicious rosé wines of which you speak.

The last thing in the world that I want in a rosé is heaviness. So, getting back to our customers, if there’s an inference here that light-colored means light-bodied, okay: I agree.

It’s entirely possible that France has convinced the world that pale salmon is what rosé should be, given their market dominance.  Although even Provençal producers have had to render their own rosés paler to meet market demand.  Which begs the question: who’s driving, here?  The consumer or the producer?

But if I retrace my own steps, I suppose that, to be fair, the first rosés I enjoyed were typically pale. The rosés that made sense to my palate early on were direct pressed Pinot Noir or pale saignées: first German, then French Pinot Noir rosés. Here were rosés that were as cool, lean, and quiet as a marble statue — often from colder, northern climes.

And it’s true, the Pinot Noir rosés I liked were quite often of a paler color than most saignées.

Then came an affection for some direct press rosés from heavier grapes: Cinsault- and Carignan-heavy rosés from the Languedoc. And some Cabernet Franc rosés from the electric 2015 vintage.

But consider this skin-contact, long macerated Pinot Gris that completely upends this nonsense pale salmon/direct press rule, and proves the whole paradigm is just shit: the 2016 Airlie Bank Pinot Gris Rosé. It’s as dark and refreshing as can be. The Airlie Bank rosé reminds me of a screaming fresh, juicy red delicious apple, with some soft-spoken skin-contact ferment aromas that bring to mind carmelized Vidalia onion. A versatile food partner — doing exactly what a rosé should do.

Maybe I can agree with the legions of customers on at least this. I think that the archetypal flavor profile that nearly everyone craves is a lean, mineral, low-alcohol, refreshing wine.  One that is eminently drinkable and feels as cooling as water.

Less about what a rosé IS and more about all that it ISN’T.  Perhaps this is at the root of the pale salmon color obsession.

Or perhaps this is simply wishful thinking on my part.

A FINAL WORD ON CLASS, MARKETING, AND ‘VALUE’

In trying to make sense of rosé consumer behavior, one thing comes to mind. The unparalleled growth of rosé in the US market over the last 10 years may have a lot to do with a trickle-down transmission of wealth and class … something that wine all too often gets caught up in.

Because wine is a form of cultural currency, it effortlessly transmits ideas of refinement. So, when New Yorkers see people in the upscale dining enclaves of the Hamptons pounding Wolffer rosé, or stupid-assed Whispering Angel, or inexplicably overpriced Domaine Ott, all selling for a fortune on *classy* restaurant wine lists, the air of authority generated by the experience goes a long way in establishing a notion of ‘value’ in the minds of consumers.

But the scathing irony is that …

1) Whispering Angel sucks, I can get you two far better bottles for the price of one, so long as you’re willing to sacrifice the baby angel on the label;

2) I can get you three better rosé bottles for Domaine Ott; and

3) Best-selling Wölffer rosé — particularly their ‘Summer in a Bottle’ — countermands the entire ‘Pale! and dry, dry, DRY!’ paradigm in an inexplicable way: it’s often excessively fruity.

Yes, the wine is dry, but consumers don’t know that, because it’s fruity. Wölffer’s marketing machine sidesteps the inane QC check nearly every other rosé is subjected to. In most vintages, it’s not quite pale enough to meet the Provençal pale salmon standard, plus it incorporates aromatic, fruity-as-hell varietals like Gewurztraminer and Riesling!

Nothing makes sense.

WTF?

At least despicable White Girl Rosé is gone … that makes sense. Well, not quite gone: these retailers still can’t sell their 2015.  And something tells me White Girl rosé isn’t the type of well-made rosé that’s unfurling and gaining poise a vintage out. SAD!

14 comments

  1. Bob Rossi says:

    “stupid-assed Whispering Angel, or inexplicably overpriced Domaine Ott,”
    You left out the dreadful Miraval.

    • Gargantua says:

      It’s true, Brangelina rosé deserves a medal in this menagerie of rosé shame. The consumer is hit with an idiot tax of anywhere from $10-15 for the glam factor.

  2. Peter Morrell says:

    As an ex wine professional, I prefer a dark Rose with my favorite (so far) being a deep hued Argentine Malbec Rose.
    I like to say: “It was a woman who drove me to drink Rose, but I forget why.”

    • Gargantua says:

      I’m marveling at the fact I’ve never had a sales rep offer me a Malbec rosé. Now that I think about it, the horizontal sales opportunity is massive. Thanks for commenting, I’ll prod my reps and try this experiment–it’s easy to latch on to an existing massive sales phenomenon with rosés (Cotes du Rhone for example). Plus I’m curious to see what they’re like.

      • Brett Vanderbrook says:

        I just attended a Mendoza tasting at my local shop last week. We tried a 100% Malbec rosé from Susana Balbo. Around $12 a bottle, if I recall, so definitely entry level. It was a darker shade of pink, and smelled and tasted of strawberries. In my notes I wrote “strawberry Kool-Aid, but, like, not fake” if that makes sense.

