All Rosés Lead to Southern France

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.

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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.

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