Think pink: Rose is becoming all the rage

06/17/2010 12:00 AM |

Twenty years ago, rose wines had no stature. For the generation that began drinking wine in the 1960s and early ’70s, fizzy, sweet pink Portuguese rose’s were “starter” wines, a first baby step into what were considered “real” wines — the dry, tannic wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy. The popularity of Lancers and Mateus retreated as a new generation learned to see, swirl and sip bigger and redder wines.

In 1975, when the Sutter Home winery in Napa inadvertently found themselves with a stuck fermentation that yielded a sweet pink wine in a batch of (normally red) Zinfandel, they had a stroke of genius. By calling it “white” Zinfandel, they literally and figuratively avoided the taint of “rose.” This brought a new group of wine drinkers into the market, a group that consisted mostly of women who switched from whiskey sours to white Zin until they learned to say, “I’ll have a glass of chardonnay.”

The crazy success of Peter Mayle’s hilarious book “A Year in Provence” drew a few wine lovers to appreciate the dry rose’s of southern France, but mostly as casual wines for le pique-nique (picnics). In the ’90s, Jeff Morgan, a saxophone player who learned to make wine from Larry Perrine at the old Gristina Vineyards in Cutchogue, then moved to the West Coast to write about wine for The Wine Spectator, returned to winemaking with a mission: to popularize high-quality dry rose. With his many contacts in the wine business, he gathered a high wattage group of international winemakers and hit the road to proselytize rose as the “Rose Avengers.”

It took awhile, but the Avengers fought fiercely for the wine critics’ and wine buyers’ attention. In case you haven’t noticed, it is now not just acceptable, but chic, to serve rose. Morgan’s own Solorosa (only rose) wines, made in an assertive Napa style, have garnered high marks.

One of the purest, most thrilling iterations of rose comes from Champagne, with bubbles. It makes sense that the Champenois would use their red grapes, pinot noir and pinot meunier, to make a pink wine, because in their northern climate these grapes don’t ripen well enough to compete with their red siblings in Burgundy, farther south. While blanc de blanc Champagne is made from chardonnay, and most brut is a blend of the three Champagne grapes, the rose is predominately pinot. This gives it a supple, more tactile mouth feel, and it’s also more phenolic or astringent due to the extraction of tannin from the dark skins of pinot noir. Rose de Champagne is more expensive than brut, and more suitable as a food wine. A good popular example is the Nicolas Feuillate; the Veuve Cliquot Rose is also a favorite of sommeliers who are tired of the more ubiquitous “yellow label” brut.

From the East End, The Lenz Winery’s Cuve is an elegant bubbly wine that (as of the 2003 vintage) is now entirely made from pinot noir. Lenz winemaker Eric Fry also makes an accessory still wine, a “blanc de noir” blush, that is one of my favorite Long Island rose’s. Delicate and extremely dry, this is a rose for non-rose drinkers. Pugliese and The Old Field also make delightful sparkling wines from the black pinot noir grape.

Another winemaking trend, the saigne process, has prompted more wineries worldwide to make and promote premium dry rose’s. As highly extracted red wines have garnered the critics’ highest ratings, winemakers now commonly bleed off about 10 percent of the juice intended for red wine. By increasing the ratio of skins to liquid, the red wines then become deeper in color. The juice that has been bled off, or saigne, is pale pink in color and perfect for rose.

Rose wines were historically disparaged in part because most were made from the blended, sweetened red and white dregs of the cellar. But the fresh saigne wines, and many wines made from early pressings of red grapes like merlot (e.g., the multiple roses of Croteaux Vineyards) are made on purpose. With the new popularity of dry rose, winemakers can afford to take the style seriously. Welffer Estate has built a huge following for its popular dry rose, and Channing Daughters’ roses are so popular, winemaker Chris Tracy now makes at least three distinctive pink wines from various grapes and grape blends. The Channing Rosato di Cabernet Franc from the 2009 vintage — from grapes picked last fall — is already sold out.

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