The Rhone Report: About Rhone and Rhone-Style Wines and Winemakers is part of an ongoing series.
Dry rosé wine has long been appreciated in Europe, especially the south of France. Rosés from the Rhone Valley and elsewhere in Provence have been highly regarded for generations. These rosés are popular with the local cuisine (think garlic, tomato, fish, shellfish, poultry, game, dry sausages, olives, fresh vegetables, basil, etc.), especially during the summer months when a chilled glass is particularly refreshing.
But in the United States, pink colored wines have had a checkered reputation. In the fifties and sixties, soda-pop sweet pink wines from Portugal, Mateus and Lancers, were popular and were even considered sophisticated. Suzanne remembers being given a bottle of Mateus by a young television newscaster in Washington, D.C. and being wowed by the gesture. But these pinks gave real rosé a bad name.
First offered in the late seventies and a huge commercial success by the eighties, white zinfandel further cemented the perception of Americans that pink wine was mediocre stuff for those that didn’t know better. While zinfandel can produce wonderful rosé when properly made from quality grapes, the product called white zinfandel is typically made from over-cropped, inferior fruit and vinified with too much residual sugar. Suzanne refused to pour white zinfandel at her popular wine bar in Washington. When tourist and conference attendee customers asked for that insipid stuff, they were politely told that Suzanne’s only poured real (red) zinfandel, thank you very much.
By the nineties, several domestic producers offered quality dry rosés, but they were tough sells because of the widely held perception of pink wines as too sweet and inferior. When our friends Elaine and David asked us to design a wine list for their new pan-Asian restaurant in northern California, we planned to offer at least four still rosés and one sparkling. The flavor profiles of the wines we selected were perfectly suited to David’s style of cooking. Much to our disappointment, we quickly learned that people still thought that pink wine was like white zin, a ne’er do well to be avoided. So our rosé selections languished on the list and eventually disappeared altogether.
In the past few years, finally, Americans are beginning to appreciate quality rosé wines. The Nielsen Company reports that premium rosé sales for the year ending in March 2007 are up 45% over the prior year. There is even a group called Rosé Avengers and Producers (RAP) that conducted its first public tasting in July 2005 in San Francisco. The organization’s website, www.rapwine.com, lists as its members most of the significant domestic producers of quality, dry rosé wines.
We have enjoyed rosés from a variety of grapes and places, domestic and imported, including the rosados of Spain and the rosatos of Italy, and even a rosé from the Malbec (Auxerrois) grape from Château de Chambert in the Cahors AOC. But our strong favorites tend to be those from the traditional Rhone and Provencal varietals Grenache, Mourvedre, and Cinsault (also spelled Cinsaut). After tasting a wide variety of rosés at that initial RAP tasting in 2005, our preference for the grape varieties and style of the Rhone was strongly underscored.
The prime French models are the rosé wines of Bandol, on the Mediterranean coast east of Marseilles, and the Cotes du Rhone village of Tavel, across the Rhone River from the vineyards of Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Bandol AOC rosé must include at least 50% Mourvedre, which gives them an extra measure of crispness and flavor. Among our favorites is the rosé from Domaine Tempier. Our favorite Tavel rosés include the Grenache based blends from Domaine de la Mordoree and Domaine de la Genestiere. As we noted in our column last month, we also enjoy many of the rosés from the Vaucluse wine growing region across the Rhone River from Tavel. Yet another favorite from the south of France is the Costèries de Nîmes AOC Chateau Grande Cassagne, a blend based on Syrah with Grenache and Mourvedre.
Back home, we greatly enjoy California rosés made from these same typical Rhone varietals. We cited some outstanding examples in our column reporting on rosés at the Rhone Ranger tasting. These included the rosés from Tablas Creek Vineyard (near Paso Robles in San Luis Obispo County), Unti Vineyard (Dry Creek Valley in Sonoma County) and Domaine de la Terre Rouge (Shenandoah Valley in Amador County). These examples are all blends that include Mourvedre, which gives extra complexity as well as crispness, yielding refreshing wines with strong flavor interest.
Some very nice American rosé wines are being produced from a single grape, such as Grenache or Syrah, but to our taste they don’t have the flavor interest of blends, especially those that include Mourvedre. We hope more of the American producers will learn from the French and include a blend of varieties in their rosés in coming vintages.
As with their French prototypes, the Rhone-style California rosés are versatile accompaniments to a wide a variety of food. Chilled, they are excellent wines for picnics, a variety of first courses and dinners on hot summer evenings. Try them also with spicy and complex Asian foods. Enjoy some pinks this summer!