Different Shades of Rosé: In Search of Definitions


I recently took a bottle of rosé to share with a group of friends sitting outdoors on a warm spring day. I poured everyone a glass of the chilled wine. To my surprise the first comment I received was “I thought all rosés were sweet!” The second was “I never liked white Zinfandel!”

This particular wine was dry and made from Pinot Gris. But it points up the recurring problem with a term that is widely used and even more widely misunderstood, because there is no meaningful definition of a rosé wine.

Some are sweet; most these days are dry. Calling any wine a rosé is not entirely a matter of color – the best you can say is that any rosé should be less dark than a full-bodied red such as Merlot. Being in or out as a rosé has nothing to do with the choice of grape. In just the past week I’ve had rosés made from Barbera, Cabernet Franc, Grenache, Malbec, Nebbiolo, Pinot Noir, Tempranillo, Viognier and various blends.

One of the top wines I tasted was technically an orange wine. Does that disqualify it as being a rosé? There were also versions of pet-nat and piquette wines labeled as rosés. And it’s not unusual to find rosés that are nothing more than white wines with a little red wine blended in for color.

What does matter is no different than any other wine – does the rosé in your glass make for a pleasurable experience? Does it match up well with the weather, the company, the food? Often light in alcohol but sometimes big in flavor, mostly unpretentious but occasionally quite sophisticated, rosés are versatile accompaniments to salty snacks, cured meats, dips and cheeses, as well as classic picnic foods such as fried chicken.

Still, not all rosés are created equal, and as I noted there are no rules or regulations regarding them. If you’re still trying to figure out what you like and what you don’t, ask yourself a few simple questions. Sweet or dry? Under 13% or over 13% alcohol (it’s always listed on the label). Any particular grape or grapes that you have strong feelings about? What about older bottles? Most current releases will be from 2023, but it’s not hard to find 2022s and even older ones.

I can’t tell you what to like, but I can tell you what I like. Below are some excellent examples in a wide variety of styles, but first, an overview.

My favorite single variety rosés are made from Pinot Noir. The grape is naturally light and elegant. I became enamored of the style many years ago on a visit to Sancerre, where I first discovered Sancerre rosé, long before I’d had an Oregon version. After that I’d choose Grenache, which makes for an energetic, lively style without the high alcohol. It’s also a key component in GSM rosés where it’s blended with Syrah and Mourvèdre. Most recently I’ve found winemakers turning toward Italian varieties such as Barbera and Sangiovese to make their rosés, at least in part because those grapes don’t always ripen properly to make a full-on red.

A deeper color does not always mean you’re getting a bigger or better or more flavorful rosé. Some of the best bottles are quite pale, but they are complex, layered and lingering. These are for me among the most interesting rosés; remember that color comes from skins, and skins have tannins, and tannins are for red wines, not for rosés. My main gripe against rosés made from Bordeaux grapes is exactly that – too tannic.

Here are recommendations from recent tastings, with links for direct purchase.

Chehalem 2023 Pinot Noir Rosé

Highly recommended. The full review is posted with the rest of the Chehalem reviews under “Best Tastings of the Week”

Coyote Canyon 2023 Life is Rosé

I’m seeing more Barbera-based wines from Washington, and it’s a good choice for rosé, as shown here. A pale copper, fruity but dry, this has heart-of-the-plate rosé flavors of strawberries and pie cherries, with tart, lemony acids keeping flavors fresh and lively. 12.9%; $21 (Horse Heaven Hills) 91/100

Eternal 2022 ‘Summer’ Skin Contact Rosé

Here’s a style you’ve probably never seen. It’s an orange wine from Viognier grapes co-fermented on the skins with just 1% Cabernet Franc. Winemaker Brad Binko believes it’s the first one ever made. Whether or not, this is a gorgeous wine – a coppery sunset color, with deep, almost creamy flavors of tangerine sherbet. The tannins bring highlights of breakfast tea and orange crush, and the depth and finish are impressive. It’s quite dry and packed with flavor. A marvelous and unique wine. 24 cases; 14.1%; $34 (Yakima Valley) 92/100

Eternal 2023 ‘Beauty’ Cabernet Franc Rosé

A barrel-fermented rosé with plenty of toasty highlights around light strawberry fruit with a touch of melon. A deep straw color, it brings surprising depth of flavor at its very low alcohol. Finished bone dry with lingering hints of buttered toast. 75 cases; 11.9%; $29 (Wahluke Slope) 91/100

Long Walk Vineyard 2023 Rosé

Estate grown Cinsault, Grenache and Mourvèdre are in the blend. It’s got a tongue-tickling minerality, light citrus and strawberry fruit, and pleasing freshness. 391 cases; 12.7%; $23 (Rogue Valley) 90/100

Mendivia 2023 Oso Rosado

This is all Tempranillo source from the Rock Steady vineyard on the Washington side of the Columbia Gorge AVA. Clean, unadorned and just about perfect for a springtime rosé, it tastes of strawberries backed with a hint of gravel, lively and pleasantly refreshing. 108 cases; 13.5%; $23 (Oregon) 91/100

Peter William 2023 Grenache Rosé

Don’t let the pale color fool you; this distinctive wine has penetrating spice, notably a dusting of cinnamon, and deeply flavorful core fruit. It’s compact and intriguing, with a lot to unpack – citrus zest, cherries, spices, hints of barrel toast and sandalwood. 13.4%; $24 (Rogue Valley) 92/100

Phelps Creek 2023 Fleur de Roy Rosé of Pinot Noir

A fragrant, elegant wine that drinks much lighter than its listed alcohol. This is sourced from estate grown Pinot Noir at the winery just outside of Hood River. French-born winemaker Alexandrine Roy gets a well-deserved shout-out on the label. This truly is springtime in a bottle – a masterful combination of delicacy and depth, with subtle flavors of dried flowers and stone fruits adorned with citrus rind. 256 cases; 13.9%; $28 (Columbia Gorge) 92/100

Stoller 2023 Pinot Noir Rosé

A pale, pretty copper hue, this has a mix of strawberry, raspberry, cherry and juicy citrus flavors across the palate, gathering strength as it sails into a clean, lingering finish. It speaks to the reasons I gravitate toward rosés from the most recent vintage. I’m a fruit guy. Yes, there are some really excellent rosés that benefit from an extra year in bottle, but none that have the quality of just picked fruit and clean, juicy acids. 12.5%; $28 (Willamette Valley) 91/100

Tasting Coming Up

Pinot in the City

Seattle Tasting – May 8th, hosted by the Willamette Valley Wineries Association. This event will bring nearly 60 Willamette Valley winemakers to town for a one-day event at Block41 

Paul Gregutt
Paul Gregutt
Paul Gregutt has been covering the wines and wineries of the Pacific Northwest since the mid-1980s. From 2002 to 2012 he wrote a weekly wine column for the Seattle Times and authored two critically-acclaimed editions of ‘Washington Wines & Wineries – The Essential Guide’ (UC Berkeley Press). He served as the Northwest editor for Wine Enthusiast magazine from 1998 until 2022. Early on he was an original staff member of both the Seattle Weekly and KZAM-FM. He lives with his wife Karen and his rescue dog Cookie in Waitsburg (pop. 1204), a farm community about 20 miles NE of Walla Walla. When not tasting and writing about wine he writes songs, plays guitar and sings in his band the DavePaul5 (davepaul5.com) Follow his writing at PaulG on Wine, paulgregutt.substack.com, and in the Waitsburg Times.


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