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Rosé in style: A color chart from the Provence Wine Council. Photo by Francois Millo/CIVP.
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Lush Blush

Jeffery Lindenmuth - September 2011

Sommeliers are raising their glasses to toast a renewed enthusiasm for rosé.

Copper, salmon, cerise, coral, ruby, or magenta—unlike most wines, rosé is foremost defined not by grape, or country, but by color. These rosy hues have been a source of both allure, and confusion, for American wine lovers in our tumultuous affair with rosé. With the arrival of white Zinfandel, the pink and sweet California blush wine pioneered by Sutter Home beginning with the 1975 vintage, “pink” became suspect for many wine drinkers. Dry rosé was not what the burgeoning breed of white Zinfandel drinkers desired, and so-called serious wine drinkers no longer wanted to be seen drinking pink, with its sweet connotation. “I really blame white Zinfandel for the lack of seriousness that still endures about rosé wines,” laments Sebastian Zutant, wine director of Proof in Washington, D.C.

When white Zinfandel’s reign as the most popular wine in America came to a close in the late 1990s, along with it came, coincidentally or not, a renewed interest in dry rosé. This summer, Zutant champions dry rosé with a promotion titled War of the Rosés, featuring a rotating selection of about six rosé wines from around the globe, collected on a one-page list and priced at a flat $35 per bottle. “The goal is to get people to drink more rosé, because I believe it’s simply some of the most refreshing and delightful stuff around.”

Featuring Domaine Locus Ameno Rosé 2010 (Côte de Provence), Tablas Creek Vineyard Rosé 2010 (Paso Robles), Gurrutxaga Rosado 2010 (Txakoli, Spain), Etude Rosé 2009 (Carneros), and Jean-Maurice Raffault Rosé 2010 (Chinon), Zutant offers a range of styles and grapes to debut his program. With excellent dry rosé appearing from Greece, Chile, Australia, and New York State, it will take a long southern summer to sift through the remaining incarnations of carnation. “These are all dramatically different wines,” says Zutant. “Personally, my heart lies with Provence. It’s enigmatic, light, and airy, with that beautiful pale color. But I also enjoy Txakoli, with its super intense acidity that rips the enamel off your teeth.”

Zutant is not alone in his appreciation for imported rosé. According to The Nielsen Company, sales of imported rosé wine priced $12 and up increased 17.7 percent on volume for 2010, the sixth straight year of dynamic growth. Classic producing regions like Provence, where rosé represents nearly 90 percent of Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée wines, are leading the way. Customs data released by the CIVP/Provence Wine Council shows exports of rosé and red wine from Provence to the United States jumped 85 percent by volume and 132 percent by value in 2010.

Summer days may be rosé’s raison d’être, but Laura Maniec, M.S. and wine consultant for Niko in New York City, refuses to be limited by the seasons. “I love rosé, not just for summer, but also in wine pairing menus, because it gives me an opportunity to use another style of wine in a multicourse menu,” explains Maniec, who typically offers at least three rosés among about 100 selections on the Niko wine list. Niko’s sushi, fresh fish, and pure Japanese flavors could easily lend themselves to a monochromatic evening of white wines, so rosé steps in to bring some welcome color and variety to the table.

Maniec offers two Provençal wines, Château d’Esclans Les Clans 2008 ($146) and Triennes Rosé 2010 ($48), as well as R. López de Heredia Rioja Viña Tondonia Gran Reserva 2000 ($50), an aged rosé from the traditional Rioja producer. “The López is perfect with toro and smoked eel. With their smoky, fatty, and rich flavors, a young and playful rosé probably would not work with these foods, but this wine can handle them,” says Maniec of the oak-aged rosé, made from Grenache, Tempranillo, and Rioja’s white Viura grape.

At San Francisco’s Foreign Cinema, wine director Zach Pace promotes rosé wines via two special flights. Rosé Colored Glasses ($22) brings pink wine into focus with 3 ounce pours of Dominique Piron Beaujolais-Villages Rosé 2009 (a Gamay from Beaujolais), Tenute Sella Coste della Sesia Rosato “Majoli” 2009 (made from Lessona, Bramaterra, and Nebbiolo from Piedmont), and Baker Lane Rosé of Syrah 2009 (from Sonoma Coast). “The wines are served side-by-side in small carafes to highlight the different hues, from the salmon-colored Provençal wine to the iron-laden orange-pink Nebbiolo, versus the ruby-colored California Syrah,” says Pace. Another flight, Three Shades of Sancerre ($26), offers wines from the French AOC in three shades, with a Matthias et Émile Roblin Rosé 2008, joined by white and red wines from the region.

