In the beginning, Bacchus created white wine. He saw that it was good and awarded it a score of 90 points. On the second day, Bacchus created red wine and, finding it even tastier, gave it 99 points. (Actually, it deserved 100 points, but in that epoch only wines made in heaven were allowed perfect scores.) On the third day, the god made rose and saw that it was pink. He started laughing.
"I'm having too much fun sipping to waste my time with those infernal points," Bacchus thundered. To all around he bellowed, "Fetch the finger food and the ice bucket, and meet me on the celestial patio pronto with a case of rose."
Bacchus sure had it right. Good rose epitomizes joie de vivre, for our purposes loosely translated from the French as "bottled joy." Face it. How can anyone be pretentious when they're drinking a pink wine? There's enough seriousness, if not downright snobbery, about wine already. Rose wines are all about pleasure. And with the latest crop of new releases from the 2003 vintage in France and California now arriving, the fun is about to begin.
In Europe, 2003 will be remembered as the Freaky Friday of vintages. It was the year of the great heat wave. In the usually cool climate vineyards of Germany, the broiling summer heat made the ghostly pale Spatburgunders (Pinot Noirs) emerge from the vat house with more color, ripeness and fat, juicy fruit than red Burgundy (the quintessential Pinot Noir wine) in ordinary years; in Bordeaux, vignerons had to struggle with Cabernet and Merlot that came in at a Port-like 16 percent alcohol; and in parts of Italy, the heat and drought conspired to put more raisins on the vine than grapes. In retrospect, it's remarkable how many truly great red and white wines were produced in 2003 in these and other areas despite these harsh conditions.
Ironically, what made the going tough for others turned out to be a blessing for rose makers. Most French rose is made in the southern French regions of the Rhone, Provence and Languedoc, where it's broiling hot every year at harvest. For them, 2003 was just a bit more of the same. Rose makers captured the extra flavor intensity of 2003's Grenache, Syrah and Carignan (red grapes used to produce rose by quickly separating the pigment carrying skins from the colorless pulp during the winemaking process). But most crucially, unlike other areas, they knew just when to pick their grapes to preserve the brisk acidity that is the sine qua non of great rose.
But enough of this analytic stuff. We're talking rose, a vibrant wine made to be served unpretentiously on the patio, ice-cold, on a balmy summer evening with snacks or cheese. My best advice is to throw a fresh salmon on the grill, invite the neighbors over and accompany the pinkish fish with a bottle of your favorite rose served directly from a chilled ice bucket. It's doubtful that anyone will drone on about the wine, but it's a sure thing that a good time will be had by all, courtesy of Bacchus.
Here are my recommendations from a recent tasting of 21 roses, most of them French. Prices are approximate. Do stick with 2003, as my advice with all roses is DYA: drink youngest available.
Chateau Grande Cassagne Rose 2003 ($10-$11; France) Laurent and Benoit Darde, the two brothers who own Chateau Grande Cassagne, planted on the highest plateau south of Nimes (called the Cassagne), feel that their 2003 rose is the finest in recent memory, eclipsing 2001, 2000 and 1998 because of the deeply scented Grenache and Syrah. Although, quantities are smaller than normal, the quality is exceptional. Vibrant, racy, full-flavored with a glowing aura of fresh strawberry, this one is too pretty and delicious to be served in the usual picnic paper cups. (I wouldn't risk bringing the Baccarat out on the porch, but I've discovered that Giant Food carries some pretty decent clear plastic tumblers.) This is as close to pure joy as a rose can get. This excellent value should be consumed over the next six to eight months.
Bonny Doon Vineyard California "Vin Gris de Cigare" 2003 ($13; California): This gorgeously fine and fruity rose explodes with strawberry and cherry fruit. Made from a blend of Southern Rhone varieties, this California wine upstages all but a handful of the best French roses. Check out the flying saucer on the label.
Chateau Routas Coteaux Varois "Rouviere" 2003 ($13; France): The best Provencal rose comes from Cotes de Provence, Bandol and the Coteaux Varois, and Chateau Routas is widely regarded as the star of the Coteaux Varois. This wine shows why. Although not the least bit austere, it's quite dry for a rose. The beauty is in the subtlety, where fresh flavors and aromas of wild strawberry and raspberry interplay against a background of Provencal wildflowers, herbs and new earth. Lovely and well-priced to boot.
Wine of the Week
Meridian Santa Barbara Reserve Syrah 2002 ($16). Although the Beringer-Blass- owned Meridian vineyards established a solid reputation for making palatable wines in the $10 range, my gripe has long been that they are made in a gratuitously commercial style, with an excessive dose of residual sugar on the finish.
The shame was that none of this was necessary, because Meridian was able to draw on fine Santa Barbara fruit and had one of the best veteran winemakers in the business, Chuck Ortman. At long last, this misappropriation of good grapes and talent has been atoned for by this astonishing reserve-designated Syrah. It's a knockout from start to finish.
The fireworks begin with an enormous bouquet of vanilla-scented, hickory smoke Syrah fruit that calls to mind one of those rare, ultra-ripe vintages (e.g., 1990) of Jaboulet's legendary Hermitage la Chapelle ($125). While it can't possibly keep up with the complexity of La Chapelle on the palate (how many Syrahs can, aside from Chave, Chapoutier and recently, Delas?), this is compensated for by gobs of all-American, plummy, mocha-raspberry fruit and a fat, plush finish of ripe tannins.
With winemaker Ortman's departure to pursue his lifelong dream of creating his own label, it's rewarding to see that his disciples, Signe Zoller, co-winemaker at Meridian for the past 10 years, and Don Ackerman, Meridian's viticulturist have crafted a fitting tribute.