Beyond the first blush
More than any other wine category, rose is a mood. There is simply nothing better on a warm afternoon, a salve for sun-drenched, heat-driven thirst. It is more often gulped than sipped, never contemplated, rarely complicated.
But there is much to say about a bottle of rose beyond “it’s empty.” It’s made, after all, in a broad array of styles from nearly every red grape known to man, in nearly every wine region on Earth. So before your next gulp, read on; a wine with so many shades deserves a closer inspection.
To begin, “rose” is just one of the colors it comes in. To it let’s add ruby, copper, salmon, amber, almandine, maraschino, blood orange, madras and sunset and grapefruit pink, fuchsia, sepia, saffron, cayenne, pale rust and more. The wine is a painter’s palette for the color red -- in fact, strictly speaking, many are a truer red than any red wines (which tend, of course, to be more purple).
You’d think these colors would provide clues to its taste -- the darker the hue the deeper the wine, for example. Sometimes, that’s true. But dark wines can also be sweeter, softened by a secondary fermentation.
In fact, the pale ones often can deceive. The coppery roses of Bandol belie the rigor of the grape variety Mourvedre, which girds these wines with well-built, earthy tannins. Ditto the even paler roses of the Loire, which disguise in their prettiness the pleasingly bitter grip of Cabernet Franc.
Rose gets its color from contact with the skins of red grapes -- and that color varies depending on the grape, and on how long the contact. But there are other factors, like how it’s made. Sometimes the wine is a saignee, wherein the juice is “bled” off a larger tank of red wine (usually with the side intention of concentrating the latter). Sometimes, like a watercolor pigment, a rose is the sum total of white and red juice.
Perhaps the best, however, are destined for rose from the get-go, from vines grown toward that aim, with grapes allowed to macerate for a few hours or a day for color, pressed off, transformed by fermentation into the perfect sunny-day beverage.
Rose for beginners
If you’re new to rose, it’s best to start on the cheap, and many quality bottles are, most originating in southern France or Spain.
For sheer frivolity I like the wines of the Languedoc, made usually with some combination of Grenache, Cinsault and Carignane, such as the rose from Domaine L’Hortus. Or you might try a youthful rosado from the Rioja; usually these are a deep color red and very inexpensive; one of my favorites comes from Faustino, but the ubiquitous Marques de Caceres is an annual steal at $9.
Domestic bottlings are a great option too, made in a ripe style for easy drinking. New plantings of Iberian and Rhone varieties have made Mediterranean-inspired wines increasingly common, like the blend from Verdad, Rioja-style pink with lots of up-front strawberry fruit and lifted berry flavors. Or consider the delicate rose of Syrah from Ojai Vineyard, bright juicy cherry in a pale cast. Solo Rosa puts its sentiments right there in its name (only rose -- get it?) and makes toothsome pinks from the Russian River Valley.
Rose for experts
No one takes roses more seriously than France; nearly every major wine region has a prominent version, including Bordeaux and even Burgundy. Odder still are Cabernet Franc roses from the Loire, found mostly in the department of Anjou. These are strictly food wines, with a pleasing but pronounced bitterness, and a grabbing, chalky minerality ideal with something like roast chicken. All that said, the South of France, in the regions that hug the Mediterranean and the Cote d’Azur, is where roses excel.
The most serious of all, produced by the most studious of rose producers, would have to come from Tavel, in the southern Rhone. The entire production of the AOC is of the pink variety. The best are, in a word, intense: intensely colored, intensely flavored, and confer a grippy mineral tang to deep strawberry flavors.
The other serious Mediterranean rose comes from Provence, in particular the province of Bandol. The region’s most famous, Domaine Tempier, produces astonishingly complex, well-built roses of Mourvedre and Grenache, aged in puncheons, possessing unusual depth for a pink wine. The more ubiquitous Cotes de Provence wines are less expensive, and often as good, like the old-vine bottling from Domaine Saint Andre de Figuiere, from less-storied vineyard sites.
Rose for weirdos
Then there are those roses so pure in intent, so oddly made, from such exotic places, that they’re worth graduating to. Some of these are traditional, some are merely willful; all are unexpected, some downright weird.
To start with, two opposite extremes from Spain: From the Basque region comes a slightly fizzy, wonderfully bracing rosado called Txakoli, by the producer Gurrutxaga. It’s made from an indigenous grape, Hondarriba Belza, which brings an amaro-like bitterness to the finish. And from Rioja, consider the wonderful late-release older wines from Lopez de Heredia -- I found a 1998 Vina Tondonia Rosado that is a wonder of complexity and strangeness, with aromas of narcissus flowers and freshly tilled soil -- not for everyone, but fascinating.
Italy isn’t known for its rose, but Montepulciano, in Abruzzo, has an established DOC for its Cerasuolo, a powerful rosato with a deep red cherry color, firmly packed flavors, and an almondy aftertaste. There certainly isn’t much Greek rose in the market, but I found a rose of Agiorgitiko from Gaia with the very helpful name of “14-18h” -- the number of hours required for the juice to remain on skins and achieve its vivid color and strident flavors.
I wouldn’t have dreamed that I’d find a German rose, but the Rheingau producer August Kesseler makes one from Pinot Noir (or as they say there, Spatburgunder) with a Kabinett level of sweetness and fierce, almost Riesling-like minerality.
Meanwhile, probably the oddest rose I’ve tried from the U.S. comes from Peter Cargasacchi in the Santa Rita Hills, for his Point Concepcion label, called Celestina. It is a Pinot Grigio, but for any Grigio lover, the look of this wine will be an affront: It is a fiery blood orange, the color of a smoky sunset.
Pinot Grigio, after all, is a white wine made from a red grape (not exactly red, but more coppery gray, which is where it gets its name). Instead of avoiding color, Cargasacchi macerates the fruit to extract it, not unlike the wines of its cousin, Pinot Noir. This wine has a richness that no Pinot Grigio could ever aspire to, and a leesy, umami-like sweetness that leavens its full-bore flavors of cherries spiced with orange peel. It leaves you with plenty to ponder in a wine that doesn’t usually register a second thought.