A Whiter Shade of Red
We seem to be getting over our hang-ups about pink wine. And that's a good thing, though perhaps with a (slight) downside.
U.S. sales of imported rosé wines increased 42 percent in the past year, according to a study commissioned by the Provence Wine Council. A self-serving survey, perhaps, because Provence is the land of rosé. But an enlightening one, because it shows how Americans' perceptions of wine are changing.
No longer does pink wine mean the sweet pablum of white zinfandel. We apparently have embraced the idea of rosé as a dry semi-white wine with red characteristics. A good rosé can be an ideal end to a sweaty workday and an electrifying start to a summer supper. It can transform your mood from glum to cheerful in a single sip, transferring the cares from your shoulders to the setting sun as it seeps into the horizon.
We love rosé because we are becoming more comfortable with wine. The world's greatest wines engage our intellects as well as our senses, but rosé will have none of that. It is pure, unadulterated fun. While a high-scoring cult wine may offer gobs of this and layers of that, a well-chilled rosé captures the summer sun, whether reflected off the Mediterranean at a plaza cafe along the Cote d'Azur or off a backyard swimming pool in Upper Marlboro. Rosé is the essence of summer.
What is the downside of all this? As rosés become more popular, more of them become available in our market, and their quality varies. The good news about that bad news is that as I've tasted my way through a bunch of rosés now on retail shelves, I have found very few inferior ones, just a lot of pleasant ones. And some exciting ones.
So what should you consider in an Old World rosé? (I will discuss New World rosés next week.)
Vintage matters, but not as much as you might think. The common wisdom is that rosé is best the year after the harvest, so you'll see many 2008s on retail shelves this summer. But many 2007s are drinking beautifully right now, and because of the market bias for young rosé, their prices may be discounted. Don't overlook them.
Color really doesn't matter. Rosés range from a vibrant, translucent red to an ethereal pale hue. Some people say the palest rosés are the best, but that is a matter of taste. Tavel, a town in the southern Rhone Valley, is known for deep-colored, vibrant rosés, while Bandol, a bit farther south along the Mediterranean coast east of Marseille, produces wines of a light, delicate color. Both can be excellent.
A true rosé is bled, not blended. The winemaker bleeds off the juice from the skins of red grapes (a wine's color comes from the grape's skin) after a short maceration. (The notable exception is sparkling wines, such as champagne, that do mix red and white varieties in their rosés.) The European Commission created a scandal recently by proposing to legalize the blending of red and white grapes to make rosé table wine; an outcry by producers and customers forced officials to withdraw the idea.
Rosé is either an intentional creation or a byproduct of red wine production. A winemaker who intends to make rosé will pick the grapes just as ripening begins, when they retain vibrant acidity and sugar levels are not too high. If a red is the goal, the winemaker picks the grapes later, when sugar levels are higher, then bleeds off a portion of the juice immediately after crushing in order to concentrate the flavors and color in the remaining juice. In the past, that bled-off juice was discarded or sold to make bulk wine, until wineries realized that rosé was marketable.
Those latter rosés are often called "saignee," from the French word for "to bleed," even though that term applies to the technique by which all rosés are made. They are often quite pleasant. But they rarely offer the excitement and liveliness of wines that were intended to be pink.