The Beer Guy’s Guide to Wine: In the Pink

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I am so happy that pink wine has become fashionable again. Consigned to Tackyville in many circles after infestations of bad white Zinfandel made a lot of people feel like a truck had hit them, innovative and amazingly diverse “blush” wines from a huge range of regions are turning up at the supermarket, at BevMo, and even on the I Wish I Could Afford That shelf.

Still, there’s something a little intimidating about Les Pinks. What if they turn out to be… gross? Or taste like the strawberry soda they often resemble? Or don’t taste like anything?

What the hell is a rosé wine anyway? And why do you want some right this minute?

Warning for the Advanced Class: I am going long, here, not deep. This is intended as a starting point for the pink-curious. If you’re already a sommelier you might not learn much from this piece. Then again, I hear sommelier school is outrageously old fashioned in its bias toward major French “noble” grapes and away from, like, everything else, so who knows? Let’s play.

Most simply and most commonly, it is a wine made from red (black) grapes with minimal skin contact before the juice is poured off from the solid stuff. “Skin Contact” can mean a few hours or a few days, with, obviously, longer up-close-and-personal time with the highly pigmented skins creating, generally, a deeper hued wine and often a more assertive flavor profile. Pink wines can be varietal to the core or they can be (often are) blends of several grapes. One can technically make a pink wine from any red grape, though some are common and some rare—audacious experiments are not uncommon on the West Coast, while France, for example, clings to its heritage and in my opinion takes the gold (and I am saying this as someone for whom French wine is seldom a first choice) for consistency, dependability, and drag-and-drop-ness.

There are exceptions to everything I just said. To avoid delving into technicalities, I’m going to single out the one that’s not a processing variant but an actual mutation: some grapes are actually neither white nor red. If you are looking at a bottle labeled “Vin Gris,” which literally means “gray” wine, you are dealing with a wine (most often a Pinot or Grenache but not always) that is made from a red grape but may be pale pink, faintly melon-colored, or white, depending on vinification and grape specifics. Anything called “Gris de Gris” is actually made from a grape that is in between red and white. Pinot Gris (or Grigio) is probably the most commonly found. Grenache has a “gris” point mutation as well, and pinot blanc, while I’ve never seen it as anything but a white, technically can have berries that are anywhere from pale yellow to rosy to bluish to literally striped half and half, all on the same cane. I am sure there are others. So Gris de Gris is made exactly like a red wine, and the result is pale pink anyway. Which is all super interesting and all but what we’re after is what does this stuff taste like. So…

What do you look for in a pink wine? Well, your mileage may vary, but my opinion (which is fairly orthodox in this situation, for a change) is that generally you look for bone-freaking-dry. Juicy is okay—sugary is the kiss of death for rosé wines. You might think that you can detect this from the wine’s degree of pigmentation, but it just ain’t that easy. Rosé wines can range in color from almost colorless to melon or salmon colored to rosy to deep watermelon pink, and their lightness or heaviness on the palate does not always correlate with the visual. Which grape, where it came from, how it grew and how it was processed are major factors and it gets ridiculously complicated very fast, leading to an unpleasant phenomenon I will get to in a minute, which I call Oenopedantry. I don’t like Oenopedantics so we’re going to skip the intricacies. A great rosé is youthful, hot-weather-friendly, not prissy about what you pair it with (fresh goat cheese and BBQ both come to mind) and subtle. It has a personality. It expresses the varietal grape-ness of whatever it came from, it knows who it is, knows its roots, if you will, and expresses its terroir (that’s French for grow the exact same grape and handle it the exact same way simultaneously in the Loire Valley and California and both might be good or bad but they will have different sub-flavors because of the micro-specificities of climate and soil and latitude and geography). But it’s a light-hearted character most of the time, a little playful. That doesn’t mean trivial. Pink wines can be heavenly.

People who don’t like white wine often assume they don’t like pink wine either. Do yourself a favor and refuse to make this assumption. Rosé wines are not whites. They’re reds that are, literally, not as full of themselves. This can be as good a quality in a wine as in a human being.

I’ve picked three bottles here, out of about one zillion, that I happen to like and that are at affordable, easygoing prices. There are so many more options, I could write a book, but my advice is, if you find something you like, dive in. You discover you dig some hot-pink hottie from Rioja? Look for others. You’re a pinot noir freak? Check out pink pinots coming out of Oregon and Washington. I really think the whole point of a rosé is to liberate you from “is it good enough-o-phobia”. They’re seldom a massive investment, they are always, always a good call for poolside slouching, outdoor dining, afternoon libationage and anything in the casual-festive zone.

