The Bay Area is experiencing an unseasonable hot spell. And here, like most places suffering under the unrelenting rays of our nearest star, rosé is king.
But not just any rosé. Survey the bottles of blush pinch-hitting for rouge in wine enthusiasts’ lineups these days, and you’ll find a predominance of wine from Southern France. And rightly so – no region does rosé better than the appellations bordering the sun-lit Cote d’Azur. But Provence is not the only show in town. Other regions, not only in France but also in Spain, Germany, and Italy, produce delightful examples of warm weather’s red-substitute.
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If pink is the new red, then Provence is the Prada to the Loire’s Gap. Far less fashionable than its southern cousin, rosé from the Loire Valley nonetheless deserves to be in the regular rotation of those who appreciate distinctiveness and utility in their wines.
Sancerre rosé, perhaps the easiest to find of the Loire’s pink wines, is usually composed of Pinot Noir. Rosé bearing the broader designate Touraine can include a number of different grapes and is typically a blend of several indigenous varietals. Each of these is worth tasting. But my favorite is probably the least common Loire rosé of all – 100% Cabernet Franc from Chinon and Saumur.
Regular readers of this column may find this unsurprising. I’ve written in the past of my affection for Loire Cabernet Franc (see Life is Like a Mixed Case of Loire Cabernet Franc and Bourgueil]. But for all my gushing about the red wine from Saumur, Chinon, and especially Bourgueil, I haven’t mentioned those regions’ equally interesting rosé – until now. In part this is because retail shelves aren’t exactly overflowing with Cab Franc rosé, which makes up a very small percentage of these regions’ annual output (rosé of all types constitutes only 12% of the Loire’s total production). But they can be found, and once discovered, they warrant a try.
Why? Two words: typicity and versatility.
I say typicity rather than terroir because I overuse the word terroir. And because typicity, like versatility, ends in ity. But I’m trying to get at more or less the same idea – that the experience of drinking the wine (taste, texture, smell, sense memory) reflects the distinctive material out of which the wine is made (grapes, vines, land, weather).
Typicity is one of the great virtues of wine from the Loire, and rosé is no exception. Somehow, Loire Cab Franc rosés seem to taste less generic than many other rosés – even delicious and crisp ones – that I’ve tasted. They scream Cabernet Franc – an advantage of a single-varietal rosé over the more common Provencal blends of Grenache, Cinsault and Syrah. The green pepper, the minerals and herbs, the fresh cherry: it’s all there in greater or lesser degrees, and often in just the right proportions.
These rosés also tend to bear the qualities that distinguish one small Loire appellation from the next. As I’ve explained in the past, Cabernet Franc from Chinon – the most famous red appellation in the Loire – is usually the fruitiest, with a good dose of earth and herbs and a sound backbone of acidity and tannin. Saumur’s versions tend to be much lighter, but also more elegant and ethereal when done well. Bourgueil is the most structured and powerful of the three, but can often be quite rustic and tannic.
Last weekend I opened two Loire rosés, one from Chinon and one from Saumur. The Chinon (2006 Domaine de Beausejour, $17 at Monterey Market in Berkeley) sported a deep salmon color with an orange tinge; filled the mouth with its medium weight and ripe texture; treated the senses to waves of strong citrus followed by bursts of white pepper; and lacquered the tongue with an aftertaste of wild herbs and foresty flavors. By contrast, the Saumur (2007 Langlois-Chateau “La Bretonnière”, $13 at The Wine Mine in Oakland) was a lighter shade of salmon; danced more sprightly on the palate with a leaner, more delicate texture; charmed with demure flavors of peach and under-ripe nectarine and only a hint of spice; and finished with green pepper and a refined herbaceous quality. In other words, the Chinon rosé tasted like it came from Chinon, not Saumur; and vice-versa.
Of course some people might consider Loire rosé’s typicity a vice rather than a virtue. I think of my friend Carl, a more experienced wine drinker than I, who is a self-professed Loire Cab Franc hater, pure and simple. If I tell him “try this, it tastes like Chinon,” he’ll kindly decline. Not that Carl hasn’t tried to like Cab Franc – he sat admirably through a blind tasting of nine 2005 Loire reds at my house but left confirmed in his distaste. He’s not alone: Loire Cab Franc is a controversial wine that turns father against son, neighbor against neighbor, you get the idea.
Yet even Carl and his ilk would like a good Chinon rosé. Yes, these rosés taste like Chinon or Saumur, but they lack the pungency that turns some people off from Loire reds. The hallmark green pepper, fresh soil, and herbal qualities are present but substantially moderated by the minimal skin contact in pink vinification. Where in a rouge these distinctive flavors tend to be front-and-center, in a rosé they usually lurk in the corner, only appearing at opportune moments. Like bumpers in a bowling alley, rosé is a good primer for those new to Loire Cab Franc’s wild ways. And like Handsome Henry Clay, rosé splits the difference between Loire Cab Franc’s friends and foes.
Typicity is all well and good, but it’s a wine’s versatility that can convert it from a curious cellar-piece to a go-to selection. Loire Cab Franc rosés’ versatility stems in part from the fact that they are generally fuller in body and flavor than Provencal versions. These are the kind of wines that not only can be enjoyed on a sun-drenched deck in the middle of a lazy Saturday afternoon, but also are hefty enough to take you through dinner on a warm evening. I love – nay, adore – rosé de Provence, especially the cinsault-dominated, higher-quality stuff like Bandol. I waxed poetic about Provence’s special relationship with rosé a year or so ago. But the Cab Franc in these Loire rosés lend them a weight that pairs with a wider variety of foods, making them easier dinner companions.
At the end of the day, I probably prefer Provencal rosé to Loire rosé. So I can’t really quibble with those who gravitate southward when selecting rosés for summer consumption. Yet who ever said we could only drink one kind of rosé when the weather gets hot? Variety being the spice of life, I advise branching out and adding Loire Cab Franc to your rosé repertoire this season. Yes, Carl, this means you.