John JuergensA Rosé is a Rosé is a Rosé, not a Blush

One of the great pleasures of the summer months is outdoor dining with light, yet flavorful, dishes complimented by light cool wines. As long as the humidity and bugs are under control, this can be a truly Platonic experience.

The best white wines for alfresco meals are Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, and Riesling, depending on the components and spices of the meal. However, there is an alternative type of wine, rosé (pronounced ro-zay) that can add a completely new dimension to such meals; unfortunately, it has lost its place at the table due to color bias.

One of the great tragedies of the wine world is how true rosé wines in this country have been indicted as co-conspirators in the rush to the blush market of White Zinfandel. Compounding the confusion of this market is that some wine makers are making blush wines out of just about every type of red grape grown. Some of the coattail riders include White Cabernet and White Merlot.

While it is obvious that some producers are just trying to hitch their wagons to the White Zinfandel train, they really are doing those noble grapes and, I believe, the wine drinking public somewhat of a disservice with these efforts.

All of these White-Whatevers start with red grapes that have unique flavor and aroma characteristics, which have given them real market value for hundreds of years. Most of these desirable characteristics, including the color, come from components contained in the skins of the grapes. In the normal red wine production process the grapes are crushed to release the juice, which then remains in contact with the skins throughout the period of fermentation. During this time all those hundreds of interesting chemicals contained in the skins are introduced to the juice, interactions take place, and mating occurs, which gives birth to the wine with its unique personality of flavors, aromas, and color.

However, to make a blush wine the wine maker stops this love making process prematurely by removing the skins from the fermenting juice after maybe as little as several hours, when only a fraction of the extraction process has occurred. I call this vinus interruptus. Although this practice can result in a very pretty pink or blush wine, the wine itself usually is lacking most of the character of the grape because so many of those important components have been left behind in the skins. So, what should have been a torrid roll in the barrel ends up being something more like a kiss on the forehead. And we all know how satisfying that is.

A consequence of this "pinking" process is that the resulting wine tends to be a bit lacking in well-developed flavors and depth, and it can actually have some off-flavors simply because the extraction was not complete. In order to mask these flavors and to give the wine more substance or body, the wine maker leaves a fair amount of sugar in the wine, usually somewhere between two and three percent. To put this in perspective, this is about the sweetness level you would get by putting two teaspoons of sugar in six ounces of water. Don't get me wrong. I'm not putting down blush wines, those who make them, or those who enjoy drinking them. I want to emphasize that the blush wines we are most familiar with are legitimate wines that fill a very important niche in the wine market. However, they are not the same as true rosé wines, and all pink wines should not be lumped together as merely variations on the White Zinfandel theme.

So what is the difference, then, between these blush wines and what I call a true rosé? First of all, as with so many things associated with wine, the French perfected the technique of pink wine making long ago. They use grape varieties, such as Grenache, that lend themselves well to producing the seductive pink color while also developing rich, robust flavors. The wine maker actually sets out to make a pink wine and plans well in advance the decisions that have to made about the level of grape maturity, acid, and alcohol to achieve a balanced wine. It is not just a matter of growing red grapes to full ripeness and then controlling the amount of color in the wine. In addition, since the flavors are well developed, there is no reason to retain residual sugar; therefore, the majority of true rosés are fairly dry wines, and they can be soft and smooth or possess a nice snap of crispness. One thing for certain is that a properly made rosé will always have depth of flavor and fruit characteristics, even if it has a touch of residual sugar.

As with all wines, the soil and climate are the major factors in producing a true rosé. The climate will determine the level of maturity of the grapes and harvest time, and the soil will contribute to the richness of the flavor. The premier source of true rosé wines is the Tavel region of the Southern Rhone district of eastern France. However, great rosés come from other parts of the country such as Anjou and Bordeaux, and every year a small number of American wine makers produce some very fine rosés as well.

Since the demand for these kinds of wines is low in most markets you might have to shop around. If you have never had a true rosé, they are worth searching for. For your first experience with a rosé I would suggest investing in a genuine Tavel to establish a benchmark for this class of wine. If the Tavel ends up a little to dry for your taste, don't stop there; branch out to other producers, regions, and countries. The wines from Anjou tend to be a little sweeter and softer, but be sure to read the labels and ask the wine merchant to guide you on the sweetness level of the wines.

Rosés are serious wines that are designed to go with food, so plan a meal around the wine; although, some brands can be served as cocktail wines served with appetizers. Chill the wines to about 50 or 55 degrees and serve them with salads with vinegar based dressings, hot or cold chicken, pasta, pork, cold soups, omelets, and other lighter foods. They can be a bit on the delicate side, so be careful not to overwhelm them with aggressive spices or heavy grilling.

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