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Gettin' Right with Rosé
By Gerald D. Boyd
Sep 8, 2009
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Whenever I’m with a group of people who profess to be serious about their wine, inevitably there are a few who turn up their noses when offered a rosé.  My reaction, to myself, is “What’s wrong with rosé?”  Every wine doesn’t have to be white or red, and there are times when it takes too much effort to decide which oaky white wine or aged red will best accompany the evening meal. 

Still, pink wines have had a shaky track record with wine drinkers.  Rosé dreams by folks of a certain age likely conjure up such memorable pink gems as Simi Rosé of Cabernet, Almaden Eye of the Partridge and Taylor Lake Country Pink, with their party-pink color (OK, Simi’s Rosé of Cabernet was a light red), bags of fruit and a finish that often had more than a little sweetness.  So, what’s not to like?

In those days, if you were clued in on what a good rosé was, the suggested benchmark was likely Tavel, the southern Rhône pink wine made from Grenache and Cinsault that was always dry but tasted slightly sweet.  The French were not above a little pink-wine sweetness, so the choice then (and now) might have been Rosé d’Anjou, made from the local Grolleau grape, a sweeter rosé that lacked the finesse of Tavel, and the more refined  and drier (though not always dry) Cabernet d’Anjou, made from either Cabernet Sauvignon or Cabernet Franc.

Alas, the French rosé balancing act has rarely been achieved by winemakers from other world wine regions.  But that’s changing, not just for American-made pink wines but the thousands of gallons of rosés that flow into the expanding world wine market every year.  Today, wine shelves are crowded with dry, fruity and crisp rosés from California, Washington, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Australia, New Zealand, Minervois, Argentina, Chile, Tavel, Italy and a seemingly endless list of other places.  Such regional diversity has allowed for a wide range of rosés made from a variety of grapes, many not previously used for pink wines.

In addition to rosés made from the usual Grenache, Gamay and Pinot Noir, you’re likely now to see grapes more associated with red wines being used for pink wines, like Syrah, Pinot Meunier, Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petite Sirah, Garnacha (aka Grenache), Tempranillo, Sangiovese, Pinotage, Merlot and a host of others.  Except for those regions that specialize in rosé wines, like Tavel and Spain’s Navarra, if the grape is red (or black) and the vineyard is not quite mature enough to yield grapes for red wine, then rosé is often the answer. 

What is a rosé, and how does it fit into the hierarchy of wine?  Simply stated, a rosé is a lightly tinted, dry to medium-dry wine that falls into the wine line between a light red and an off-dry fruity white wine.  Is a rosé a white wine with a little color, or a light red wine?  It’s a wine question that pops up now and then like the “Zebra question.”  Is the coloring on a zebra white stripes on a black body or black stripes on a white body?  The answers to both questions are actually quite simple: Zebras have black stripes on a white body, while rosés are pink wines from dark colored grapes that are fermented like a white wine.

Basic rosés are often made by blending a small amount of red wine with white wine. But the preferred method is by macerating the grape juice, a technique that keeps the grape skins in contact with the juice, after crushing, and it’s critical to the style of a rosé wine.  Regional style and winemaker preference usually control the amount of maceration, but grape ripeness also has a lot to do with how pink is pink.  One method that is popular with winemakers who fashion pink wines is called saignee, a French term meaning “bled.”  After a short maceration, a certain amount of the tinted free run juice is run off or “bled” producing a lightly pink wine. 

The key differences between white winemaking and red winemaking are color, the extraction of flavor compounds from the skins to the juice and fermentation temperatures.  With white winemaking, the juice is taken off the skins early to avoid tinting (a process that can also be done when making white wine from black grapes as in Champagne); extracted flavor compounds are essential to red wines but not as desirable in white wines, and whites are generally fermented at cooler temperatures than reds.  So, by following white winemaking techniques, the winemaker ends up with a lightly tinted white wine that we know and enjoy as a rosé.

With summer winding down, faster in some parts of the country than others, there are still enough warm days to enjoy a lightly chilled rosé with a wide range of casual food.  Typically matched with dishes based on white meats like chicken and pork, rosés have found soul mates in lightly seasoned Asian dishes and with grilled fish.  Salmon lightly grilled with a dry rosé is a match that stands up to the test as well, as does grilled salmon and Pinot Noir.  Another choice that works nicely is rosé and ham, either cured or fresh.  The sweet fruitiness of the wine, especially ones made from Grenache, strikes a harmonious chord with lightly salted ham steaks.  So, get right with rosé and enjoy what’s left of summer.  

Questions?  Comments?  E-mail me at gboyd@winereviewonline.com