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Rosé: It's not just for summer anymore

Pink wines are finally getting the respect they deserve.  Jon Bonné explains why you can enjoy them — even after Labor Day.

Sometimes it seems like rosés just can’t win for trying.

Ever since white zinfandel came along in 1975 to ruin the party, pink wines have been cowering below the radar of the average drinker.

It's not as bad as it used to be — thanks in part to winemakers’ tireless attempts to explain the vast difference between true rosé and bargain-rate blush wines — but rosé largely retains its sideshow status.  It rarely merits more than a couple mentions per year in wine columns and newsletters, and those frequently tend to be in June or July. (The recurrent theme: Great summer wine, try it, love it.)

Yet the term “rosé” embraces as broad a spectrum of wines as does “white” or “red.” Most of us simply ignore that fact. As Jeff Morgan, author of “Rosé: A Guide to the World’s Most Versatile Wine” (Chronicle Books, $19.95) laments: “Rosé is simply a category of wine, not a style of wine.”

Wine types are as guilty as anyone — myself included. The summer rosé tasting is a venerable wine-writer tradition, pitting rosé against rosé regardless of style or origin.

The time has come to make amends. Let’s clear up a few things:

(1) A rosé is not a rosé is not a rosé. Let’s begin with some near-universal truths about rosé. Rosé doesn't have to be sweet, though a few contain a bit of leftover sugar. It is not a blend of red and white wines; rather, it's made with red grapes treated as though they were being made into white wine.

While red-wine juice sits on crushed grape skins for days, gaining color and depth, most winemakers drain rosé juice after just a few hours. Others use a method called saignée: They drain some pink juice from a vat of newly crushed red grapes; it concentrates the remaining red juice, and the drained juice becomes rosé.

Rosé has been made from nearly every red wine grape in the world — from syrah to sangiovese — and in nearly every wine locale. In Spain’s scorching Calatayud region, hearty red grapes like garnacha and tempranillo are pressed into deep, fruity rosado. In Napa and Australia, rosés often exhibit the regions’ hefty alcohol levels and winemaking styles. In Oregon, and even occasionally in Germany, delicate pink wines are crafted from pinot noir.

The result is a stunningly diverse array of styles and flavors. “Don’t drink one rose and think you know it all,” says Morgan.

Morgan should know: He and co-owner Daniel Moore run SoloRosa winery in St. Helena, Calif., which claims credit for being the only U.S. winery specifically devoted to rosé.

(2) Rosé is not a simple wine. Rosé's minor coup in grabbing market share from blush wine came with a dark lining: The pink-wine fear factor was erased by framing it as simple and unthreatening.

But if some rosés are indeed simple, made to quench thirst on an asphalt-melting day, others are painstakingly crafted. They frequently justify their higher price tags — though some popular labels, including several from French appellations like Bandol, have become overexposed and overpriced.

Some are fermented in stainless-steel tanks, in the style of a simple white wine. Some are produced in used oak barrels, which add layers of flavor, help soften the wine in your mouth and smooth the texture. A handful of winemakers combine the two methods.

If the color seems too, well, girly for you: Get over it.  There's plenty of broad-shouldered Italians, Frenchmen and Spaniards who'd be happy to set you straight.

(3) Rosé isn’t just summer wine. With Labor Day approaching, let’s take a moment to repair a major misconception: Rosé can be a valuable match for food throughout the year.  Leave it to the uptight white-pants-and-Memorial-Day crowd to say otherwise.

True, a glass of cool pink doesn’t quite match a warm winter fireside nap. But refreshing wines have their place even when the chill arrives. (Thanksgiving, anyone?) A thorough exploration of the rosé universe reveals plenty of wines with depth and body to match a blustery autumn day. Which brings us to our next point …

(4) Rosé’s secret weapon: food.  Too many winemaker dinners pair a quick slurp of rosé with hors d’oeuvres before moving on to the serious stuff. It's unfortunate. Rosé certainly isn't a wine for all meals — thick steak deserves a hearty red — but it complements an astounding range of foods.

