"You would bring rosé, wouldn't you?" my brother called out mockingly, as we floated down the White River, in Stockbridge, VT.
I smiled, and sipped the last few drops of Frisk Prickly Grenache rosé from my GoVino glass. A wash of red cherry and pomegranate flavors caressed my tongue, offering a subtle hint of sweetness that was balanced by a healthy dose of acidity. It was nearly 95 degrees outside, and aside from being on a tube in the middle of the river, I could think of little else that I would rather have to help me beat the heat. "Of course," I replied, giving my brother a smile. "It's the middle of summer, it's hot, and we're river tubing. Why wouldn't I bring a rosé?"
"That's true," my brother acknowledged. "I suppose rosé has become something of a tubing tradition."
Later that night, as I was reflecting on the day, I laughed to myself about how drastically my perceptions of rosé had changed over the past 5 or 6 years. I remembered when I first became enamored with wine, in the midst of my college years, back in 2005. In an attempt to diversify my repertoire as a liquor and beer-swilling frat boy, I decided to try to drink more wine, and quickly became hooked. I read everything I could about wine, and in attempt to become more knowledgeable, I decided to enroll in an extracurricular wine tasting class. However, as America's affinity towards rosé was still being cultivated at the time, I had little exposure to pink wines, except to think of them as sweet, and trashy. Midway through the fourth session of my wine tasting class, our instructor, Peter Rutledge of Norwich Wine and Spirits, pulled out a bottle of Domaine Tempier's Bandol Rosé.
"That's too bad," I said to myself. "I thought he really knew what he was talking about when it came to wine."
Up until that point, I, like many American wine consumers, had associated rosé with White Zinfandel - sweet, slightly sparkling, pink wine. While it's true that White Zinfandel is a type of rosé, associating rosé with White Zinfandel is tantamount to associating Hillary Duff's acting career to that of Julia Roberts. One is obviously a serious actress, someone who is practiced in her craft, and able to convey her passion for her profession into each of her roles. The other is an opportunist, someone who appeals to the masses, who entreats forays into adjacent professions because it allows for an opportunity to make money.
White Zinfandel was the product of an accident, but it quickly evolved into a money making venture. Until the late 1990s, Zinfandel was the most widely planted red wine grape in the United States, but during the 1970s and 1980s, the majority of American wine consumers preferred white wine to red. While searching for a way to make his vast plantings of Zinfandel more palateable to the American public, Bob Trinchero of Sutter Home Vineyards began to experiment with the saignée method, in which some of the pressed grape juice is drained from the must soon after pressing. As the color and flavor in red wine is imparted by the skins, saignée increases the concentration of color and flavor in the must, while the drained juice has a pink color, and more mild flavors. However, both can be fermented into wine.
Trinchero began experimenting with saignée produced rosé of Zinfandel in 1972, which he sold in the winery's tasting room as Oeil de Perdrix meaning “Eye of the Partridge." From 1972 to 1975, this was a dry rosé. In 1975, the fermentation of the white zinfandel became stuck, as the yeasts in the must died off before converting all the sugar to alcohol. Left with a wine that had 2% residual sugar, Trinchero decided to bottle it, and was astounded as it connected with the American palate in a way that his earlier rosés of Zinfandel had not. By 1980, he was selling 25,000 cases per year, and by 1986 sales of Sutter Home White Zinfandel (Trinchero had dropped the Oeil de Perdrix name in 1975) had risen to 1,500,000 cases per year. This dramatic growth in sales resulted in Sutter Home, as well as other wineries who had jumped on the White Zinfandel band wagon, planting new Zinfandel vineyards in California's Central Coast. The sole purpose of these vineyards was to accomodate the burgeoning demand for White Zinfandel.
