Pink wines aren’t just for warm weather, though that’s when they are most at home. Bob Fila KRT
Pink wines aren’t just for warm weather, though that’s when they are most at home. Bob Fila KRT

Mike Dunne on Wine

What's new, good and vintage from California vineyards

Dunne on Wine

Attracting attention, pink wines aren’t just for summer as this list proves

By Mike Dunne

Special to The Bee

June 06, 2017 08:00 AM

To keep current your license as a wine writer you are obligated to write about pink wines each June. That’s unfair to pink – also called blush – wines, rosé wines and even white wines, as in white zinfandel, white merlot and the like.

It’s unfair because pink wines aren’t just for warm weather, though that’s when they are most at home. Increasingly, pink wines are finding a place at the table year round. Evidence of that is their booming sales, up 26 percent over the past year, according to industry sources.

Granted, pink wines account for just 2 percent of the American wine market, but the recent gain is drawing attention because sales are especially strong in the $15-to-$25 niche, whereas blush wines customarily have been much cheaper.

The rising popularity of pink wine is resulting in a bunch of new players in the market. Some of them may make very fine pink wine, but recent tastings have persuaded me that if you are new to pink wine and are unsure of what to buy, start with producers who have been at it awhile. Here are a few to help get you ready for summer:

• Bonny Doon Vineyard 2016 Central Coast Vin Gris de Cigare ($18): Pink wines, even with French names, are meant to revitalize and comfort by their simple directness. Each vintage, Randall Grahm’s Vin Gris de Cigare elevates the genre with its complicated yet refreshing fruit (strawberries, pomegranates), sharp edges, spice and astonishing persistence. Not a pink to gulp, but to savor. It’s based largely on grenache and grenache blanc.

• Holly’s Hill Vineyards 2016 El Dorado Grenache-Cinsaut Rose ($22): More deeply colored, more forward in expression and more substantial in build than pink wines generally, the Holly’s Hill is swashbuckling and complex, its components – 55 percent grenache, 45 percent cinsaut – fitting together with a natural snugness.

• Pedroncelli 2016 Dry Creek Valley Dry Rose of Zinfandel ($15): Though the 2016 strikes me as leaner than earlier vintages, it will please its many fans with its adroit suggestions of strawberries and cherries, its ticklish spice and its note of minerality.

• Wither Hills 2016 Marlborough Rose of Pinot Noir ($14): From New Zealand’s Wairau Valley, the Wither Hills is actually a relatively new pink for me. It’s as dark as some regular bottlings of pinot noir, but hews to the bouncy and refreshing goal of the genre with an exceptionally inviting perfume, an abidingly clean fruitiness, a touch of spice and an exceptionally long finish.

• Chronic Cellars 2016 Paso Robles Pink Pedals ($15): Chronic Cellars also is somewhat new to the California wine scene – brothers Jake and Josh Beckett released their first wines under the brand only in 2008 – but their artful blending and modern marketing have helped them develop an enthusiastic following. A year ago I fell for their 2015 Pink Pedals for its high aromatics and lilting sweetness, and the 2016 was cast from the same mold. A blend of 89 percent grenache and 11 percent syrah, it strikes the palate with suggestions of both strawberry and watermelon.

• Alexander Valley Vineyards 2016 Sonoma County Dry Rose of Sangiovese ($16): Chosen best pink wine last month at Dan Berger’s International Wine Competition in Santa Rosa, this sweet yet crisp spin on sangiovese stands out for its focused fruit and chiming acidity.

• Pennyroyal Farm 2016 Anderson Valley Rose of Pinot Noir ($25): Pennyroyal is a comparatively new brand, but it’s a spinoff of longtime Mendocino County winery Navarro Vineyards. A light, bright lavender pink, the Pennyroyal delivers unusual clout for a rose, thanks to its ripe concentrated fruit and its creamy texture.

• Goldeneye 2016 Anderson Valley Vin Gris of Pinot Noir ($32): This was the most Provençal of the welcome roses found at Anderson Valley’s recent Pinot Noir Festival, on a day when the temperature reached into the 90s. Light in color and initially reserved in aroma, the lean and dry Goldeneye soon began speaking loudly in French for its piercing strawberry fruit, refined balance and long finish.

The Judgment of Bernal Heights

Take 12 wines, all made from syrah, six from California, six from France’s northern Rhone Valley, and roll them into a blind tasting. Should be easy to tell where each originated, correct? After all, the syrahs of the northern Rhone long have been recognized for their force, focus, spice, layering, earthiness and savory complexity. On the other hand, California syrahs are a work in progress, recognized largely for their saturating fruit and showy oak.

When tasted blind side by side, however, lines can blur and confusion can reign, I found at a recent gathering at Hillside Supper Club in San Francisco’s Bernal Heights. Differences in syrahs from the two regions today are far from clear cut. When the wines were unveiled, I found I’d correctly calculated place of origin for just half of them. Two of the 15 other tasters each nailed 10, but much of the rest of the panel was nearly as confused as I was.

My positive spin to this outcome is that California winemakers are learning how to squeeze more and more character out of syrah each vintage, and that syrah, having trouble gaining respect along the West Coast, may yet earn a place among the state’s more expressive and reliable varietal wines.

When you consider the final ranking of the wines, it already may be there. My favorite, and the group’s overall favorite, was the Wind Gap 2013 Sonoma Coast Nellessen Vineyard Syrah ($42), lean and frisky, with suggestions of mushrooms and truffles in its sunny summer fruit. For its savory flavor and sturdy build I took it for French.

What’s more, the second-place wine also was Californian, though I’d ranked it third – the pungent, peppery and sweetly fruity Halcon Vineyards 2013 Yorkville Highland Alturas Syrah ($32), a wine about which I wrote favorably here last fall. It remains fleshy with blueberries and cherries, but also threaded with suggestions of mushroom and truffle. As to place of origin, this is one I got correct.

France broke into the top three with the Domaine Jamet 2012 Cote-Rotie ($140). While I liked its grace, mulchiness, dark-fruit flavor and exceptional length, I ranked it only seventh because of its chewy tannins; give it another decade before it hits a more approachable stride.

Paul and Jackie Gordon of Halcon Vineyards in Mendocino County organized the tasting, in part to see how syrahs from cooler areas of California would shake out against syrahs from highly regarded estates of the northern Rhone Valley. The tasting also was something of a reunion for several of the participants who together had toured the Rhone Valley a year ago.

About half the panel was made up of California winemakers, the other half California wine writers. That raises the question: Was a California-honed and biased palate at work here? Perhaps, but I doubt it, especially when considering how the panel was often so split on whether this or that candidate was from California or France. Rather, the results show that after years of studying where syrah should be planted and how it should be tended in California, more assured interpretations of the variety finally are emerging.

Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at dmichaeldunne@gmail.com.