Ken Robertson

Rosé – the wine of summer

If there’s a red wine grape that can’t be made into a darn good rosé for summer sipping, it seems likely a Northwest winemaker may find it first.

Our region’s wineries annually seem to find new varietals well suited to satisfy our ever-growing appetite for pink wines to pair with cheeses, cured meats, Mediterranean olives and an array of other treats perfect for the patio or deck.

This edition’s evaluation of 99 Northwest rosés offers abundant proof of that. Just about a decade back, the Northwest’s best rosés were rather scarce and most likely to be made from Sangiovese or Pinot Noir, but as demand regularly began to outstrip supply, winemakers turned to other grapes.

A few years back, to keep Kiona Vineyards tasting room stocked with pink wine, the Williams family, who pioneered the planting of wine grapes in what’s now known as the Red Mountain AVA, made three — from Sangiovese, Mourvèdre and Syrah — to meet the demands of their summer sippers. Two of them had sold out by summer’s end.

At Barnard Griffin Winery in Richland, which is often credited with leading Washington’s rosé resurgence, Rob Griffin’s first, rather small experimental vintage of Rosé of Sangiovese was made because Sangiovese grapes from his good friend Maury Balcom’s vineyard weren’t making particularly fine red wine.

The pretty and delicious rosé that replaced it sold out within weeks, well before summer’s end.

The next year, Griffin made more, which also sold out rapidly. He has since built that rosé into the largest seller at his winery, reaching 25% of total sales. Such stories have made it almost mandatory for Northwest wineries to add high-quality rosé to their wine lists.

Rosé’s surging popularity has since created a fascinating array of pink wines made from almost every red wine grape grown in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and British Columbia. In addition to Sangiovese and Pinot Noir, search hard enough, and you’ll find examples made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Malbec, all grapes originally grown in Bordeaux.

Oregon has led the way with Rosé of Pinot Noir, but the rest of the Northwest followed its example.

I’ve also tasted Northwest rosés made from several other wine grapes native to Burgundy, including Pinot Gris, Pinot Meunier and Gamay.

The Rhône region of France has contributed grapes for rosés made from Syrah, Grenache, Counoise, Cinsaut and Petite Sirah. Joining them from Italy are Dolcetto, Barbera, Nebbiolo and Zinfandel, although Zin also is claimed by Croatia-Bosnia-Herzegovina. Vines of Spanish origin have contributed Garnacha (another name for Grenache), Tempranillo and Mataro (another name for Mourvèdre.)

The Lemberger grape, originally from Austria and a favorite of famed wine researcher Dr. Walter Clore, also makes a delightful rosé.

Even Touriga Naçional, the Portuguese grape usually found in Port wines, has been made into a dry rosé here.

Germany is the source for the grapes of a Früburgunder rosé, although it’s technically a French grape, Pinot Noir Précoce, a dark, blue-skinned mutation of Pinot Noir.

The U.S. also gets credit for at least one of the Spring Edition’s rosés, Frontenac, which is a hybrid grape created by researchers at the University of Minnesota seeking a cold-hardy grape.

And it’s a sure bet there are at least a few more red varieties being made into rosé that most of us haven’t encountered. That’s all the more reason to explore Northwest wineries and wine shops.

You’re sure to encounter an array of colors, starting with wines that display just a shimmer of pink color, then moving from bright bubble gum pink to as red as a raspberry. A few likely will stray off into hues of bronze or pale orange.

If you have friends who still insist they don’t drink rosé, it’s time to introduce them to the Northwest’s versions, which can range from bracingly spare to slightly sweet, and please almost any palate. Most will sport the region’s signature racy acidity in a package that’s our quasi-official wine of summer — our glorious rosé.

Wine word: Pyrazines

Many think of pyrazines as a problem in wine, but they are among “the most important groups of aromatic compounds found in grapes,” according to The Sotheby’s Wine Encylopedia.

How can they be viewed as a problem, but “most important?” Well, they typically call to mind vegetative aromas such as bell peppers, green peas and even asparagus and are an indication that overwatered grape vines produced a large, leafy canopy that shielded the grapes from the sun and its warmth too much, producing a less than perfectly ripe crop.

Pyrazines tend to drop out as grapes ripen, thus properly ripened clusters of grapes produce wines with little or no evident “green” character.

That said, pyrazines do have their place. They are critical to a well-made Sauvignon Blanc — think gooseberry/grassy — which help make it one of the most aromatic of wine grapes.

And fine Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon or Carménère depends for its character on a perfect balance of ripeness that maintains a small degree of “green” but not too much.

When you smell the leafy, earthy and aromatic character associated with all three — in varying amounts, of course — it’s also a reminder that Cab Franc is the parent of both Carménère and Cab Sauv.

Ken Robertson, the retired editor of the Tri-City Herald, has been sipping Northwest wines and writing about them since 1976.

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