First Blush

06.07.14

Summer in a Glass: Everything’s Coming Up Rosés

Don’t dismiss the pink stuff because of its bad old days. How to find the best quality for your sunny-day pleasure.

During a balmy summer, few things provide immediate enjoyment like a chilled glass of rosé. Wine writer and merchant Gerald Asher once noted that “only idiots take their pleasure frivolously.” He’s right, and in the world of wine, rosé has inherited a role hinged on providing precisely that. It’s pleasure without the pomp. Not all rosé is created equally, though. Oceans of swill fill the category. But pink wine has a long and storied background, and today more quality options exist than ever before.

For a category that’s often dismissed as an afterthought, rosé’s history trumps all of the others. The world’s first wines were light pink, for starters. As Paul Lukacs notes in his excellent book Inventing Wine, early wine tasted so “acrid and foul” that the ancient Greeks diluted it with everything from honey to dates and “almost always with water, even salt water.” Plutarch recommended a general recipe of combining two to three parts water for one part wine.

In addition, early winemakers and early technology were not sophisticated enough to make red wine. Producing dark-colored wine requires a complicated process involving allowing grape skins to macerate with the pulp for prolonged amounts of time, pressing those grapes at the right moment, and ensuring that the wine doesn’t turn to vinegar along the way.

Claret, now synonymous with fine red Bordeaux, derives from the Latin word for “clear” and “pale-colored.” In fact, historically, Bordeaux’s wines were so thin and pale that they shipped Syrah from the northern Rhône and added it to the wines to give color and depth in a process known as “Hermitagé.”  Before Dom Pérignon “tasted the stars” and Champagne rebranded itself as the world’s greatest sparkling-wine appellation, the region produced pale red wines that growers fortified with elderberries in order to add color, so that buyers would consider purchasing them at a discount alternative to wines of more southerly Burgundy. While we’re on the topic, Burgundy didn’t have much of an advantage. Lukacs notes that “though no one knew why, everyone understood that excessive exposure to air hastened a wine’s souring…as a result, medieval and Renaissance Burgundies were lighter in body and…the reds were paler in color than today.” Even the storied Red Burgundies made by Cistercian monks were dark pink.

One of today’s most famous—and polarizing—rosés happened by accident in 1975, when Bob Trinchero, winemaker at Sutter Home, realized his Zinfandel stopped fermenting long before it should have.

Today, rosé is a deliberate category. It can be made via the saignée method (derivation of “to bleed”), in which juice from red grapes macerates with the skins for a few hours and then is separated for the remainder of fermentation. It can be made in a “vin gris” style, resulting in a very pale hue after red grapes are picked and then pressed right away, infusing a faint salmon tint to the wine. A third, and least esteemed, method is to simply blend red and white wine. In France, blending is only allowed in Champagne (even then, many producers prefer the saignée method).

Wine is a cultural product as much as it is a natural one, and it continues to evolve with our definition and perception of deliciousness. One of today’s most famous—and polarizing—rosés happened by accident in 1975, when Bob Trinchero, winemaker at Sutter Home, realized his Zinfandel stopped fermenting long before it should have. Rather than panic, he decided to sell this sweet, partially fermenting pink brew, and a new category was born.

That sort of invention is just one example of how rosés have transformed and the category has expanded through the years. In celebration of diversity and pleasure, we’ve selected the following wines as those to seek out when you’re in the mood to spruce up your summer afternoon.

A Perfect Aperitif (Effervescent & Slightly Off-Dry)

- Domaine Balivet Cérdon de Bugey, France NV

Provençal + Pale Pink

- Domaine du Sulauze “Pompanette,” Aix-en-Provence, France

- Domaine de Triennes, Rosé, Vin de Pays Vars, Provence, France

Rosé for All Day

- Copain Wine Cellars, “Tous Ensemble,” Anderson Valley, California

Rosé you can drink with steak:

- Arnot Roberts, Rosé of Touriga Nacional, Lake County, California

Nutty, Rich, Oxidative

- Clos Cibonne “Cuvée Spéciale des Vignettes,” Tibouren, Provence, France

- Lopez de Heredia, Vina Tondonia Gran Reserva Rosado, Rioja, Spain