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Looking at wine through rosé-colored glasses

Finding a great dry pink wine can be tricky. Jon Bonné tasted 60 rosés from around the globe to find 15 that best complement lighter summer dishes.

Rosé is a quandary in a bottle.

Until the past year or so, the pitch went like this: dry rosé wines are perennially overlooked also-rans, wonderful but misunderstood. Now there are whispers of a countervailing theory: that rosé has been overexposed, never proving its worth in the glass.

Are we witnessing a rosé backlash? Sales for so-called blush wines are tepid, which could be a move away from the pink stuff to dry reds and whites. For many of us, pink-colored wine conjures up memories of simple, clunky, sweet wines — our first bottles, drunk before we knew better.

So it’s no wonder rosé still has trouble making its case. Wine magazines put pinot noir and chardonnay in bold type; rosé never gets to be the cover girl. Rare is the drinker who walks into a wine shop with rosé on the brain.

Yet you can’t say rosé hasn’t gotten its due. Retailers tout it with vigor. The summer rosé column — which, if you hadn’t guessed, is precisely what this is — is now a well-beaten wine-writer cliché. In our quest for the new, whatever exoticism rosé once had has since evaporated. Why visit London when Chiang Mai awaits? Why uncork a Tavel rosé from Provence when you can impress your friends with ribolla gialla from Slovenia?

The answer, of course, is that people still like London and people still like rosé — and thank goodness for taste being in the mouth of the beholder. But that rosé drum beat, which emboldened many vintners to add a dry pink to their roster, has grown repetitive. Quite honestly, not every winemaker is cut out for rosé.

Most often, dry pink wines are byproducts of red winemaking. Vintners who want a more concentrated color — and flavor — in their reds bleed some liquid off newly crushed grape must. The pale bled-off juice is fermented into rosé. This isn’t the only way to make rosé, but as American wineries refine their techniques, it’s becoming increasingly common.

These saignée wines, as they’re often called, can be wonderful, but they share the same charms and faults as their parent juice. Overripe grapes that make highly alcoholic red wines will also produce heavy-hitting rosés. It’s no longer uncommon to see rosé at 14 percent alcohol and beyond, specimens that are usually overpowering, even uncomfortable in the glass.

Ideally, a good dry rosé is a creature unto itself, combining the red-fruit flavors and a bit of the tannic grip of red wine with the vibrancy of a light white wine. That’s why they’re so great with food. With that in mind, we tasted 60 rosés from around the globe to find ones that will best complement lighter summer fare. While a handful showed promise, many were quite ho-hum. A few were barely drinkable.

Searching for winnersFrance has perhaps the most famous rosé legacy — wines from appellations like Bandol and Tavel have stellar reputations and price tags to match — but most Provence wines we sampled didn’t dazzle as much as their relations from the Rhone and Loire Valleys. Our $20 price cap might have ruled out the most renowned French rosés, but honestly, there’s no reason to spend more than that on even a stellar pink wine.

Other frequently strong contenders struggled to shine. Spanish rosés, usually mouthwatering, failed to come through this year. Italy’s results were similarly mixed.

Keep an eye out for rosé made from pinot noir. Rosé is most often crafted from robust varieties, either from the Bordeaux (cabernet, merlot) or Rhone (grenache, syrah) portfolios, strong grapes that invoke bold flavors. But pinot rosé can be more subtle: the light strawberry and floral scents typical of that grape, with the bright-eyed acidity that helps heighten food’s flavors. Yet even here, the quality varied widely from winery to winery.

And that, finally, is the frustration: Regardless of whether rosé is unloved or over hyped, the risks of selling a mediocre bottle to a curious drinker are high. Winemakers might want to keep that in mind before they think pink.

After a sampling of over five dozen pink wines from McLaren Vale (Australia) to Montsant (Spain), our top 15 rosé picks, sorted geographically:

J.-M. Raffault 2005 Chinon rosé ($13, VOS Selections):
Chinon rosé, made from cabernet franc in the Loire, is versatile and habit-forming. Raffault’s winning example is light, bright and compelling, with the key Chinon aromas — tobacco, cherry and pencil lead — in a different context than the usual red wines. Great acidity throughout keeps it lively, and the end is long and refreshing. A quintessential summer wine.