        • Gargantua says:

          Ha! Yes, that makes perfect sense. Count me among those who believe it’s time to stop apologizing for using such descriptors to capture aromas. Plus, I’m particulary partial to aromatic descriptors that leverage nostalgia (who among us doesn’t have a deeply embossed sense memory of the smell that wafts up from empty Kool Aid packets’ dust?) At these tastings where you need a third hand to hold a paper, pen, and glass, and are constantly pirouetting around people who need to use the spit bucket, it’s amazing anyone can record any thought whatsoever.

          • Brett Vanderbrook says:

            That’s why I really enjoy tastings at my local shop, Brooklyn Wine Exchange. They bring in great small producers for these tastings (or sometimes distributors) but they never feel snooty or pretentious. They give you paper and pen to take notes if you please, but it’s at your own discretion.

            I’ve gone back and forth about wine descriptions. On one hand, they can be useful when you have little to go on beyond a label. On the other, the power of suggestion can color your perception before you’ve been given a chance to formulate your own opinion. If you hear “notes of plum and raspberry with a hint of black pepper” before putting the glass to your lips, you’re bound to be LOOKING for plum and raspberry with a hint of black pepper. But I agree; evocative personal tasting notes are often the best tasting notes.

            On the other end of the spectrum, you have old school guys like Serge Hochar of Chateau Mussar. When he presented his incredible wines at Brooklyn Wine Exchange, anytime someone would try to describe his wine in academic terms, he would wave his hand or shake his head and implore us to tell him how the wine made us FEEL.

          • Gargantua says:

            That’s funny you mention BWE–that’s a great shop a few blocks from my house. I met Serge Hochar at a Broadbent tasting where we sampled a vertical of his wines. They’re so great, but they’re so challenging to sell in any meaningful quantity! But I suppose that’s okay, if at the end of the day the folks you send off with the wines are happy with them. Regarding the value of tasting descriptions–please see this article from a while back: http://gargantuanwine.com/2014/09/199/
            It’s a long read, but hits a lot of important points I think. And I agree with your remark on the process of “contamination”—the suggestive power of aromatic descriptions is strong, but needn’t rule out their use!

  3. You don’t mention Tavel, “France’s 1st Rosé.” How those lovely rosés, once revered around the globe, fell out of favor so quickly is an interesting story. I was just in Tavel where I tasted some marvelous wines, sadly, not widely available here in the States (because, sadly, they are no longer popular). The prices are very appealing, too. That being said, I am a rabid fan of those pale rosés that hail from Provence and stole the show in the rosé part of Decanter’s World Wine Competition (results now out). I confess I write a blog about wine and winemakers from Provence, including the Southern Rhone, so perhaps I am a wee bit biased!

    • Gargantua says:

      Such a funny coincidence: a couple days ago, I had my second customer ever — clearly a WSET student — come in *asking* for Lafond Roc Epine Tavel rosé bottles. When you have these customers, you sigh, take in the moment, and then treat them properly: like royalty. That’s what open-minded, passionate customers are for retailers!

      • Bob Rossi says:

        Although I know it’s available in America, I’m not sure I’ve seen the Lafond Roc Epine rose here (in Maine), or for that matter, in Massachusetts, where I often shop. I visited the producer many years ago, and they made some very nice wines at fair prices. As for Tavel in general, I’d be interested in hearing why Tavel fell out of favor. One of my fondest memories of Tavel was arriving in Marseilles from the US, getting a car, and heading towards the house we were renting. Our first stop was the village of Tavel, and there was a Maison du Vin where one could taste pretty much any Tavels.

  4. LegsArms says:

    The sad fate of any wine fad is that the fashionable names become overproduced, though they may start out well.
    Wolffer rose was great before people knew about it, before it became the “gatorade of the hamptons”… then they overextended production, started blending in chardonnay, and made dreadful riesling-gewurtzy summer in a bottle in its best-selling market blanket.
    I once worked there, and I currently work at a wine shop in the area. I see the whispering angel fly out of the fridge all day, especially on a sunny weekend. It’s not the worst wine ever, but its over-produced and over-priced. Rouet or Peyrassol are a way better value for an arguably better wine of the same style. I also try to dispel the misconception that darker roses are sweet. People can look to Italian and Spanish roses, Portugese, Austrian, and there are Long Island straight merlot and even pinot noir roses are fresh and juicy, but fully dry.
    But…
    Less color does signifiy less tannins.
    Light, clean roses are absolutely in.
    You admit that your first roses were like that.
    A lot of people are starting on wine as the current rose trend is in play.
    Provence . . .
    Damn that sounds classy.
    Whispering angel,
    Rose is popular right now, and the market is going to move. What’s next?
    Ultimately rose is an important, interesting, and possibly under-explored part of winemaking.
    Hopefully those that put back these quick roses right now will keep exploring and come to appreciate some fleshier and more structured styles.
    Using red grapes to make a light wine to be drunk cold; that is an idea that is laced through the history of winemaking. With the current trend, there may be a lot of promise in reviving that concept in interesting ways. We’ve seen individual producers suddenly turn markets in rose. Anyone can do it. I’ll say that.

    • Gargantua says:

      I think faced with the reality of climate change, rosé is here to stay. It’s just going to get hotter, for longer, and I really believe winemakers would do well to increase their production of rosé to ride the wave of profits. Sorry I’m so late to reply! For some reason I wasn’t notified of your comment.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *