It’s hot. The Fourth of July witnessed blistering temperatures around California, and this time the Bay Area was no exception. In my last column, I bemoaned the cool temperatures that typically beset the San Francisco metropolitan area in June and July and used the unseasonable chill as an excuse to explore one of the heavier wine regions of France, the syrah-saturated Northern Rhône. But our recent string of 75-plus-and-sunny days shows my pessimism to be ill-advised.
Rather than pouring robust Rhônes with pot roast, I’ve been just like everyone else – firing up the grill and guzzling rosé on the sun-drenched deck. Since the weather is warm and the best rosé in the world comes from several of the lesser known wine regions of France (the theme of my column), I’d be remiss to refrain from saying a few words on the subject.
Sun-drenched, in fact, is the word I’d blurt out if one of those ink blots happened to look like a bottle of rosé (not an unlikely scenario, actually, as I’ve had rosé on the brain for the past month or so). This word association is partly explained by the fact that sun-drenched weather makes me salivate for a glass of crisp, cold rosé and the light, summery cuisine with which it pairs so well. But it’s also a result of the climate of the mecca of great rosé: Southern France.
For me, good rosé wine will forever be connected with Provence. It was there that I first became acquainted with what is, in my view, the apotheosis of rosé-ness – its Platonic ideal, the quality of rosé to which all other rosés aspire. I am speaking of none other than Bandol, the tiny terraced wine region abutting the Mediterranean between Marseille and Toulon. But I have written extensively about Bandol elsewhere (too extensively, some of you have gently suggested).
Rather than again waxing poetic about Bandol rosé’s mouthwatering complexity and stunning freshness, I’ll simply say this: go out and try one right now. It’ll set you back $20-30 – more than most rosés – but it’ll be worth every penny (and it’s far less than you’d have to pay to taste “the best bottle” of any other major category of wine). Instead, I’ll make some general comments about rosé wine designed to inform the curious and pacify the skeptical. Then I’ll roughly sketch the landscape of Southern French rosés, suggesting several regions to which you might look for good rosé offerings that typically come in at a fraction of the price of Bandol.
So what is rosé wine? In French, the word rosé literally means “pink.” But wine properly categorized as rosé (or “blush”) is only sometimes pink. Rosés can range in color from an oniony off-white with a pinkish tint to a pale orange to a salmony-peach hue to a bright shade of watermelon. The color of the wine is determined not only by the kind of grape used in its production – the thin-skinned pinot noir tends to make lighter rosés than the thick-skinned mourvedre, for example – but also by the amount of time the skins of the grapes spend in contact with the juice.
There are three ways to make rosé wines. The first and most popular is by allowing the skins of the red grapes a little bit of contact with the juice (typically between 24 and 48 hours) before removing the skins and fermenting the juice separately. This brief mingling imparts just enough reddish color, tannins, and phenols – all of which come from the skins of red grapes – to create a wine darker in color and more substantial in flavor than white wine, but lighter and less robust than red wine.
The second and slightly less common way to make rosé is known as the saignée method, which literally means “bled” in French. Where this method is used, rosé wine is literally the by-product of red wine, with the pink juice bled off from the red wine early in the winemaking process and fermented separately. The third method, which is against the law in all French regions except Champagne (where it is practiced occasionally to produce sparkling rosé), entails blending together red and white wine until the rosé reaches the desired hue and flavor.
The best indication of a rosé wine’s flavor is its color. Almost without exception, the darker the wine, the richer and fruitier the flavor. In my opinion, the most interesting rosés are lighter in color. Rosés from Bandol and its Provencal environs generally bear an onion-skin or salmon hue. The result is a rosé that mimics great dry, lean white wines with its herbaceous, flinty, white pepper flavors, intense crispness, and restrained peachy fruitiness. By contrast, darker rosés tend to exhibit the richer and sometimes sweeter red fruit flavors of strawberry and raspberry and the fuller body characteristic of red wines. But you can rarely go wrong drinking any Southern France rosé – almost all of which are dry, crisp, and refreshing – whatever the color.
There are many reasons to drink rosé from Southern France, including its ability to refresh on a hot day and its bargain price. But one of rosé’s most attractive features is its immense versatility. A crisp rosé can be served as an apértif before a meal, as is common in Provence, or paired with a wide variety of foods. Its dry, mineral quality and clean fruitiness complement beautifully grilled meats (even those spicy marinades that are fatal to most wines), fresh vegetable tarts, salads, marinated goat cheese, roasted chicken, light pastas, all manner of fish, and much more. When you’re not sure whether to pair a red or a white wine with your meal, a rosé is often the perfect compromise.
