When it comes to fine wines and gourmet foods, we have a tendency as consumers to put things in a geographic box. Only the small Champagne region in northern Burgundy can produce world-class sparkling wine, right? Only the cold waters off the coast of Maine are where quality lobsters are caught, right? And great rosé only comes from Provence right? Wrong.
Italy and Spain produce myriad styles of wonderful rosé and rosato. So does South Africa and Argentina. And so does Napa Valley. “Wait, Napa Valley,” you say. Renowned for their Bordeaux varietals such as Cabernet and Merlot (and word-class Sauvignon Blanc which never seems to get its due recognition) Napa Valley not only makes great rosé but is perfectly positioned to be a rosé producing machine if it really wanted to be.
As it is, many Napa wineries make a rosé but few seem to promote them or sell them on the retail market much. Don’t expect to see many in wine stores or on restaurant wine lists outside of Northern California. They are typically reserved for club members and tastings at the winery. In my article Napa Nuances from a couple years I quipped about Sauvignon Blanc that, “for a long time, it played the role of warm up wine—a palate cleanser or amuse bouche—before the featured wines.” Similarly, rosé is the wine a tasting room manager greets you with when you first walk in. It’s a “greeting” wine.
Due to its unrelenting popularity, however, I expect this to change. Yes, rosé will still be a greeting wine at many Napa wineries, but I would expect to see more of them on wine lists and on the retail market in the future. Why? The simple explanation for this prediction is that a) rosé remains ultra-popular in the US (and is no longer just a summertime attraction) and b) Napa Valley has the means to produce a ton of it. While Rhone varietals such as Grenache and Cinsault and Mouvedre remain the choice for many Rhone and Provence style rosés, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon can make for wonderful rosé too and these varietals are abundant in Napa Valley—with plenty to spare.
I can’t speak for every winery in Napa but typically higher-end wineries will “drop” a lot of fruit or declassify certain barrels they don’t consider to be of high enough quality to make it into the final wine. This “extra” fruit can be used in myriad ways. It can be sold to negotiants. It can used to make a blend or second label that’s only sold at the winery. It can be used internally as “practice fruit” to test new blending techniques. And it can certainly be used to make rosé—great rosé. Considering that most rosé wines are relatively inexpensive, the “leftover” fruit that goes into many Napa rosés—while not quite up to snuff for the $60 Merlot or $80 Cabernet—is more than sufficient quality-wise for the more whimsical, low key rosé.
Here are several Napa Valley rosés I like. Each one is made from different varietals resulting in different styles.
Sullivan 2020 Rosé (Merlot)—$35
If you like Provence style rosé but wish they were a bit more bold. With brighter fruit. And a bit fleshier. With more structured tannins. This is your wine. Like most Napa producers, Sullivan excels at red Bordeaux varietals, making some of the finest Cabs and Merlots in the valley. Like many producers in Napa, their rosé started out as fun thing to do—essentially a “greeting” wine. Boy is it good though. Their 2020 rosé is a light pink/salmon color, similar in color to the classic roses from Provence. In the glass, floral aromas and citrus notes of Meyer lemon, tangerine, white peach and limestone emanate. On the palate layers of strawberry, orange and lemon curd unfold with a lot of complexity for a seemingly simplistic wine. Acidity and minerality are abundant on the clean, crisp finish. This wine could be enjoyed with just about anything from shellfish to BBQ.
Swanson Vineyards 2020 Rosato (Sangiovese)—$24
Swanson has had their rosé for about as long as anyone in Napa—though it’s actually a Rosato, made in the classic Italian style from Sangiovese. While I haven’t actually looked this up, I know I had it circa 2001-2004 when I visited the winery, so that’s sufficient for me. I loved it then and love it now. This wine is light red in color (not pink), with a bouquet of strawberries and rose petals on the nose. On the palate it opens with red fruits (cherries, pomegranates and ripe strawberries) moving toward mellower watermelon and stone fruits on the finish. Despite its darker color than some of the other rosés on this list, this Rosato is very crisp and refreshing and can be enjoyed with any number of foods.
Frank Family 2020 “Leslie” Rosé (Pinot Noir)—$50
This new wine from Frank Family is a tribute to Proprietor, Leslie Frank, inspired by her love for Provençal rosé and the “good life.” This rosé is made from 100% Pinot Noir, sourced from the cool pockets of Napa’s Carneros region, including their family-owned Lewis Vineyard located along the shores of the San Pablo Bay. Layers of strawberry, white peach, apricot and orange creamsicle on the palate unfold with wet stone and a hint of lemon zest on the finish. This is a wonderful sipping wine for any occasion, with or without food.
Gamble 2019 Rosé—$28
A blend of 51% Cabernet Sauvignon, 43% Cabernet Franc, 4% Petit Verdot and
2% Merlot, Gamble’s rosé sounds like a classic Bordeaux style blend. And it is. Only it’s a rose. A bouquet of cranberries, grapefruit and crushed flowers dominate on the on the nose. On the palate, watermelon gives way to cherry, strawberry and lemon zest. The finish is long and refreshing with good acidity and minerality. Enjoy this wine with just about anything, including Asian food or rich seafood dishes like a homemade paella.