I first sipped rosé in the South of France, so there was no choice but to fall immediately and deeply in love. I studied in Paris; during our late-summer break some friends and I vacationed in a small beach town near Béziers, on the Mediterranean coast. Immediately after ditching our backpacks at the budget hotel, my friends and I plopped ourselves down at a table in a sweltering beachfront café and ordered a bottle of red wine. The waiter looked at us incredulously, and gave us the stereotypical snobby waiter routine.
“Mademoiselles,” he said with a sniff. “We do not serve red wine in this heat.”
It took us a while to be convinced that real live French people would actually touch pink wine. The alternative the waiter would offer was skunky French beer mixed with orange juice (which I’m still convinced was just a game they play on tourists), so rosé it was. When I put the glass to my lips…magic. It was an explosion of pie cherries, tangerines, fresh herbs and a sprinkling of mineral that swept over me like a cool Mediterranean breeze. OK – I didn’t use descriptors like that in my college days, but it was delicious and refreshing all the same and not at all what I had expected from a pink wine.
It wasn’t long ago that I would beg my customers to just taste a rosé. Most had never tasted a pink wine that wasn’t sticky sweet; importers brought in very few traditional European dry rosés. What did come was often shipped without the benefit of temperature-controlled shipping containers, arrived in the fall and languished in the distributor’s warehouse until someone thought to take it out the following spring. So many of the wines would be off-condition or simply tired.
Thankfully, through the combined passion of so many stewards and sommeliers in Portland, a lot of our customers have been similarly swept away. I’d venture to say that rosé is even popular. We have more choices than ever before, with rosé styles being developed in nearly all wine regions to meet that demand. And thankfully, refrigerated containers have become the norm for our importers partners. Seasonally appropriate ordering now gets the new vintages here faster than you can say “nouveau.” All that selection can get a bit confusing to navigate due to the diversity of styles and the vague and lacking description offered on the label.
One way to determine whether a rosé might be sweet or dry is to use the grape varietal and growing region as your guide. Grapes picked at higher ripeness tend to have some sugar remaining once the desired alcohol level is achieved. In contrast, wines from cooler regions and lighter-bodied grapes usually have higher acidity, which will balance out some sweetness. Wines made from Syrah, Malbec or Zinfandel may finish with some sweetness, where as Sangiovese or Pinot Noir will most likely be dry. Hot climates will produce an intensely fruity, slightly sweet rosé unless the winemaker uses steps to counterbalance it. You’ll find this style dominant in regions like Jumilla, Spain, and the Columbia Valley.
The textbook dry French rosés come from Provence, where the wines are pale salmon in color. These wines are crisp, with tangy acidity and leaner flavors that show best when paired with food. A perennial favorite of this genre is the Commanderie de la Bargemone Coteaux d’Aix en Provence Rosé. It has an understated pale salmon color. The nose gives a generous amount of red fruit combined with fennel. It’s a leaner style, so the acidity strikes you with the first sip, but soon tangerine, red cherry and fresh herb spread across the palate. It’s made from estate-grown, sustainably farmed Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache, Syrah and Cinsault. The 2010 vintage just hit town, but don’t hesitate to pick up the 2009. Because it’s intended to be lean, the flavor profile doesn’t change much over a year in the bottle, as long as it was stored properly (away from heat, out of the light). The Knights Templar once owned this property, then a count, and finally the Rozan family bought it in 1968. Since then they have invested heavily in the vineyards, with these old vines producing wonderfully textured, minerally wines. I love this style of wine with dishes that are a little salty or have lots of fresh herbs: seafood, of course, but also dry-rubbed smoked chicken, prosciutto-wrapped melon or grilled vegetables topped with tapenade. Commanderie de la Bargemone is distributed by Bacchus and sells for about $16.
To sip on its own, sometimes it’s fun to serve deeper-colored more fruit-focused styles with Jolly Rancher aromas and a juicy, but dry, finish. This style comes from warm-climate areas like Central Spain, the Southern Rhône Valley and Sicily. More recently Argentine winemakers have begun making raspberry-colored, heavily fragranced Malbec rosé that will cause your mouth to water with the first whiff. The Susana Balbo “Crios” Malbec Rosé is a knockout. This wine smells like watermelon and wild strawberries, but don’t be alarmed by the intensely fruity nose. While the flavors are jam-packed with juicy tangy fruit, the finish is dry and refreshing and lasts just long enough to persuade you to take another sip. Quite a few Malbec Rosés have cropped up in the past few years, but some lean toward an almost sweet style and others just lack depth. I love this juicy style with dry-rubbed smoked baby back ribs – the bold flavors stand up well to meat and fruitiness balances out the kick of spice. Paired with BBQ or grilled meat and with a good chill it’s far more refreshing than a red when the mercury rises. I’ve also found the combination of acidity and fruitiness as a great foil for spicy Thai noodles or Indian curries. Think of this as a year-round rosé for those kinds of dishes. Crios is distributed by Youngs/Columbia and sells for about $11.
Local wineries have struggled with creating a rosé style that suits the Northwest, but there are a handful each year that I love. Barnard Griffin’s Rosé of Sangiovese really stands out this year. This local pink has a mouthful of watermelon and cherry fruit with some spice and pastry notes that are perfectly balanced by Sangiovese’s natural acidity. There seems to be a lightness to this wine, despite its concentration of flavor. Rob Griffin started making this wine when one of his growers begged him to buy some Sangiovese. Rob isn’t a fan of Washington Sangiovese, but thought it would make a nice rosé and gave it a shot. He has tinkered with picking times and crop levels over the years. Rob grows this wine to be rosé, unlike many other Northwest wineries that siphon off juice from their red wine production. He picks the grapes at a lower Brix, or ripeness level. That earlier picking assures that the grapes have plenty of crisp acidity to make a refreshing wine. The grapes also have less fermentable sugar
which results in a lower final alcohol level and more balanced wine. Over the years, Rob has edged up the tons per acre without affecting the quality, which has allowed him to keep the retail under $11. It’s distributed by Odom.
Now that you know what rosé to drink, would someone please ask the sun to come out? Oh nevermind. I’ll drink it anyway.