Fear Not the Pink Stuff

Here in the states we have come to think of ‘pink wine’ as sweet, cheap, mass-produced juice often sold in large format (magnums, gallon jugs, or even boxes). Many of our parents, grandparents, and even many of us in our youth have drunk it, and there is nothing wrong with that.

Most of this home-grown blush was White Zinfandel, which despite its lack of quality and sophistication, is a resounding marketing success. Decades ago, a glut of zinfandelitself a red grape capable of producing serious, dry red winesinspired the creation of White Zin in order to salvage something from the excess grapes. Speculation that Americans, with all the Coca-Cola and Kool-Aid we consume, would take to a simple, sweetly fruity, and above all affordable White Zinfandel wine proved profitably accurate. Millions upon millions of cases sold later, it still takes up its fair share of liquor-store shelf space. Kevin Zrally, in his book Windows on the World: Complete Wine Course, notes, “At 21 million cases sold in 2002… [white zinfandel is] the largest-selling varietal wine in the United States.”

Blush or rosé wine, however, has another style that is quite dry, very versatile, and most deserving of a place in your kitchen. For centuries ‘pink wine’ has been made differently than we make it here, most notably in Spain and (southern) France. While still affordabledue to how inexpensive it is to makethese drier styles are serious, yet still uncomplicated, and are one of the most food-friendly of all wines. They drink well on a hot summer afternoon, with picnic snacks, traditional holiday fare, or spicy-hot Asian food that would otherwise clash with most red wines.

French Rosés

Many French rosés are made from Grenache, the world’s most widely planted red grape. Its inherent red-raspberry and white-pepper qualities are well-suited for making this type of wine. Also, France has had centuries to perfect this style, something no (otherwise respectable) winery stateside can claim. Grenache, a.k.a. Garnacha in Spain (its place of origin), is the dominant grape in the southern Rhone (river) valley in France. You can find many good Cotes-du-Rhone rosés, but there is an area in the Rhone valley that only produces rosés. Sounds like a good place to start, eh?

Tavel is the name of the appellation, and the area known best for it lies across the Rhone River from the world-class growing region of Chateauneuf-du-Pape. All Tavel is rosé by definition. Grenache is the workhorse grape in both areas, although a number of other grapes can be incorporated into the wines. Tavels tend to be more concentrated and spicier than their simpler Cotes-du-Rhone cousins, but not at all sweet.

Personally, I hold onto a couple of bottles of Tavel each summer to have with Thanksgiving and Christmas meals. Why? It works with the turkey, ham, sausages, and other dishes that dot the dinner table. The wine is not so heavy as to fill you up, and its lack of tannins (found in a Napa Cabernet or French Bordeaux wine, for example) compliments the turkey or ham equally well.

Bandol, an area in Provence in southern France, is the world’s foremost growing region for Mourvédre, a tough, tannic, even leathery red grape. Bandol reds are rustic and age-worthy, but the rosés are more accessible and are Tavel’s only real peer at the pinnacle of blush wine world. They don’t display the same spiciness, but are more austere and earthier. La Bastide Blanche ‘cuvee estagnol,’ a Bandol I recently had with Chinese beef-broccoli, paired quite well. In fact, the food seemed to bring more out of this wine than the others. This might be the only rosé among these that I wouldn’t have without some sort of food. At $20 a bottle, it was the most expensive example, and Bandol rosés would be the only type I would consider buying that wasn’t from a really recent vintage.

Spanish Rosés

From Spain there are numerous Grenache-based rosés. Artazuri, in the Navarro region, makes a rosé from 100% Grenache. It is an excellent find for a mere $10. I was still able to find the 2003 vintage around Chicago (although I was hoping to find the 2004 vintage, just for freshness, not for that harvest in particular), and while it’s not as bright as it was last year, it’s still displaying earthy, dried-black-cherry notesquite full for a blush wine. I’m envisioning this with grilled salmon, or the bourbon-marinated BBQ ribs from the same Chinese restaurant near me. This only seems odd because the restaurant’s chef worked in Paris, not Spain. But any of the wines described here would work with these dishes. Eric Solomon, a hands-on and reliable importer, is responsible for the above as well as the following Spanish gem.

Castaño (the winery) Yecla (the region) rosé, is made of 100% Monastrell. The French name for this Spanish grape is Mourvédre, of the Bandol wine described above. This rosé has a deep red hue to it, drastically different from the pale-pink color of the Bandolso much so that I jokingly suggested Castaño must be situated next to a nuclear reactor. The flavors mirrored this as well, with the Castaño much more red-fruit driven. For me and my dinner companions, having both wines with the same meal made for an interesting comparison. The Spanish Monastrell would serve well when dining out where a wide array of entrees may appear. It’d be a great choice for winning over your red-wine-only friends. Either of these would be great with grilled or blackened tuna steak, or spicy, meaty Asian cuisine.

From Rioja, a widely available rosé is Marqués de Cáceres. They produce roughly 100,000 cases of the rosé annually, which is typically about 85% Tempranillo and the rest Grenache. Showing strawberry, raspberry, and rose-petal qualities, this wine is a favorite of mine with all sorts of tapas. It also matches up with dill- or basil-enhanced salmon. I’ve enjoyed numerous vintages of this wine, and it has performed consistently.

I expected to find a few more Rioja rosés on a recent swing through some Chicago retail stores, but was unsuccessful. The three Spanish rosés just described, made with three different grapes from three different regions, constitute a tremendous trio, especially considering their overall quality, price, and availability.

American Rosés

I’ve tried a few rosés from the west coast that are worth mentioning. Santa Barbara (CA) county’s Beckmen Vineyards makes a Grenache-based rosé very reminiscent of a Tavel. This is hardly surprising as the winery excels at numerous Rhone-inspired wines. In-your-face red fruit and subtle spice make this wine memorable, but the limited production makes it tough to find (Beckmen makes no more than about 1,000-2,000 cases annually).

Sokol Blosser Winery in Oregon’s Willamette Valley makes a Pinot Noir-based rosé that is prettier and lighter in body. Its strawberry flavors would be welcome alongside salmon and salsa. But again, its microscopic quantities make it almost unknown outside of that state.

In summary, I really can’t recommend dry rosés enough. Their versatility is virtually unrivaled in the wine world and their affordability is likewise inviting. Their refreshing character will help you through the heat of the long summer as well as that of your favorite Asian cuisine.

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