Although this observation has been made again and again, it seems that no article on rosé wine is complete without it, so I’ll oblige: Rosé wine – in particular French rosé – has absolutely nothing to do with the justly maligned (yet still oddly popular) white zinfandel. True, white zin is pink, and French rosé is often pink. But the similarities stop there. Sweet, light, one-dimensional white zinfandel was the accidental result of fermentation-gone-bad in 1975 that Sutter Home decided to market and sell in hopes of salvaging profits. Like Toll House’s chocolate chip cookies, the result was an economic hit, and today white zin accounts for almost 10% of all wine sales in the United States (making it the third most popular varietal among Americans, behind chardonnay and merlot).
That’s fine for those who like white zin. But for those who don’t (because, among other things, it tastes like a light, fruity cocktail, not wine), the tragedy is that good French rosé has been associated with white zin in the popular American imagination and ostracized accordingly by wine enthusiasts. The upside is that French rosé’s prices stay low due to minimal demand; but the downside is that a huge swath of American wine drinkers are missing out on the best of summer sippers simply because of negative association. If you’re in this category of consumers, please consider using the following few paragraphs as a guide through the land mined terrain of pink wines to the promised land of delicious, food-friendly, refreshing rosés – Southern France.
There are at least three styles of rosé in Southern France, each of which can be identified generally by its color and region. First is the style typical of Provence, of which Bandol is the best example. These wines tend to be lightly colored – even oniony white or salmon – and made predominantly from cinsault and mourvedre grapes. The wines are often the crispest and driest of rosés, lean in body but very complex in flavor, exhibiting notes of mineral, herbs, grass, pepper, and dried fruits. For an economical alternative to Bandol, look for rosés made in Côtes-de-Provence, Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence, Cassis, Palette, and other regions in Southeastern France. Provence is the rosé capital of the world; it is a rare meal in the Côte d’Azur that doesn’t involve a glass, if not a bottle, of a chilled local blush wine. The United States import market is beginning to catch on, so thankfully Provencal rosé isn’t nearly as difficult to locate as it once was.
Second is the style of the Southern Rhone, typified by Tavel, the only official appellation in all of France (and probably all of the world) that produces nothing but rosé. Tavel wine is darker in color than the rosé of Provence – somewhere between orange and bright pink – and correspondingly fuller in body and flavor. Like the famous vineyards of Châteauneuf-du-Pape that it faces across the Rhône River, Tavel uses a grenache-heavy blend of several grapes, including carignan, cinsault, syrah, and mourvedre, as well as white grapes clairette, bourboulenc, and picpoul. Unlike other Southern French rosé-making regions, in Tavel, no single varietal may exceed 60% of the overall blend.
Tavel distinguishes itself from other rosés by its solidity and density – it is a serious wine that tastes serious. Although certainly fresh, it trades some of its crispness for a robustness reminiscent of the red wine its neighbors have made famous. Tavel advocates like to tout the region’s rosé-only focus and the fact that it is the only rosé to appear on the wine lists of all of France’s three-star restaurants (a fact that, I confess, I’ve not had occasion to confirm, though I wouldn’t mind trying). My first taste of Tavel couldn’t have been under more favorable conditions – a dinner on the riverside patio of a restaurant facing the papal palace of Avignon lit enchantingly against the warm night sky – and yet I found it less appealing than the cheaper Côtes-de-Provence I’d been drinking earlier in the week. The only way to know for sure is to pick up a bottle, chill it, and serve it with something grilled. It may well fit your palate perfectly, as it does for so many français.
The third style of Southern French rosé in need of mention is that of the Languedoc-Roussillon region and Southeastern France more generally. These wines tend to be the most deeply colored of all – often dark pink to a watermelony light red. They are typically dominated by syrah and grenache, with smaller quantities of carignan, cinsault, mourvedre, and occasionally merlot thrown in. Among all French rosés, those of the Southeast tend to be the fruitiest and most naturally quaffable. They sometimes bear a tinge of sweetness that makes them oh-so-easy to drink down on a hot summer day, but they are still dry, a far cry from white zin or other semisweet New World rosés. Their ripe strawberry and raspberry flavors and lower acidity make for the kind of beverage that is hard to resist and easy to pair with a variety of warm weather fare. In part due to the vast production of Languedoc-Roussillon wine, these rosés are easy to find and, at $10 a bottle, even easier to purchase. While my purist palate generally prefers the complexity of a bone-dry Bandol, even I cannot help but succumb to the seductive pleasure of a round, inviting, flavorful Languedoc rosé on a sunny day.
For an educational and pleasurable afternoon, buy rosés from Côtes-de-Provence, Tavel, and the Languedoc, grill some meat and make a salad, and try each bottle on its own and then paired with the food. You’ll learn a great deal about your own palate as well as the different styles Southern French blush wines. And maybe, if you’re lucky, you’ll find your house wine for the summer. At the very least, I’ll wager that you’ll be pleasantly surprised, as I have been, at the remarkable quality of pink wine available at remarkably low prices – a valuable find indeed.