Ken Robertson

You’ve come a long way, Rosé

I fell in love with dry rosé wine back in 1975 during a visit to Concannon Winery in the Livermore Valley during an impromptu tour with my brother, who lived in nearby Dublin, Calif., at the time.

The wine was a Zinfandel rosé and was close to bone dry, as I recall, and definitely not to be confused with the cloyingly sweet “pink zin” and “white zin” that was soon to flood onto the scene, a product made in giant vats of Olympic swimming pool proportions.

A few years later, my wife and I found a few bottles more of the Concannon, this time in a Seattle-area shop. But the world of wine in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the Northwest wine industry was re-emerging from the decades-long torpor of Prohibition and the attendant destruction of vineyards, was focused elsewhere. Oak-aged Chardonnay had begun its reign as the favored white wine and Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot were leading the Northwest into a new red wine era.

Rosé was largely ignored, with an occasional pink, often off-dry or sweet version popping up, usually made from Pinot Noir in Oregon or occasionally from Gamay Beaujolais grapes. Preston Wine Cellars of Pasco made a rather sweet version of the latter that lasted for several vintages.

I recall a blind tasting one of my wine groups conducted, with a salmon bake to follow, at which one grape grower’s spouse was firmly convinced that one of the half-dozen pink wines — scrounged up with considerable effort across Washington and Oregon — had to be a rhubarb wine. It wasn’t, but the anecdote reveals the sad state of rosé in the Northwest in the early 1980s.

Twenty years later, dry rosé began to emerge in the Northwest. Rob Griffin at Barnard Griffin Winery in Richland, Wash., started making his Rosé of Sangiovese in 2002, a year after he had made a red Sangiovese and been disappointed with the result. Drawing on grapes from his longtime grape-growing friend, Maury Balcom, Griffin made 200 cases of rosé that first year, and it rapidly sold out.

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By 2005, he and Balcom had the grape-growing elements dialed in — early picked grapes with more acidity and less sugar, which means lower alcohol from fermentation, and his Rosé of Sangiovese began an astounding run of medals and awards.

The result has been 11 gold medals over the past 12 years at the San Francisco Chronicle judging — the nation’s largest wine judging event. The San Francisco awards also include four sweepstakes and five times best of class, plus an array of medals in many other competitions, including several Platinum awards in Wine Press Northwest magazine’s annual judging of the Northwest’s finest wines.

Others might argue that many factors combined to make rosé more popular in the Pacific Northwest and the nation about 15 years ago. But it’s clear that since the Barnard Griffin began to win with regularity, the number of dry and slightly sweet rosés being made has blossomed.

For the tasting conducted as part of this edition of Wine Press Northwest, judges evaluated 122 different Northwest examples. When I think back to that early 1980s blind tasting, for which it was hard to find a half-dozen Northwest wines, today’s output of rosé is amazing. The consumer can find 10 or 12 rosés in a single visit to a wine shop or grocery store.

In addition to the astounding quantity of rosé available in 2017, the quality has improved markedly. The two panels of judges, one of which I moderated, rated eight of these 122 rosés as double golds and another 22 as worthy of gold medals.

For the consumer, that’s doubly good news because you can buy that quality for very wallet-friendly prices. That award-winning Barnard Griffin from 2016 recently was on sale for about $10 at my local grocer. Even its full price is only $14. Many others sell for similar prices. And it’s hard to pay more than $25 for any Northwest rosé.

Wine words: Vertical tasting and blending

No, this isn’t a geometry lesson. When applied to wine, vertical is about place and time. To learn something about a winery’s consistency over several years, a vertical tasting of vintages of a particular wine is helpful.

Over the years, I’ve attended many such tastings that featured just one winery. Among the most memorable was a six-year vertical tasting of Chateau Ste. Michelle Cabernet Sauvignons that began with 1975 and concluded with 1981. It did not include 1979, a limited production wine made after a bitterly cold winter that killed most of the state’s Cabernet vines and which was not released until several years later.

That tasting proved a couple things to me: Ste. Michelle Cabernet could be consistent, since the 1975 and 1977 both had won several regional awards. And that sometimes aging a wine is well worth it. The 1976 was the tasting group’s favorite, picked over the two gold medal winners.

It was from a cooler year than its bigger, bolder siblings made the year before and the year after, and had matured into a complex, appealing wine with food while the ’75 and ’77 had begun to show some age.

Vertical blending, when done well, can combine several vintages of wine from select vineyards, of perhaps a specific American Viticultural Area (AVA) to display how that AVA influences the character of the wine. The most recent example I’ve encountered came from Kiona Vineyards and Winery and was made from the 2012, 2013 and 2014 vintages in a bottling known as Pioneer Red.

The label sports a 1980s vintage photo of the winery founders, John Williams and Jim Holmes, at the winery site. The name is especially suitable, since the two of them planted the first grape vines on Red Mountain back in 1975.

J.J. Williams, the grandson of the founder, believes the result displays over several years of grape growing the “sense of place” that Red Mountain imparts to the grapes grown there. Vertical blending mitigates the individual impact of a single year and can emphasize the site’s overall character. This one definitely shows the influence of Red Mountain’s signature deep fruit and glacial soils.

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