Bouillabaisse is tailored for French rosés like Tavel or Bandol, while a brisk Italian rosé from Umbria could perfectly match salty slices of prosciutto — or even a ham sandwich. The list of cuisines scrolls on: Thai, Chinese, Mexican.

Good pink wines' natural high acidity not only gives the wine structure, it helps balance out fat in the food.

Your options are foiled only by most restaurants’ lack of rosé choices. Indian food, for example, is a perfect candidate for a solid Chinon rosé from France’s Loire valley or a domestic rosé of Cabernet franc. But good luck finding anything more than white zin on the wine list.

While exact pairings can be an obscure endeavor, Morgan proposes a quick rule of thumb: brighter, fresher wines go better with lighter dishes; sturdier rosés match heavier food.  Just don’t judge a wine by its shade of pink: Even light-colored rosés can be surprisingly solid.

TASTING NOTESYou can buy terrific, authentic rosé for under $15 a bottle, which makes it perhaps the best deal on the wine shelf. Still. our tasting was a tricky one. We knew we couldn't conduct a battle of equals, so instead we hunted wines that were affordable and interesting, and went well with food.

FranceChateau Calabre 2004 Bergerac rosé (Robert Kacher Selections, $10): A surprise standout. Bergerac, in southwest France, generally lives in the shadow of its western neighbors in Bordeaux. Made from typical Bordelais grapes — Cabernet sauvignon, Cabernet franc and merlot — this fascinating wine opens with a complex aroma of fresh berries and  herbs. It’s impressively delicate, given Cabernet’s heavy-hitter rep. The mix of fresh and solid makes it perfect for hearty, fattier food as summer fades away.

Domaine Charles Audoin 2003 Marsannay rosé (Martine’s Wines, $16): Even rarified Burgundy has an appellation with vineyards devoted solely to rosé wines. Here we found forest fruit overlapped by a delicate taste of dry straw. It’s subtle and bright wine, with a mineral taste at the core that makes it more stoic than it first seems. Food brings out its full potential.

Jaboulet 2004 Parallèle 45 Côtes du Rhône rosé (Frederick Wildman & Sons, $10): A forceful grenache-based offering from the value line of major Rhône player Jaboulet. Bright cranberry pairs with toasty dry bramble up front and some darker notes in the back, with herbal hints all along. The texture is sharp and yet lavish. Thirst-quenching and a great deal.

United StatesPonzi Rosato pinot noir rosé ($15): An excellent example of a pinot-based pink from one of Oregon’s most well-established wineries, which sells it directly. It opens with a blossomy note of perfumed strawberry, followed by a long finish that wraps in a subtle bitter note. Pinot makes delicate rosé, and this is more about elegance than refreshment. But it can certainly tangle with a nice chunk of salmon.

SoloRosa 2004 California rosé ($13): Jeff Morgan’s most recent offering is big and slightly slightly hot for rosés (14.2 percent alcohol), but the mix of Napa sangiovese and Lodi merlot is surprisingly fresh and complex: Grapefruit, sweet cranberry and mint open things up, and sit atop a firm mineral base. A versatile offering from someone who’s spent a lot of time thinking about pink.

ItalyArgiolas 2003 Serralori rosato Isola dei Nuraghi IGT (Winebow, $13): Rosato is simply Italian for rosé, and this unique pink offering hails from the most notable winery on the island of Sardinia. A blend of four grapes, including cannonau (Sardinian for grenache) and carignano (carignane), it opens with a huge bouquet of nectar, honeysuckle and brambly fruit. Juicy and firm, with fun herbal notes and a solid structure.

El Coto 2004 Rioja rosado (Wildman, $10):
Rioja fashions its sturdy rosado (rosé) primarily out of garnacha and tempranillo grapes, and this arrives bright and balanced, with ripe red fruit offset by jumping herbal notes and a great juicy core. A truly well-built wine.