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What's wrong with rosé wines, and why you should never pay more than $25 for a bottle

What's wrong with rosé wines, and why you should never pay more than $25 for a bottle
There's a seemingly endless variety of rosé wines on the market. Here's our guide to which ones to buy and how much you should be spending. (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

It's spring, which means, in L.A. at least, that it's officially rosé season, that time of year when everyone, but everyone, is starting to think pink.

Did I say think pink? Sorry, I meant drink pink. When? Whenever, all the time, I mean, it's rosé o'clock somewhere, right? When you've got on your rosé colored glasses it's rosé all day. I'm right, right? Because come on, we're drinking rosé!

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As we enter pink wine season, we find ourselves in a category run amok. Demand is as riotous as a Black Friday toy sale at Walmart, and a towering tsunami of pink mediocrity has flooded the market to meet it. Rosé has not just jumped the shark, it's jumped the whale next to the shark and the cruise ship bearing down on the whale.

Ten years ago wine writers, myself included, were begging people to try the dry, refreshing rosés of France, Spain and elsewhere, to stop painting all pink wine with the white Zinfandel brush. Sommeliers offered cheap glass pours and unabashed promotions, and even then couldn't give the stuff away. And now? They can't keep it in stock. A "five-case drop" (60 bottles) will barely get your average alfresco restaurant through the weekend.

Demand is such that practically every winery in California is obliged to make one, whether or not they have the grapes, the proper site or the aptitude. Does this matter? Not at all. Nobody cares what it tastes like. People just want something cold and pretty and Instagrammable in their glass.

Rosé is, in short, no longer a wine. It's a lifestyle ornament, a Cosmo made from grapes, a catchphrase, a punch line (rosé o'clock, rosé all day. brosé), a poolside accessory, an excuse for all-day day-drinking, a thing to pound, to pose with, to signify on social media how much fun you're having. It is the lubricant of the would-be leisure class. And that leaves every serious producer of pink wine practically drowning in a market they took pains to establish.

So let this column serve as a reset button for your rosé habits. Feel free to pound the occasional can of plonk if you have to — even a can of Bud tastes good in the right circumstances. All I'm asking is that you pay attention to three things: place, price and texture.

Place

The Pink Tsunami has set off unprecedented demand for rosés from traditional locales such as Provence, Rioja, Tavel, the Côtes du Rhône and so on. There are more pink wines from classic places than ever before, and generally the quality has suffered, despite marketing that seems almost desperate (unless you're fond of "Digression," the Provencal pink from "Secret Indulgence" winery. If that's your thing, have at it.)

But some lesser-known regions are taking advantage of demand, in places with almost no rosé tradition at all — and some of them are astonishingly good. You owe it to yourself to check out the nervy Agiorgitikos from Greece, Blauburgunders from Germany, Blaufränkisches from Austria and Cab Francs from the Loire. They'll surprise you.

Price

Rosé is usually cheap to make, spends almost no time in the cellar, and is released early: the cost of production is among the lowest of all categories of wine. Owing to demand, to pedigree, to consistency and excellence in winemaking, some wines are absolutely worth springing for, like some Bandol, some older Riojas, some Txakoli Rosés, the occasional California coastal pink.

But it's worth remembering that a pink wine's main function is simple refreshment, and that can be done on the cheap. So if you're paying more than $25 a bottle, you're almost certainly paying too much; more than $30, you're being gouged, plain and simple, especially on overhyped lifestyle brands such as Domaines Ott, d'Esclans Rock Angel, and not least Miraval, the Brangelina Rosé from Cotes du Provence. Ask your retailer for wines that are every bit as good for less money.

Texture

Rosés by definition should be crisp, dry and quite literally mouthwatering. In the mouth they should be nervous, a little jittery from acidity, a little pithy from tannin (from the skin contact that gives the wine its color).

And yet most domestic bottlings are demonstrably sweet, with not only palpable residual sugar but a milky thickness of texture. One reason for this is that many rosés are made using the saignée method, juice bled off a fermenting tank to concentrate what remains, not so much a product as a byproduct. Often these are high in alcohol (more than 13.5%) rendering them too ripe and too fleshy to be refreshing. So if it's sweet and thick, spit it out and move on.

Because above all, rosé is a wine of intention. It's not an afterthought, not a byproduct, but something that had to be grown and made in the vineyard, harvested early to ensure good acidity and low alcohol, and made judiciously to preserve aroma and freshness. Settling for anything less is like selling your summer short.

Ten (somewhat) serious California rosés (all of them $25 and under, and 13% ABV and under).

Angeleno Wine Co., the Meadow, Lodi (Graciano, 12%) at Stanley's Wet Goods (stanleys.la), and Silver Lake Wine (silverlakewine.com), $22.

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Arnot Roberts, Luchsinger Vineyard, Lake County (Touriga National, 11%) at DomaineLA (domainela.com), and K&L Wine (klwines.com), $25.

Bedrock, California, Ode to Lulu (Grenache & Mataro, a.k.a. Mourvedre, 12.3%) at Woodland Hills Wine Co. (whwc.com), and Wine Exchange (winex.com), $22.

Cep, Hopkins Ranch, Russian River Valley (Pinot Noir, 13%) at Wine House (winehouse.com), K&L Wines, and Lincoln Fine Wines (lincolnfinewines.com), $20

Habit, Demetria Vineyard Santa Ynez Valley (Grenache, 11.5%) at Wine House, Flask (flaskfinewines.com), and Wine Country (thewinecountry.com), $23.

Las Jaras, Mendocino County (Carignane, 13%) at Lou Wine Shop (louwineshop.com), and DomaineLA, $20.

Lioco, Mendocino County, Indica (Carignane, 11.9%) at K&L, Wine House, $20.

Liquid Farm, Santa Ynez Valley, Vogelsang Vineyard, (Pinot Noir, 11.5%), widely available, $20.

Skylark, Pink Belly, Mendocino County (Grenache, 12%) at Mission Wines (missionwines.com), Everson Royce (eversonroyce.com), $22.

Tercero, Santa Barbara County (Mourvedre, 12%) at Woodland Hills Wine Co., Mission Wine, and Everson Royce, $25.

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