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Rosé: Underrated or Overhyped?

Confounded by the recent glorification of rosé, Lettie Teague goes taste-testing to make up her own mind about the merits of the pink-hued wine.

Certain wines have seasonal ties: For Thanksgiving it's Zinfandel (the "all-American" wine) and for New Year's, of course, it's Champagne. In the summer, the default seems to be rosé. And yet unlike either Zinfandel or Champagne, rosé is a wine with a guilt trip attached. That is, rosés are often preceded by one or more of the following words: underrated, maligned or misunderstood. In fact, so much has been said about rosé not getting its due, I've begun to think that the opposite holds true. Could it be that rosé is actually getting more credit than it deserves? After all, there's been such a big push in the past several years, it seems as if more and more people are being urged to believe any rosé must be good. But how often is this really true? I decided to find out for myself.

I scoured several local wine shops and bought all the rosés I could—nearly three dozen bottles from around the world. One of the first things I noticed was the variation of vintages, ranging from 2005 all the way back to 1995. I was surprised to find so many older wines, as very few rosés improve with age. (More on that 11-year-old rosé— the winery's most recent release—a little bit later.)

To me, one of the most compelling characteristics of a good rosé is youthful vivacity and fresh, ripe strawberry and cherry flavors. (Rosés are made in a few different ways, including the blending of red and white wines together, or leaving the skins briefly in contact with the juice just before fermentation, or by a technique called saignée, in which a certain amount of juice is "bled" from the tank at regular intervals.) I was admittedly a bit trepidatious about the older rosés—and, unfortunately, my fears were pretty much realized. The '04s and '05s were mainly okay, but the '03s were fairly faded, their once attractive fruit more distant memory than current sensation. This even included a rosé from the estimable Provençal producer Domaines Ott, a wine with an equally estimable price tag of $20.

Over-the-hill rosés aren't the exclusive province of retail stores; they turn up on restaurant wine lists, too. For example, Bette restaurant in New York City featured a five-year-old Provençal rosé (Château Simone) for $70 on its wine list just a few months ago, while in Boston, you can buy a four-year-old rosé from southern Italy at the restaurant Mare for $40 a bottle.

But there are other qualities besides youth and fruitiness that a pleasing rosé should possess. It should be refreshing and lively and perhaps even charming as well. Charming is a word that rosé producers bandy about quite a bit—although some have been known to resort to racier language. In Virginia, the Kluge Estate makes a $13 rosé that it claims "bursts with romance [and] passion." And while the label promises Barbara Cartland–style vinous transport to drinkers, the wine itself turned out to be a rather puritanical Bordeaux-style blend of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, with a nose more redolent of old cheese rind than of romance and a texture more stern than sensuous.

Part of the problem with many rosés may be the grapes that winemakers use. I'm not a big fan of Cabernet- or Merlot-based rosés or, for that matter, rosés made from tannic varietals such as Petit Verdot or Cabernet Franc; I find them too austere and often too high in alcohol—as much as 15 or 16 percent. Cinsaut, the workhorse grape of France's Languedoc region, currently ranks as my least favorite rosé varietal, particularly after I tasted the bitter and astringent Cinsaut rosé from Lebanon's star producer, Château Musar. (How, I wondered, can a winery capable of making such a good red wine turn out such a painful rosé?)

I prefer rosés made from softer, less tannic grapes like Pinot Noir or Grenache—the standard rosé grape of southern France. And yet, some wineries can even go wrong with Grenache. For example, the producers at Epiphany Cellars in Los Olivos, California, made a Grenache rosé that's nearly 16 percent alcohol, or just a point or two shy of port. People who drank that on a picnic would likely forget where they had parked their car.

Of course, I don't think that most rosé producers actually aspire to make a fortified wine, but I do believe quite a few of them are thinking "red" when they're making rosé. Take, for example, the winemakers at Wirra Wirra Vineyards, a South Australia winery that turns out some pretty nice Shirazes but whose 2004 Petit Verdot-dominant rosé, Mrs. Wigley, is more tannic and powerful than some of its reds. Then there's the Loire valley rosé that turned out to look so much like a red wine that the French government refused to allow it to be classified as a Rosé d'Anjou. (The French, who have a criteria for just about everything, apparently have one for wine color, too.) Defiant producers Christine and Joël Ménard managed to get rosé on their label by calling their wine Ceci N'est Pas un Rosé ("This Is Not a Rosé"). And certainly the wine, made from Cabernet Franc, looks like a red wine but drinks like both a red and a rosé (i.e., it has the body, texture and tannin of a red but the fruit and acidity of a rosé).

The Spanish are apparently much less stringent about color than the French, as demonstrated by the 1995 rosé from Rioja producer López de Heredia that I discovered selling for $24 at a wine shop in midtown Manhattan. The tangerine-colored 11-year-old wine is the current vintage and latest release of a famously old-fashioned producer whose reds and whites are released at equally advanced ages, having spent years in American oak barrels. (For example, the current vintage of its white Reserva is 1988.) The López de Heredia rosé wasn't dead (the acidity was still quite lively), but it was deliberately oxidized—and tasted more like a warm, nutty fino sherry than it did a rosé. (This oxidative winemaking style was quite common in Spain until several decades ago.) If someone asked me for a rosé that tasted like sherry, I'd recommend the López; but ultimately, to me, it's a more intellectually admirable than enjoyable wine.

It's not that I didn't find any good rosés—they do exist. Of the several dozen I tasted, I found three or four that I particularly liked, especially the 2004 Mas Carlot, a Vin de Pays d'Oc wine from southern France, which was truly refreshing, with a spicy, strawberry nose and juicy acidity. It was also priced right, about $10 a bottle. The 2005 Turkey Flat Grenache from Australia was another pleasant summer drink: simple and a little bit sweet, but reasonably priced ($16).

There is one type of rosé I do like a great deal: rosé Champagne. I'm a huge rosé Champagne fan, and I think it is a truly overlooked wine. In fact, I find that certain Champagne houses that are praised for their regular bottlings often make as good or even better rosés (Billecart-Salmon and Alfred Gratien are two that come to mind). Maybe it's a matter of where they source the grapes, or maybe it's because rosé Champagne is harder to make and producers feel obliged to rise to the challenge. Whatever the reason, should rosé fanatics need another fan to further their cause, if the rosés come with bubbles, I'll be on their side.

Comments? E-mail your thoughts to Lettie Teague at winematters@aexp.com.

Published May 2006
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