The flights are especially popular at brunch, when baked cod, eggs, or oysters make fitting partners for rosé, according to Pace. “I like that this gives us four glasses of rosé, which is pretty special. People get really excited by the prospect of the Sancerre and Nebbiolo, so I feel as though I’m doing a public service,” he says.

While Italy’s rosato may lurk in the shadow of Spain’s rosado and France’s rosé, Joe Campanale, beverage director and partner in Manhattan’s West Village restaurant Dell’Anima, finds plenty of fodder for a dedicated section on his Italian wine list. “Italy offers a huge range of grapes and styles of wines, and that includes rosé, where you can have a very pale, light crisp rosé or much deeper, almost red, wines like Montepulciano rosé,” says Campanale.

With about a dozen Italian rosés by the glass and bottle, Dell’Anima’s selection ranges from a Orsolani Canavese Rosato “Rubiconda” 2010, made from the rare red-pulped Neretto grape ($44), to pricey rosés that rival the cult status of their top Provençal counterparts, like Valentini Cerasuolo Montepulciano d’Abruzzo 2005 from Abruzzo ($195) and Massa Vecchia Rosato Maremma Toscana 2006 from Tuscany ($96). Such esoteric and pricey rosés appeal more to the adventurous wine lover than those looking for a casual pink quaffer. “These are some of my favorite wines on the list, of any color,” says Campanale.

At his other restaurants, Anfora and L’Artusi, Campanale augments Italian rosé with pink-hued wines from Lebanon to Long Island. (Well-traveled East Coasters have made rosé a popular summer accessory on Long Island and Nantucket in recent years.) In pairing with food, Campanale likens rosé to the Italian red Barbera, for its good acidity and lighter body. “I’ll consider rosé for a table where everyone is ordering something different. With chicken, pork, and fish you may not get that perfect wine for every dish, but rosé can be a nice moderator,” says Campanale.

California derailed rosé once before, and many of today’s West Coast winemakers are again creating a new face for pink wine, expanding the breadth of rosé by blurring the line with red wine. While all rosé wines rely on red grapes for their color, the rosé wines of Provence are crafted more like white wine, using only light pressing and avoiding long macerations or significant color from the skins. Many New World producers have embraced the saignée method, wherein the winemaker adds the skins and juice to the fermenter in preparation to make red wine, then “bleeds” a portion of juice from the fermenter after achieving the correct pink hue. This has the benefit of increasing the skin-to-juice ratio of the remaining fermentation, creating the potential for more concentrated, extracted red wines as well.

Certainly, good rosé can be made using either method, and saignée is popular for making rosé in Bordeaux, Champagne, and Sancerre, sometimes in combination with other techniques. It’s not a question of process, but intent. Saignée rosés that appear as a by-product of red winemaking are generally rich in color, with higher alcohol and obvious tannin compared to their French counterparts.

Winemaker Jon Priest has earned sommelier adoration for the freshness and delicacy of his Etude Rosé crafted from Carneros Pinot Noir. “I think what sets the wine apart is that these Pinot Noir grapes are grown specifically for rosé,” he explains. “We pick the grapes earlier than we would for red wine to retain acidity, and we pick at night and go right into a press. When you base your decisions on making a red wine using saignée, not on making the best possible rosé, you do not get the same result.”

After gentle, whole-berry pressing, and fermenting in neutral barrels, the Etude Rosé emerges fresh, fragrant, and salmon in color. “When we introduced rosé in 2004, there was still some resistance, but now the resurgence of dry rosé that appeared in New York, California, and Florida has swept America,” says Priest. Pallid pink or roughly red, today’s rosés offer as much diversity, adventure, and reward for the wine lover as their more prevalent red and white siblings. There’s perhaps never been a more exciting time to drink pink.