Rosé’s right for the season

June 11, 2013

Like many Francophiles, my wife and I once dreamed of living in Provence. So when we surrendered to reality and put down roots in suburban Maryland, we created a slice of southern France in our garden with a patchwork garrigue of lavender, rosemary and thyme. This time of year, with flowers in bloom, the lavender buds taking on the first faint tint of purple and the mercury soaring, the tableau lacks only one thing (other than the Mediterranean): a chilled bottle of rosé.

Rosé is the ultimate hot-weather wine: light, refreshing and easy to enjoy by itself or with a wide variety of summery foods. It partners especially well with salads and dishes with Mediterranean flavors of olives, capers, anchovies and garlic. It’s great for patio or sidewalk dining, and it should be on the summer wine lists of Mediterranean and casual restaurants — anything beyond the steakhouse.

Wine lovers should always have at least one bottle chilling in the refrigerator throughout the summer.

Rosé has become increasingly popular in the United States over the past five years or so, but several misperceptions still linger.

First, this is not your father’s white zinfandel. Those slightly sweet “blush” wines that were the rage in the 1980s and ’90s were essentially soda with a kick. They gave rosé a bad name among wine lovers and made people think that pink means sweet. Good rosés are dry.

Another misperception: Color signals quality. A bright, cherry-red rosé is not necessarily better than one with a pale salmon hue. A more reliable indicator is where the wine hails from: New World rosés tend to be riper and juicier than their European counterparts. They’re also fruitier and less acidic.

A decade ago I complained on my blog that oenogeeks turned up their noses at rosé as being unworthy of their attention. Today’s vinoscenti love rosé and will talk your ear off about how it’s made. Here’s all you need to know: Rosé is made by removing the unfermented juice of red grapes from the skins before it takes on too much color.

(All grapes are “white” inside; the color of red wine comes from macerating the juice on the grape skins.)

The winemaker might have grown those grapes for rosé and harvested them before they reached optimal ripeness to preserve acidity and freshness in the wine. That is what I call an “intentional rosé.” They often age well and might even improve two or three years after the vintage.

On the other hand, many rosés are essentially a byproduct of the winemaker’s efforts to produce a concentrated red wine. A popular technique to extract more pigment and flavor from grape skins is to bleed off free-run juice before a long maceration and fermentation. That increases the ratio of skins (read: color) to juice in the red wine. Many wineries discarded the extra juice until they realized they could ferment it and sell it as rosé. This technique is often called “saignee,” a French word that sounds much more romantic than “bled off.”

A wine snob might insist on drinking an intentional rosé. But really, why be snobbish about such a casual quaff? Good juice, skillfully handled, will make good wine.

It might sustain your Mediterranean fantasy — at least until the humidity and mosquitoes chase you indoors.

McIntyre blogs at dmwineline.com. On Twitter: @dmwine.

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