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Rosé is a game of flirtation and charm.

June 16, 2015

Rosé wine is quite simple in the glass — it’s pink, it’s chilled, it tastes good. And this time of year, there’s no occasion that wouldn’t be improved by a good rosé, from graduation dinner to a July 4 backyard cookout to a hillside picnic.

As a subject, rosé is a bit tricky, and could consume many books. You can make rosé from any red grape, anywhere — and people do. It’s also the most versatile wine at the table: When I am not sure what to serve, I often go with a rosé (especially if spicy food is involved).

In some ways it’s among the most creative outlets for winemakers, since are many ways to get to a beautiful end result. And they relish the chance to toss out the rulebook and do what works for them.

That’s one of the reasons that there’s no standard pink out there; I’ve had rosés the color of deep watermelon flesh, others the palest orange sunset, and still others various shades of cotton candy. Some are so dark they are almost a red wine, others so light it’s not clear what exactly you’re drinking. But that’s part of the fun, too. There’s an endless variety of color — oh, and taste too, from bracingly bone dry to lightly sweet.

There are two primary ways to make rosé. This won’t necessarily impact how you choose one, but it’s need-to-know info just the same.

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Method one, the most common, is to press red grapes early, letting the juice have just a little bit of skin contact (as opposed to the much longer time they will get to make a red wine), until the color seems right. Then the juice gets separated.

The other method, which many feel produces better wine, is called saignée, which basically means letting some of the juice “bleed off” from stacked up grapes. But the methods can also be combined.

In the winemaking process, it’s all about knowing when to let go — and that’s true in the glass, too. Rosé is a game of flirtation and charm. If a rosé isn’t charming, there’s something wrong. It should tickle the fancy for a few seconds and then recede elegantly from the memory. You should be able to see it winking back at you.

Rosé is a big world, but here are seven key styles to know as you start shopping for summertime dining and sipping:

1. Tavel from the Rhone

There’s only one officially designated rosé appellation in France, and this is it, tucked into the red-focused Rhone Valley. Winemakers are required to make it in this subregion, and it’s a long-standing, proud tradition.

They have pronounced themselves the Capital of French Rosé, and who’s to argue with the French about anything? Grenache is the dominant grape here, with an assist Cinsault (think of it as the backup singer for lots of southern French rosés). The flavor profile is robust, spicy, powerful … and not shy on the alcohol. A deep raspberry color is typical.

Recommend: Domaine Pélaquié; Domaine Mordoree; E. Guigal

2. Côtes de Provence

Provence is a whole region largely devoted to rosé production, as well as to its elegant consumption on terraces overlooking the Mediterranean. So you have to drill down to areas within Provence to make sense of it all, and this one is the workhorse of the bunch. Though it’s not without its glamorous points — you may have heard that a certain low-profile couple, the Jolie-Pitts, own a chateau in the area and got married there? Their rosé, Chateau Miraval, is actually pretty good.

Grenache is again the main player here in multi-grape blends, and these wines tend to be charmingly tart, with a refreshing acidity and light herbal notes in addition to fruit flavors. Cotton candy pink is a frequent color.

Recommended: Hecht & Bannier; Commanderie de Peyrasol; Chateau Miraval; Chateau Saint-Maur

3. Bandol from Provence

Yup, we’re still in Provence here, because it’s rosé central. Mourvedre is the primary grape in beautiful Bandols, which tend toward the crisp, earthy, mineral side of things, and bone-dry all the way. This tends to be the wine snob’s go-to rosé. And these can age, which is not typical of pinks. You can serve these at dinner, as well as on the porch afterwards.

Recommended: Domaine Tempier, Chateau du Pibarnon; Domaine La Suffrene; Domaine de Terrebrune

4. Pinot Noir & Merlot-based rosés from Oregon, Long Island, and California

Good old American rosés come from all over the U.S., and of course from dozen of different varieties: We like our freedom and all. But these two grapes get a lot of play, and they are the yin-yang of American rosé, with Pinot a bit more intellectual and Merlot a bit more ready to party.

Pinot Noir is known as a difficult grape to make, causing much heartache among winemakers, but shows its fun side when made as a rosé, which may explain why it’s one of the most popular pink varieties from Oregon (where Pinot is the red wine king) to Long Island and over to Napa. The operative word is strawberry: that’s the central fruit taste these wines are known to deliver. The colors can vary depending on how they’re made, but if they’re charming, then they’ve done their job.

Merlot-based pink wines tend to be a darker shade of pink, and heading into the darker berry fruit flavors on the palate as well: cherry, blackberry, while still (if made well) retaining the elegance that is definitional for rosé.

Recommended Pinot Noir-based:

Oregon: Ponzi; J.K. Carriere; Adelsheim

Long Island: Wölffer

California: Sainsbury; Robert Sinskey

Recommended Merlot-based:

Long Island: McCall; Croteaux

California: Michel-Schlumberger; Paradigm; Chimney Rock

5. Tuscan Rosato from Sangiovese

Italy isn’t really a country: It’s a smushed-together conglomeration of nation-states, and nowhere does that come through more clearly than in its distinct winemaking traditions. Rosatos come from all over, but certainly one country’s primary red grapes — Sangiovese — is responsible for many delicious ones.

Always with Sangiovese you’ve got that strawberry note (familiar from Chianti) but also a hint of bitterness that is entirely welcome, making you want to come back for another glass. The great acidity mirrors the best of the rosés from the south of France, with just enough Italian character (a slight savory note in some) to be distinct. 

Recommended: Massoferrato; Il Poggione; La Spinetta; Biondi-Santi

6. Tempranillo Rosado from Rioja and Ribera del Duero

Rosés go with everything, but they especially go with the hearty and often spicy profile of tapas. So it’s no surprise that Spain excels at making pink wines.

As elsewhere, Grenache — known in Spain as Garnacha — gets a workout from rosé makers, so it might be fun to try some of the pinks made from Tempranillo, the key red grape in Rioja and Ribera del Duero. Winemakers from those regions love to make a less serious wine with some of the excellent source material on hand. These tend to the softer, easier side of rosé, with a light sweetness about them and a watermelon-y profile.

Recommended: Cune Rioja Viña Real; Viña Vilano; Bodegas Ontañon; Vivanco

7. Outliers from the Finger Lakes, the Santa Ynez Valley, and Piedmont

These renegade wines don’t fit any of the above categories, but deserve a fair shake nonetheless. They’re among my personal favorites precisely because they’re distinct.

Red Newt Cellars Cabernet Franc Dry Rose: Making rosé from Cab Franc is a storied tradition in the Loire, but this Finger Lakes winery does a great job with this tasty pink, the color of a sunset over upstate New York.

Beckmen Vineyards PMV Rose: This Santa Ynez Valley winery in Santa Barbara makes this extraordinarily fruity, but still serious, rosé from Grenache.

Antichi Vigneti di Cantalupo Il Mimo Nebbiolo Rosato: The odd harlequin-themed label and hauntingly dark-colored red will draw you in, and the taste of ripe raspberries will keep you hanging around.

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