Wine Column: Time to smell the roses … and rosés

06/08/2012 11:40 AM |

It’s June again, the glorious “days of wine and roses.” As a winemaker and wine educator, I’m often asked if rosé wines are really made from roses. It’s understandable that some think that, especially when a wine has some aromatic kinship to rose petals.

It has been customary, since ancient Persians planted vines, to adorn the perimeters of vineyards with roses. Even today, in Bordeaux’s Haut Medoc, growers distinguish their properties by planting signature rose varieties at the ends of each row. And perfumers do use rose petals to make their scents. But in wine, even where there are plenty of rose petals handy, the flowers don’t go into the wine.

Sorry to destroy any romantic illusion, but rosé wine is simply any wine that is rose (French for pink) in color. Pink can be loosely interpreted to range in hue from magenta to copper. Since most color is extracted from the grapes’ skins, it will depend on both the characteristic color of the grape variety and skin contact during fermentation. White and red wines can be blended to make pink; sugar is often adjusted to smooth over any defects. Because rosés encompass such a vast and ill-defined array of wines, until the past few years they have been grouped together as wines of little interest or importance.

Many who began drinking careers with pink Mateus, Boone’s Farm or “white” zinfandel have since avoided alcoholic pink drinks. For wine, as sophistication (or snobbism) increased, the tolerance for astringency did, too. No more soda pop wines, please!

In an assault on this anti-rosé sentiment, about 10 years ago a group of dry rosé winemakers led by Jeff Morgan (a Napa winemaker whose career began on the North Fork) joined forces as the “Rosé Avengers.” Whether it was their influence, or the social pages showing rappers embracing Domaine Ott (a rosé from Provence in a female-shaped bottle), suddenly rosé — especially dry rosé — became acceptable.

The quality of rosé wines is dictated, in part, by how much a producer can sell it for. In the days when no one would pay up for it, winemakers had to use the lowliest wines, blended and sweetened, to make the bulk of their rosés. But today, as fans clamor for shimmering, refreshing, even phenolic pink wines, more effort can be made in the vineyards and wineries to refine pink wines to a new standard of quality.

Several of Long Island’s winemakers have honed their rosé-making skills to serve the popularity of dry rosé. Even after increasing production, Wölffer Estate’s cold-fermented rosé sells out by autumn. Croteaux makes only “rosé on purpose.” This year, they have 12 pink beauties, including one based on sauvignon blanc, one sparkler and their new Elite Rouge rosés, more similar to claret, the historic Bordeaux wine.

In calling its eight pink wines “rosati,” Channing Daughters signals their Italian style. All are small-batch fermented from varieties ranging from syrah to lagrein. They present a study in pink worthy of any seeking a lesson.

Among other notable Long Island rosés are a plush, juicy afternoon rosé from Corey Creek and Pellegrini’s equally fruit-driven (happily well-priced) East End Select Rosé. Bedell Cellar’s stylishly complex Taste Rosé was made aromatic by a splash of syrah; Mattebella Rosé is delicately tantalizing and Sannino’s Bella Vita Snow Merlot hides its big flavors behind a blushing hue.

Marjorie’s Rosé from McCall is intricate and fragrant; it’s 100 percent pinot noir, as is the Lenz Blanc de Noir, a favorite of mine for its dry, Champagne cuvée quality and refined bottle age. These are joined for pure refreshment by Lieb’s delightfully taut Bridge Lane Rosé.

The joys of sipping summer wines were, alas, far too fleeting for poor Ernest Dawson, the English poet who coined the term “days of wine and roses” in his 1896 poem “Vitae Summa Brevis”:

They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
Within a dream.

Dawson’s dream ended when the young girl he had pursued for the past seven years (since she was 11 and he 23) married the tailor who lived above her father’s restaurant. Dawson’s consumptive father died of an overdose of chloral hydrate, after which his mother hanged herself. Not surprisingly, Dawson, who also penned the words “gone with the wind,” caroused his way to an early grave.

You may take that as a moral, or keep on smelling those roses.

Ms. Hargrave was a founder of the Long Island wine industry in 1973. She is currently a freelance writer and consultant.

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