Costco Corner: Everything's Coming Up Rosés

Life is expensive. Exponentially so here in Honolulu. Enter Costco, the welcomed paradox of low cost and high quality that has Hawaii residents scrambling for a cart at every operating hour of the Costco day. When is the best time to traverse Costco’s fabled value-packed aisles? I have no idea; morning and night, weekdays and weekends, it always appears an endless sea of frantic slapdashery. Fight the bevy of busy patrons, however, and you can be rewarded with excellent value, everyday wines.  

With summer in full swing, the crew joins me this month to review and rate a rosé collective.  The pink revolution is at hand.

All wines from Costco Corner are available at Costco while supplies last (which can be alarmingly brief, so best not to dawdle). Disclaimer (you know, because I am a lawyer and all):  unfortunately, we cannot guarantee that the wines we review will be stocked at any particular Costco location.

Standard of Review

Before we commence, a few brief comments. The purpose of a wine review should be to assist the reader in selecting a bottle that will (hopefully) provide an enjoyable experience. To achieve this, candor is paramount. Unfortunately, most wine reviews are cautious to critique, yet quick to praise. A frustrating dichotomy. While criticism may potentially be offensive to some, and thus reason to avoid, genuine dialogue is more constructive than feigned plaudit. I endeavor to proffer fair and honest observations coupled with practical insights. I hope you find them useful.

Finally, personal preferences vary significantly. No review is absolute. In the end, drink what brings you joy.

Rosey Beginnings...

When discussing rosé, one must naturally begin in Provence. Literally, if possible; metaphorically, if necessary. Unfortunately, we must take the metaphorical meandering through southern France ...

The Provence appellation d'origine contrôlée (AOC), located on France’s southeastern coast near Monaco, exudes southern French lifestyle and cuisine.  Wonderful Mediterranean preparations of fresh vegetables, seafood, and bouillabaisse are paired beautifully with rosé, the dominant Provençal wine blended mostly from traditional Rhône varietals, such as Grenache, Syrah, Cinsault, and Mourvèdre, and local varietal Tibouren. Cabernet Sauvignon occasionally weasels its way into a bottle, but it is still largely viewed as an unwelcomed interloper. Today, rosé is a thriving enterprise, with the salmon-pink bottles packing supermarket aisles in France and abroad. The scenery is gorgeous, the weather perfect, and the food and wine exquisite. A utopia where even the French are friendly (gasp). What not to like?

This Provençal rosé feels right at home basking in the warm sun by the sea.

Winemaking practices in this region have ancient origins. At the time King Nebuchadnezzar II was building his famed Hanging Gardens of Babylon (one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World) in 600 B.C.E., nearby Phoenician merchants and Greek sailors with vinous ambitions set up shop in Provence and began to cultivate the vine. Greek civilization and commerce spread that early viticultural and vinicultural acumen. By the time the Romans occupied the region in 67 AD, winemaking was a vast industry spread across the Provençal coastline, utilizing well-established infrastructure and trade routes to expand its sphere of influence. The Romans surmised that copious wine was an excellent excuse for a hostile takeover. I’m inclined to agree.

The region benefits from a warm Mediterranean climate that combines plenty of sunshine, cooling Mistral winds, and the sea’s tempering maritime influence.

Wine quality did not always correlate with the region’s allure. In some areas, it still doesn’t. Until only recently, much of the rosé produced in the area was bereft of flavor and overbearing on the palate. A few factors led to this undesirable imbalance. First, the region is large and can be unpredictable. Expanding from seaside vineyards to rolling hills and inland valleys, there is extraordinary diversity in soils and geography. Climate can be arid and extreme. It took trial and error to eventually carve out the subregions ideally suited for excellent and consistent quality wines. For more predictability, look to specific subregions, such as the AOCs of Saint-Victoire, Fréjus, La Londe and Pierrefeu. Second, the complexity of rosé, with its grape selection, color variations and different regional styles, make it one of the more difficult wines to perfect. The quality spectrum is large; even reputable producers can struggle with execution.

Sofia by the Sea. Even when a rosé is not from Provence, winemakers often use classic Rhône grape varietals to manufacture a similar experience in the glass.

With time and practice, Provençal rosé has evolved into a delightful style full of ripe red fruit aromas, good weight, crisp acidity, and sufficient dryness to counterbalance the garlic and olive oil characteristic of the region’s cuisine. Engineered for the Mediterranean, it is perfect for refreshing summer sipping.

Thirsty yet? Let’s traverse the Costco aisles in search of an excellent value rosé (or two)...

2016 Kirkland Côtes de Provence Rosé, Provence, France ($9).

When at Costco, start with Kirkland. This wine invited all of the grapes to the party - Grenache (30%), Cinsault (20%), Mourvèdre (20%), Tibouren (10%), Rolle (10%), Syrah (5%), and even the lowly obtruder, Cabernet Sauvignon (5%), found shelter amongst the locals. Light pink in color, the wine expressed aromatics of ripe red fruit with strawberries and raspberry, and floral elements of wildflowers and rose petals. Flavors of strawberry and citrus drove the palate, with balanced minerality. The alcohol, at 13 percent, was a bit too high, leading to the wine feeling hot and bringing harshness to the palate. Likewise, the acidity was unbalanced and elevated the harshness on the palate and aftertaste.

At this juncture, a bit of context might be appropriate.

