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Rosé: The perfect, versatile summer wine

Rosé: The perfect, versatile summer wine
(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)

HERE'S THE thing about rosés and me: I buy them by the case. With other wines, maybe I'll buy a couple of bottles -- one to drink, one to stick away -- and if I really like them, I'll think about picking up a few more. It's a considered, rational purchase.

But who can be rational about rosé? At any time during the summer I'll have one bottle open in the fridge, ready for me to pour a glass or two for dinner. There'll be another bottle chilling, because who wants to run out of rosé? And there will be several more just waiting to be tapped.

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It's kind of the wine equivalent of the baseball batting order: I've got one bottle at bat, one on deck and the rest of the lineup sitting in the dugout waiting their turn.

Why am I so hooked on rosé? It's not a drinking thing -- rosés tend to be lower in alcohol than other wines (though I have noticed a distressing number of exceptions; more about that in a minute). And it's not just because they're pretty, though they certainly are.

I love today's dry rosés because they seem to go perfectly with everything I want to cook in the summertime. They've got it all: crisp, mouth-cleansing acidity; spice and ripe fruit; and just a hint of juicy sweetness.

They are the perfect complement to the big flavors I tend to throw around with such abandon in the summer: pungent garlic and fresh herbs, salty olives and anchovies, ripe tomatoes and wood smoke.

It used to be that many wine lovers disdained rosés as the sweet tipples of their youth. Happily, that sad little bit of snobbery seems mostly to have passed. But even now, you'll sometimes hear rosés derided as "simple," a criticism that reflects a complete misunderstanding of their purpose.

Rosés aren't wines to ponder, nor are they wines to uncork to impress your friends. They're simply delicious. They're wines to drink purely for pleasure, without any esoteric folderol.

But with a rosé, as with anything else, there is good and there is bad (or, at least, not-so-good). I'm extremely aware of that right now because for the first time in a while, I've actually had to go out shopping for my rosés this summer.

For the last several years, my house rosé has come from my friends Rob and Maria Sinskey at Robert Sinskey Vineyards in Carneros. It's a fabulous Pinot Noir-based wine that deserves every bit of the attention it has received. Unfortunately, the upshot of all that praise has been that when I finally got around to visiting the website to place my order, the wine was completely sold out.

When I stopped by a couple of wine shops to search for a replacement, I was astonished to find how many rosés are available. While not long ago a good shop might have half a dozen bottles, some now have twice that number and counting.

Left on my own in this dense and tangled rosé garden, I did what any sensible shopper might do: I bought a bunch of bottles and made dinner.

My requirements for my house rosé are pretty simple: It has to go with food and it has to be priced so I can justify buying a case or two -- which for me means a top end of $17 per bottle.

The first qualification posed little difficulty, but the second proved to be a bit of a sticking point. Like everything else, rosé prices have gone up. Not only are top-flight rosés such as Domaine Tempier and Domaine Ott nearing the $40 mark, but what used to be a solid $13 rosé is now smacking up against the top end of my price range.

Prices aren't the only thing going up. Alcohol level is too, and that also plays a part in my decision-making. Let's face it: Rosé is a wine that is made for picnics and sunny days. Serving a 14.5% alcohol wine in those conditions is a recipe for a long nap immediately followed by a big headache. For this kind of drinking, I want something that hits about 13%, tops, and 12.5% is even better.

Tryouts at the table

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ISPLIT the tasting over two dinners. The first night was pretty warm, so I made a salad with wild arugula, cherry tomatoes and the fabulous goat milk feta from Redwood Hill Farm.

I also served some sliced salami, since nothing is better with rosé and because I happened to have a Fra'Mani

salumetto

, Paul Bertolli's smallest and spiciest, in my refrigerator begging to be eaten.

The second night was supposed to be just as simple: I'd planned on pasta with fresh pesto, to see how the wines reacted to all of that garlic and basil.

Then, at the last minute, the artist down the street called and asked if she could come over because, for her seventysomething birthday, her daughter on the East Coast had mailed her a lobster bake in a box (lobsters, clams, mussels, snow crab claws, potatoes and corn). She didn't know how to cook it and wondered if I'd do the honors. Well, yeah.

Out of 18 wines I tasted over the two meals, I found six that I was extremely happy with. This group included some old favorites, plus a couple of surprises. Who would have guessed that they made a really good rosé in Germany?

The first thing you notice when tasting rosés is that they don't lend themselves easily to tasting notes. Put plainly: How many times can you repeat "tastes of crushed ripe berries"?

But this is certainly not to imply that all rosés taste the same. They vary a lot in intensity of flavor and even style.

Essentially, it seems you can divide rosés into two camps divided by color: the pale orange (or "salmon" as they say in tasting notes) and the pale strawberry. I found wines I liked equally well in both groups.

A split decision

THE salmon-colored group, which includes the wines from rosé-crazy Bandol in southern France, tends to be a little more austere and to have top notes such as orange peel that are slightly bitter and give the rosés a nice, structured feel.

The strawberry-tinted wines tend to be a little spicier and juicier. They also tend to be a little higher in alcohol.

What I was really trying to gauge, though, was not so much the specific characteristics of each wine but, rather, how each interacted with the food. Interestingly, there wasn't one clear winner.

Generally, the salmon- colored wines tended to do better with more complex flavors, like the salad and the pesto, and the best matches for the

salumi

were usually the spicier wines.

The lobster bake turned out to be a kind of acid test: There were only a few rosés that could pair happily with steamed clams and mussels, and they definitely were more austere.

In the end, I decided on two finalists for the role of Parsons house rosé, one from each camp. For big-deal meals, I'll pick up the Commanderie de Peyrassol, an extremely elegant, well-structured rosé made by a mother-and-son team on the Côtes de Provence.

But for everyday drinking, I just can't resist the Villa Wolf Rosé de Pinot Noir, about as pleasurable and complex an $11 rosé as you'll taste these days. The fact that it comes from Germany, a country not known for its rosés (or even its red wines), only makes it more delicious.

And that was that, or so I thought. But then a few nights later I made a zucchini and basil frittata and served it with the first tomato from my garden (a Cherokee Purple) sprinkled with salt and black pepper. Just out of curiosity, I tasted my favorite rosés with that. And boy, while the Commanderie was good, a third wine -- a strawberry-colored Mas de Gourgonnier -- was spectacular with it.

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That got me to thinking -- Joe Bastianich really did a great job with that Friuliano rosé. And, wow, that St. André de Figuière is a pretty wine too.

Thank goodness summertime in Southern California -- and all of those dinners and all of that rosé drinking -- will last clear through October.

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