Once maligned, refreshing rosé wine finally gets its due
By Maria C. Hunt
UNION-TRIBUNE FOOD WRITER
July 21, 2004
When the air turns warm in France and Spain, people who drink wine with meals know it’s time to start those meals with a dry rosé.
Beautifully colored from salmon pink to pale ruby, refreshing rosé wines are imbued with notes of berries and perfume, and structured enough to pair with foods.
But in America, we have a conflicted relationship with rosé wines. Here, the word rosé is mistakenly translated as “sweet pink wine drunk by the unsophisticated.”
Suggest that others drink a rosé and you’re opening yourself up for snide remarks.
I still recall my chagrin when I arrived for a barbecue carrying two bottles of Schramberg’s Brut Rosé and was greeted with comments about “Cracklin’ Rosie.” For those too young to recall, that was a 1970 Neil Diamond song about a dateless evening spent with a really cheap bottle of pink wine.
But after years of diffidence, Americans are drinking more rosé than ever before, and liking it. Wineries up and down the California coast are venturing into rosé for the first time, and vintners who already made it are producing even more.
Even Veuve Cliquot, the chic French champagne house, decided to re-release its Rosé Reserve 1985 after they sold the 1996 vintage faster than expected.
“I think Americans are now getting used to the idea that a rosé doesn’t have to be sweet,” said Barry Sterling, patriarch of Iron Horse Vineyards in Sonoma County. “People are realizing how marvelously rosés go with cuisine.”
At the Wine Bank in downtown San Diego, the store was rearranged recently to create a new rosé section in the front.
“We live on them at this time of year,” said
Terry Hudson, wine buyer at the Wine Bank. “They’re dry, elegant, great food wines.”
Hudson thinks visits to winery tasting rooms, where people who think of themselves as serious wine drinkers may try a rosé for the heck of it, are responsible for this shift.
Winemaker Rick Sanford, who has produced an elegant dry rosé from pinot noir each year since 1976, agrees.
“They shy away because of the color,” he said. “The thing I like about our wine is that I can share it with someone who has elevated taste in wine.”
Rosé wines by any other name aren’t necessarily sweet. In fact, those made in the classic southern French style aren’t sweet at all.
Rosés are made from red grapes such as grenache, sangiovese or pinot noir, using a couple methods.
In the first method, the grapes are crushed and allowed minimal contact with the skins. Depending on the grape used, the process may take 30 minutes to two hours.
At Thornton Winery, the grapes for the award-winning Grenache Rosé are crushed, cooled and then swirled around in the tank.
“It’s like a horizontal washing machine,” said Thornton winemaker Don Reha. “We have a cycle where it rotates back and forth every few minutes to extract color and make a rosé. Then you can check it every 30 or 40 minutes to get the color you like.”
In the other method, called saignee, red wine grapes are crushed and part of the pale-pink juice is bled off. Though this method creates rosé, it’s usually done to produce a more intense red wine from the remaining juice.
No matter whether they are made from syrah or cinsault, rosés have aromas and flavors reminiscent of strawberry, raspberry, peaches or even tropical fruit and flowers.
“You use berry flavors to describe red wine, so naturally you’re going to pick that up in rosé,” said Sterling. “It comes across different, in that it’s lighter and fresher tasting.”
The fresh flavors and structure of rosé wines make them well suited to accompany many kinds of foods. Throughout Italy, rosé wines are served at seafood restaurants because their flavor profiles complement fish and shellfish.
Mionetto, one of Italy’s oldest prosecco producers, recently released IL Rosé, a dry, gently fizzy rosé made from merlot, cabernet sauvignon and raboso, an Italian varietal that imparts fruit flavors.
“It has good fruit and acidity,” said Enore Ceola, managing director of Mionetto USA. “It helps you cleanse your palate, and then again you are ready to go back for another bite.”
Cane Vanderhoof, who makes a crisp cinsault rosé at Miramonte Winery in Temecula, said he likes drinking it with California and Mexican cuisine, such as roasted duck tostadas.
“One time I had it with a lobster bisque, and that pairing was so perfect I can remember it like it was yesterday,” Vanderhoof said. “Everybody in the room was going, ‘This rosé is fantastic.’ ”
So if rosés can be so sophisticated, why have many American wine drinkers shied away from them for so long?
“The reputation of rosé in this country seems to have been seriously damaged by your simple, sweeter, less exciting wines,” Vanderhoof said.
The first pink wines many Americans tasted were sweet ones such as Matteus (ma-TOOS) from Portugal, or domestic offerings from Italian Swiss Colony.
“I’ve been married 52 years, and the first wine my wife and I had together was a rosé,” Sterling said. “To impress her, I ordered a bottle of sparkling pink wine: Lancers.”
As people progressed in their wine knowledge, many stopped drinking these wines and moved on to light whites, such as chablis, that were more hip.
The next big pink wine on the scene was white zinfandel, first created by Bob Trinchero at Trinchero Family Estates in St. Helena. In 1972, Trinchero decided a batch of the winery’s Amador County zinfandel needed more oomph, so winemakers drew off 500 gallons of the pale free-run juice to intensify the remaining red wine.
Trinchero’s brother, Roger, said they couldn’t afford to throw the juice away, so they fermented it into wine and put it in oak barrels. They forgot about it until a visiting retailer tasted the wine and said he would buy half of their production.
They planned to call the wine Sutter Home Oeuil de Perdrix, a French term meaning eye of the partridge that refers to a pale pink rosé. But the federal government wanted them to add an American varietal name to the label, so white zinfandel was born.
The Trincheros bottled about 200 cases of the wine in 1972, but they didn’t make any the next year. Before the 1974 harvest, though, people kept coming to the winery asking for more white zinfandel. In 1974, the winery made 1,000 cases.
But the wine really took off in 1975, when the alcoholic fermentation, in which yeast converts sugars in the grapes into alcohol, got stuck. The wine, which had been dry before, was left with about 2.5 percent residual sugar, giving it a slightly sweet taste.
From that point, demand for the wine doubled and tripled, lending support to the adage that when it comes to wine, Americans talk dry and drink sweet.
“It was amazing,” said Roger Trinchero, who is vice chairman and CEO of Trinchero Family Estates. “It was like trying to hang onto a runaway team of horses. The more we made, the more people wanted it.”
By 1987, white zinfandel had become the most popular premium wine in the country.
“Unfortunately, the so-called experts in the wine industry chose to classify it as a down-market wine, and they felt the necessity to tell people … they weren’t cool because they were drinking white zinfandel,” Trinchero said. “That’s ridiculous. People should drink what they want to drink.”
Currently, the winery produces 4.5 million cases of Sutter Home White Zinfandel a year, so somebody is drinking it.
Iron Horse’s Sterling said he would never bash white zinfandel because it has served to introduce people to wine. Some stay with it, and others move on to different styles of wine.
“When you’re young and you’re starting with wine, you may not have the developed taste to start with,” Sterling said. “You’re not born with a taste for wine. It’s an acquired taste, but many things that are good are acquired tastes.”