It was my birthday the other week, and we were having a stretch of some of the loveliest June days I can remember. The peonies were bursting, the roses were in bloom, and to celebrate I filled the house with vases of heavy pink blossoms and invited friends to an impromptu tasting of rosé wines. It was like a grown-up version of a princess party: everything pink, pink, PINK!
The sheer prettiness of the wines made me fall in love with them before we'd poured so much as a drop. The bottles glowed in mouth-watering colors - candy-apple red, deep raspberry, rosy salmon, watermelon-pink. They looked so luscious, I couldn't decide which I wanted to do first: taste them, bathe in them or paint them on the walls.
I'd been more than a bit dubious about tasting rosés. Too many unpleasant memories of cloyingly sweet white Zinfandel served in plastic tumblers at outdoor receptions. The words "blush wine" conjured up visions of mosquitoes, ants and boxes of jug wine on sticky picnic tables.
But a friend who'd spent a few formative weeks in Provence one summer kept telling me I was missing something. He painted rapturous word-pictures of gnarled olive trees and fields of lavender baking under a Mediterranean sun, mornings at the Matisse museum in Nice and afternoons lounging at a café table in a dusty cobblestone courtyard, with a bottle of chilled Provencal rosé and a good book. He swore that a dry French rosé was nothing like a mass-market California blush wine, and he made me wonder what I'd been missing.
In fact, wine writers and wine buyers have been talking up dry rosés for a couple of years now. When the weather turned warm a few weeks ago, my favorite wine stores all began prominently displaying rosés from around the world - France, Spain, Italy, Australia, Argentina, California. Since when did rosé become a worldwide phenomenon? And with so many to choose from, what do you look for in a good rosé?
The adjective traditionally used to describe rosé is "charming." Not serious, not elegant, not powerful, but charming. Rosé wines are meant to be fresh, lively and young. (Buy the most recent vintage you can find.) They can be bone-dry or a little sweet, but any sweetness should be balanced by plenty of acidity. In the mouth, they feel like crisp white wines - but on the palate, they've got some of the lovely fruity aromas of red wine.
And in fact, they are red wines. Rosé begins life as crushed red grapes - but the juice of the grapes is left in contact with the dark skins for such a short time that the wine is merely stained with color - the French call some of them "saignée," or bloodied.
Because rosé bridges the gap between red and white wines, it's often considered a user-friendly wine: It goes with anything. I wouldn't serve one with a heavy pot roast, but rosés are terrific with zesty, eclectic summertime fare.
And best of all - these wines are priced for quaffing. If you try hard, you can find a rosé for 30 bucks or more, but most are in the $10-$20 range. Barriques sells a Bieler Père et Fils from Aix en Provence for $10, which is as good a place to start as any.
Winemakers are having fun these days making rosés out of just about every red varietal imaginable. So you could pick and choose based on your favorite grape. If you adore Pinot Noir, for instance, try one of a slew of recent American rosés made from pinot noir.
France, however, still sets the standard for dry rosé, and I wanted to taste some classic French rosés. I assembled four from Barriques: the Bieler, made from a blend of 70% Syrah and 30% Grenache; a Chateau Haut Sarthes from Bergerac ($12), which is a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc; a Domaine Laurens Marcillac ($15), and my favorite of the bunch - a Bergerie de L'Hortus from Languedoc ($14), made from Grenache, one of the classic rosé grapes.
After we got done admiring the colors, we set about tasting. But I have to confess, there's something about holding a glass of wine the exact color of raspberry sherbet - it's hard to take too seriously. I knew I was supposed to be taking notes, but my inner child just wanted to revel in the Kool-Aid colors and the perfumes of strawberry and cherry and watermelon, and...well, it was a birthday party, after all.
And really, rosé is a wine for fun. The glorious colors make you think of balloons and popsicles and little girls in party dresses and long summer sunsets. You sip, and you get hints of strawberries and framboise, then a tart burst of mineral or citrus and a crisp, clean finish. You reach for the olives or a breadstick - and then another sip, and another, and so on. Before long, no one had any idea which wine was in which glass - they were all delicious, the summer was young and so, for the moment, were we.