Kirkland wines do not customarily bestow significant depth or complexity, nor is that their primary intention. At the price they are offered, that would indeed be a lofty expectation. While the occasional Kirkland label can come with surprising quality, these wines are better understood as providing an affordable entry to many classic wine regions around the world. Kirkland wines’ greatest strength lies in their ability to cost-effectively introduce a regional profile representative of the traditional local terroir. Thus, Kirkland wines can best be utilized by wine enthusiasts to explore new regions and styles of wines to which they are unfamiliar, and at a favorable price. If you find a region or style to suit your palate, best to set aside the Kirkland in favor of more established local producers that consistently manufacture more complex, high quality wines.

This wine is no exception. Based exclusively on quality, we would probably not recommend procuring a bottle. There is an abundance of rosés on the market with more balance and an overall better experience in the glass. Considering cost, however, you would be hard-pressed (in Hawaii, at least) to gain access to Côtes de Provence under 10 dollars elsewhere. The wine affords an introduction to this famed region, and demonstrates a few of its core characteristics (e.g., color, ripe red fruit, minerality and dryness). Once in the door, however, know that to stay inside, you will need to increase your monetary expectations.

2016 Champs de Provence Rosé, Provence, France ($14).

This wine offers a classic combination of Provençal varietals, with 40% Grenache, 30% Cinsault, 20% Syrah, and 10% each of Carignan and Mourvèdre. The nose led with vibrant notes of fresh red berries of strawberry and raspberry, citrus, and light sweet floral. On the palate, the wine was dry and medium bodied, with red berries as the focal point, and accents of vanilla and citrus grapefruit. A crisp mineral finish with good length. Very well balanced.

Not much to say here, a classic example of Provençal rosé that was delightful from start to finish.

The lineup's champion.

2014 Jean-Charles Boisset JCB N°5, Côtes de Provence, France ($20).

Comprised of the big three (50% Cinsault; 35% Grenache; 15% Syrah), this wine was a rather curious light orange-pink color. Aromas of overripe red berry fruit (strawberry) jump from the glass, with accents of bubble gum and cotton candy. On the palate, the wine begins very sweet and fruit forward, but a spicy finish with sticky sweetness makes any hint of an enjoyable experience short-lived. The aromas were antagonistically perplexing, and some, such as used Band-Aid, were flagrantly uninviting. The wine’s bright acidity was unbalanced, resulting in harshness on the back of the palate and in the aftertaste. As Kyle so eloquently stated, “it’s like throwing Madeira into a White Zin.” There is simply no way to construe that as a compliment. Kevin added that the palate “makes me think it’s flawed, but unfortunately I don’t think it’s actually flawed.”  One desperate panelist even experimented with a few ice cubes to numb the flavor. Hypothesis honorable; result unsuccessful.

With many options available at Costco, and even if there were not, this one can be left on the shelves for the next poor, unassuming Costco consumer.

2016 M. Chapoutier Belleruche Côtes-du-Rhône Rosé, Rhône Valley, France ($13).

Although technically outside of the Provence AOC, this wine, located a few miles north in the neighboring Rhône Valley, utilized the same classic grape varietals commonly found in the region - Grenache (50%), Syrah (40%), and Cinsault (10%). The wine was fresh and vibrant, with pleasant aromas of strawberry, raspberry, cherry, and citrus (lemon and lime zest). On the palate, the wine is medium-bodied, well balanced and showcased round flavors of red fruit, minerals and citrus, with crisp acidity and a clean, long, refreshing finish.

A unanimous honorable mention.

This bottle also comes with a fantastic fun fact for your next evening rosé social. Blind since birth, Gilbert Montagné, a popular French pianist and singer, confided to his close friend, winemaker Michel Chapoutier, that securing a decent wine proved difficult for the visually impaired. Concerned for his friend’s vinous wellbeing, Chapoutier devised an embossed solution to the musician’s wine selection challenge. Since 1996, all of M. Chapoutier’s labels have included the wine’s vintage, appellation and color in Braille. A lack of vision should not keep one from great wine.

2015 Francis Coppola Sofia Rosé, Monterey County, California ($13).

The only wine in the evening’s lineup not hailing from Southern France, Sofia was already starting at a disadvantage. Perhaps we should have just stayed in France...

A mix of Syrah, Grenache and Pinot Noir, the nose was, well, interesting, with notes of strawberry, cherry, raspberry, and citrus peel.  The palate rapidly descended from interesting to poor, with notes of bergamot, clove, ripe red berry fruit, and floral elements. The flavor profile was messy and a bit muddled, and the subtle positive characteristics were not able breach the impenetrable fog of flavored despair. Similar to the Kirkland rosé, at almost 13 percent alcohol, the wine appeared hot, and the pepper notes of the Syrah were overbearing on the palate. At one point in our tasting, a panelist mentioned that “these faces you guys are making with these wines, they are just not good.” Well, that isn’t a harbinger of positivity. As the wine warmed, it unfortunately grew worse, with intense pepper from the Syrah now dominating the palate and biting acidity only intensifying the experience.

As the hometown dark horse up against French Goliaths, I was really pulling for Monterey. Ultimately, however, this is a wine best left behind. At least Monterey still has a world-class aquarium and captivating John Steinbeck novels.

Fear not; the losing contestants did not go to waste. The balance of the JBL and Sofia were later re-purposed by Kyle, our resident master chef, into a summertime sangria, with lemon-lime soda, orange slices, lime, and mint. A refreshing favorite amongst the party patrons. When life hands you bad rosé, make sangria.

Rosé carries a broad spectrum of quality, even in famed regions like Provence. The offerings at Costco are no exception. Hopefully the above reviews are helpful in keeping you on a palate-friendly path this summer. Cheers!

What is your favorite rosé? What region or style do you prefer? Have you found any great bargain rosés at Costco? Share your comments below!