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A Paean to Pink Wines
By Gerald D. Boyd
Jun 17, 2008
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I consider myself a serious wine guy, but I must profess an unabashed love of rosé wines.  Often ignored by folks who can't see past big reds, pink wines deserve more respect.  And certainly, at this time of year, they deserve a more secure place at the summer dining table.

Why would any sensible wine drinker spend time musing about a rosé wine?  How could one not, when the promise is so enticing?  Sure, there's the cynical view that claims rosé wines are merely a means for some wineries to fatten the bottom line, but I want to believe that true wine lovers enjoy all wine, including rosés, regardless of style, and can always find a reason for uncorking a pink wine no matter what the occasion or the meal.  Chilled rosé with grilled ham and creamy potato salad:  now if there is any better match with that tempting alfresco meal, then I'd like to hear about it.

Fortunately, for those of us who are passionate about pink wines, their overall popularity is stronger now than ever before.  There was a time, though, when pink wines were not taken seriously, relegated only to picnics and parties but rarely restaurant wine lists.  A few years ago, a former San Francisco restaurateur named Jim Kopp proudly offered more than two dozen rosés on his wine list.  Even though some of his colleagues clucked their tongues at his supposed foolishness, Kopp's rosés soon ruled and eventually, as a category, became a big hit with his guests.

Some of that appeal for rosés is the fun many wineries have with marketing pink wines that they wouldn't dare with other wines.  Saintsbury, a Carneros winery long known for its Pinot Noir, makes a rosé wine with the whimsical name of Vincent Vin Gris.  The Australian winery Chalice Bridge wrote this paen of purple prosé about their Wild Rosé: 'The strawberry and spice run onto the palate with wild abandon making it impossible to stop at one glass.'  Over the top?  Maybe, but try the wine.

Rosé wines are delicious but also amusing somehow, and that seems to spill over into how producers regard and market them.  And that's not all to consider when assessing rosé's virtues:  there's also the convenience of screw caps on many of the world's pink wines (except for the traditional French rosés and Spanish rosados that still sport a cork), as well as the relatively low alcohols for  rosés and the attractive prices of most rosés, many under $15.

As a category, though, rosé wines are still often perceived in the marketplace as being just simple and pink, even though rosés come in many shades and are made from a wide range of grapes.  The French Tavel rosé is noted for the luscious sweet fruit of Grenache, finishing more dry than sweet but with layers of fresh fruit.  Beyond Grenache, winemakers looking to make rosés of substance turn to other red grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Petite Sirah and Zinfandel.  And when more delicacy but not depth of color is desired, the seductiveness of Pinot Noir is the chosen variety.  The fact is, any dark skinned grape can be the base for a rosé wine.  The question becomes selecting the method of production.

At the light body pale color end of the rosé wine spectrum are gris wines, more commonly known as vin gris, made by lightly pressing the grapes for a pale pink color, but not macerating the juice on the skins for high extraction.  These lovely, delicate pink wines are at home in the south of France and the Loire Valley, but are also made in such diverse places as California and New Zealand.  American blush wines are made like vin gris, extracting a subtle pink hue from such popular red grapes as Zinfandel.

Saignee, a French term meaning 'bled,' is a technique that straddles the line between vin gris and full-blown rose wines.  More popular now than ever, saignee wine is made by 'bleeding' off a small amount of free-run juice.  The trick here is that the juice has just undergone a short pre-fermentation maceration; the winemaker wants to extract color and flavor compounds but keep the color a light pink, with plenty of fruit. 

The most common way to make a rosé wine is to macerate the freshly crushed juice with the skins until just the right amount of color and flavoring is achieved; more than vin gris but less than red wines.  Once this level is reached the juice is racked off the skins and it then undergoes a cool white wine fermentation in stainless steel tanks, followed by a brief period of rest and then straight to bottling.  The idea, as with many white wines, is to retain the fresh fruit flavors, brilliant color, and relatively low alcohol.  Most rosés are bottled under 14% alcohol.

There is no color standardization for rosé wines, but that's part of their appeal.  Fact is, the depth of color can range from a light pink to a deep pink that for many looks more red than pink.  Then there are the many hues of the rosé spectrum.  Traditional Tavel rosés, made from Grenache, are often a salmon-pink, the light red tinted with a dab of orange.  Rosés made from heavily-pigmented grapes like Zinfandel and Petite Sirah are a brilliant ruby.  The trick with the color-rich grapes, of course, is to separate the juice from the skins at just the right time, so the wine is pink and not red.

One method that is rarely used today is to blend white wine with red wine for the desired pink color and weight.  And while it's always good to know how your rosé wine was made, the bottom line is the pleasure derived from a chilled glass of rosé, with a light meal or simply as a way to help end the day.

For 13 new reviews of current-release rosé wines, head to the Reviews page.

Questions?  Comments?  Write to me at gboyd@winereviewonline.com