1) If you want to make this really easy on yourself, go with something from Provence. The south of France has several sub-regions but in general, Provence produces more pink wines than anything else, and they know what they are doing. Aside from the moxie that comes from a long, well-earned mastery of something, the dominant grape of the region happens to be Grenache, which happens to be a rosé rock star. It just makes great pink wines. Why? I dunno, it just does. Common supporting cast members in Provencal pinks include Syrah, Mourvedre, Cinsault and Carignan. These wines are restrained, brisk, incredibly refreshing on a warm afternoon, and best friends with Mediterranean foods (think aioli, think olives, think fish).

Château d’Esclans Rosé Whispering Angel Côtes de Provence 2013 (about $20)
I love this stuff, from the voluptuous bottle to the beautiful barely-there pink color to the lovely, balanced dry yet juicy palate-palette, which leans toward strawberries. Super light, a guaranteed crowd-pleaser on a hot afternoon, just an all around great go-to bottle.

2) California wines, like Italian ones, are diverse and mavericky and harder to get a handle on and require a little more experimenting. (And don’t stop at California: Rosé Pinot noir wines from the Willamette Valley in Oregon are kicking some hiney right now). In California, pinks are made from just about anything you can think of. There is even a revival White Zinfandel movement afoot, though be cautious because Zin is a hot-blooded little minx and it is not easy to get restraint from a grape like that.

Bonny Doon 2013 Vin Gris De Cigare ($18)
This is a Grenache-plus blend, fairly Provencal in style but with that certain, um, “I Don’t Know What” that lets you know you’re in California. Pale salmon hue, elegant and complex. Relatively creamy mouthfeel, delicate strawberryish flavor but with a surprising array of herbal aromatics and a bit of chalk. This wine has finesse. And a nice finish.

3) Italy. Okay, Provence might rule the rosé, but let’s all take a minute to remember that Italy was romancing the vine when France was still “Gaul” and it was considered a barbaric land you really didn’t want to get shunted off to on military detail. Rosatos from the Boot can be unpredictable but good ones are great. To grossly oversimplify what you might find on a casual perusal of your wine shop: pinks from the northeast of Italy (Veneto, Friuli, Alto Adige regions) will be pale, dry, delicate. Southern regions tend toward bolder, darker dry rosés. Look for the word “Chiaretto” if you want something not unlike drinkable laughter.

San Giovanni Pasini “Il Chiaretto” Valtanesi, 2012(about $15)
This is a blended wine in which the grapes you have heard of are Sangiovese and Barbera. Bright pink hue, full-bodied. Delicate nose, fairly floral. On the palate, red berries, foresty florals, and a lot of Happy on the finish.

4) Still concerned? Let me just say this. Wine pedants are everywhere. They correct you when you describe things. They wax scholarly on rootstock and “vinification” and malolactic this and phenolic that and whether a specific clone of a specific grape is one thing or another and generally make the whole experience of drinking wine annoying. They swirl things, a lot, whether or not it is warranted. This is because they relate to vortices: they have themselves been sucked into the vortex of wine know-it-all Wonderland. Me, I am a gal with a good palate who geeks out on botany and thinks grapes and the outrageously vast array of things you can turn grapes into are something on the order of a divine mystery. Are the microspecifics interesting? Yes. Important? Yes! Especially if you make wine.

(Big But Alert…) Buuuuuut: what matters, at the bottom line, is do you like it. That is all. Rosé wines are a great reminder of this, because they are not funereally heavy, 30 years in the cellar, can’t be shared with anyone who doesn’t get all the nuances type wines. (And don’t get me wrong, I have gone all swoony over many a Cabernet or Furmint or some inky zillion year old beast I was lucky enough to be in the same room with.) Pink wines are fun. They are a tasty companion on a hot afternoon, a summer picnic, a balcony somewhere you can see the ocean. They are a great place to dive in and be experimental and find out what you like, and, maybe, why you like it. Are there “good” and “bad” pink wines? To me, yes. Actually I poured out a beautiful looking rosé not a week ago because I thought it tasted—what’s the oenophilie-correct term? Icky. I was promised flowers, citrus peel, and strawberries. I got musk. (Sorry, “Julia’s Dazzle,” but you shook my faith in Pinot Grigio.) It’s not you, it’s me? Not sure. It could be both of us.

Pink wines are fun. That is why you should play with them. If you find a pink wine that is bombastic, pompous, or smug, somewhere there is a winemaker who needs a spanking. They can be (and often are) uniquely refined, restrained, complex and classy—but for me, the benchmark is always whether it makes me smile when I taste it.

It’s not a bad criterion when you think about it.