As Jancis Robinson has noted in The Oxford Companion to Wine, White Zinfandel is seen as "... decidedly sweet, often enlivened with a touch of gas, and scented with more than a dash of other, more obviously aromatic, grape varieties such as Muscat or Riesling." Karen MacNeil states in The Wine Bible that "because it is often slightly sweet and almost always mass produced from less than top-quality grapes, White Zinfandel is considered a beginner's wine by serious wine drinkers." Unfortunately, as White Zinfandel fell out of fashion, so did rosé, as many consumers determined that since both were pink wines, both were unfit to drink. The backlash against White Zinfandel may have been well deserved. It is mass produced, lacks character, and is more reminiscent of alcoholic Kool-Aid than wine. Sadly, the vitriol extended to White Zinfandel was also extended to its cousin, dry rosé.
Dry rosé has long maintained eminent popularity in France. Ironically, French rosés were the inspiration for Bob Trinchero's early vintages of Oeil de Perdrix, before the 1975 stuck fermentation occured, and the simple equation of supply and demand thrust White Zinfandel into prominence. On the night that Domaine Tempier's Bandol Rosé forever changed my perception of pink wine, I remember Peter describing rosé as "the perfect summer wine," a wine that "could be stuck in a bucket of ice, and still retain its fruit flavors." Over the years, I've come to think of rosé as the red wine drinker's white wine, as it is crisp, cold, and refreshing, but still reminiscent of the red wine grapes from which it is made. Rosé can be made through many methods, including the saignée method described above. It can also be made by shortening the maceration period, so that the skins of the red grapes are in contact with the juice for a shorter period of time, and thereby impart less color and flavor to the wine. Lastly, rosé can be produced by blending red and white wines, although this is a far less common production method.
Over the past several years, a concentrated effort to revive rosé's popularity among the American public has resulted in a resurgence for this style of wine, and led to more American wineries producing rosé than ever before. Whereas rosé was once the domain of the French and the Spanish, we are now seeing an influx of rosé from nearly every wine producing country, including the U.S., Italy, Australia, South Africa and more. We are also seeing rosé available at more retail outlets than ever before. Although most boutique wine shops have faithfully stocked rosé for the past several years, more commercial retail outlets have traditionally avoided stocking rosé, which is evidence of the fact that a sizeable contingent of American consumers continue to eschew the grape. I have aunts and uncles who have mocked my efforts to introduce them to rosé, and who refuse to try it, no matter the caliber of rosé that I present them with. I have been met with resistance even when I have tempted non-rosé drinkers with Lucien Crochet's Pinot Rosé from Sancerre, which in my opinion is one of the finest rosés being made today. Ah well, more for me, I suppose.
Yet, there are breakthroughs being made. This spring and summer, I noticed rosés being stocked in Costco and Price Chopper, which indicates that the increasing popularity of rosé is being noticed on a macro level. While these rosés (the Mulderbosch Cabernet Sauvignon Rosé at Costco, and the Marques de Caceres Rosé at Price Chopper) are moderately priced, they both provide a textbook example of what dry rosé should be. Another example of rosé that gives me confidence in the future of pink wine is the Calatroni Unico, which is a rosé made from Pinot Grigio, in the Oltrepo Pavese region of Italy. Although the rosé character of the wine is imparted by calcium deposits in the soil that give a red hue to the ordinarily white Pinot Grigio grapes, it speaks volumes to the rising popularity of rosé that an Italian wine producer would choose to make a rosé from one of its most commercially exportable white grape varieties. Finally, Storybook Mountain Vineyards, brings the story of rosé in the U.S. full circle, producing a dry rosé of Zinfandel, called "Zin Gris" despite the undesireable, and unavoidable association with White Zinfandel. The winery must know that it is producing this wine for a specific audience, but must also simultaneously recognize that without its production, another generation of American wine consumers will never know the true, thrist quenching joys of dry rosé.
If you haven't taken the plunge for pink wines yet, trust me, the experience is worth a raised eyebrow or two.
Other Rosés Worth Trying - (I'm including lots, so there's no excuses.)