Chateau de Roquefort 2005 Cotes de Provence “Corail” ($15, VOS Selections): The name means “coral,” and that’s precisely the color of this wine grown at the edge of the famed Bandol appellation. Cranberry and fresh sea water dominate, with a subtly filling body and generously soft texture. Grabs you at the end with a second refreshing dose of fresh fruit. Grenache, syrah, cinsault, carginane and clairette.

Domaine de Mourchon 2005 Seguret rosé “Loubié” ($13, House of Burgundy): From a vineyard on the slopes near the southern Rhone village of Seguret. Pale and fruit-filled, with herbal undertones. Ripe and memorable, with a subtle texture. Cinsault, grenache and syrah.

Paul Jaboulet Aîné 2005 Côtes du Rhône rosé “Parallèle 45” ($10, Frederick Wildman): Jaboulet’s Rhône wines are always a solid bet, and the rosé this year is tart and fresh, a berry-filled break from the heat, with a vibrant herbal finish. Grenache, cinsault and syrah.

Plaimont 2005 Côtes de Saint-Mont rosé “Les Vignes Retrouvées” ($11, VOS Selections): From the core of the Gascony region, this wine’s name refers to a rediscovered parcel now reclaimed by a dynamic local co-op. Filled with fresh berry and white flower scents. Heady and yet somehow delicate, bright and tart from start to end, a perfect match for food. Made from cabernet, tannat and the obscure grape pinenc.

United States
SoloRosa 2005 California rosé ($15):
Winemaker Jeff Morgan is so devoted to rosé he wrote a book about it. His mix of Napa sangiovese and Lodi merlot is juicy and inviting (if on the big side), filled with jumping berry, basil and white spices. Barrel fermentation adds softness to a ping-ponging acidity. Hits all the right notes.

Clos LaChance 2005 Central Coast rosé “Pink-Throated Brilliant” ($14): Part of this San Martin, Calif., winery’s “Hummingbird Series,” this one named for a threatened species found in South America. Ripe fruit and slight dried-leaf scents, with a spritzy note on the tongue. Refreshing and balanced, with fresh red fruit and a clean ending. Grenache, cinsault, syrah and carignane.

Soter 2005 Yamhill-Carlton rosé “North Valley” ($20):  Pinot noir rosé from winemaker Tony Soter’s Oregon estate. Subtle herbal notes, almost too soft, but a quiet approach makes it evocative, like a Marsannay rosé from Burgundy. The elegance is admirable. We also liked the A to Z Wineworks 2005 rosé ($12) from Oregon, which may be more widely available.

Three Rivers Winery 2005 estate rosé ($13): From Walla Walla, Wash. An all-cabernet franc wine, with layers of sweet strawberry and graphite leaping out, underlined by fresh leaves and a firm minerality. Not quite as firm as a Chinon, but the aromatics are pleasingly similar.

Bedell Cellars 2004 North Fork “Domaines CC Rosé” ($9): From Long Island. Fresh and popping, with peach, fresh strawberry and green leaves. Exactly what rosé should be — juicy, intriguing and yet not frivolous. Cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and merlot.

Costaripa 2005 Garda Classico chiaretto “Rosamara” ($18, Empson USA):
Chiaretto describes rosé made from the groppello grape native to Lombardy, in northern Italy. This one, made by winemaker Mattia Vezzola, who also crafts Bellavista sparkling wine, also mixes in sangiovese, marzemino and barbera. Dusty fresh fruit on the nose, with tangy berry and a spicy finish that bites a bit. A bit odd, but fascinatingly layered.

Muga 2005 Rioja rosado ($11, Tempranillo Inc.):
A burst of tree fruit mixes with dusty overtones. Zingy and sharp-edged, as a Spanish rosé should be, with a paper-edge crisp finish. Garnacha, viura and tempranillo.

Southern Hemisphere
Goats do Roam 2006 Coastal Region rosé ($10, Vineyard Brands): From the popular South African producer. Lush and a bit peppery amid sweet cherry fruit. An almost leathery disposition, and drier than it initially lets on, defined by a mineral focus. From shiraz, pinotage, cinsaut, grenache, gamay and merlot.

Yering Station 2004 Yarra Valley pinot noir rosé ($13, Domaine Select): From cooler-climate vineyards in Victoria on Australia’s southern coast. A mushroomed pinot scent dominates amid fresh berries. Weighty and dark fuschia in color, with a bitter hint at the end, but intriguing and showing roots that go deeper than a simple summer wine.