Summer is here with a vengeance. You can’t sling a cork or screw-cap without hitting someone drinking that pretty pink summer quencher we call Rosé. Brunches and barbecues are pouring it into goblets by the gallon, so much so, that we are importing about 80% of this magical elixir I like to call “Day Water”. But what exactly is this stuff? And if we just call it rosé, what’s in it? What are the grape varieties? Why is it pink? And why is it that Americans just can't get enough of this stuff. Rosé is not a grape, it’s a style produced, for the most part, from bulk wine and blending grapes. But on a hot summer’s day, it’s oh so good.
Bulk wine has always been prevalent throughout Europe’s finest wine producing countries, like Italy, France, and Spain. Much of it can be quite good, but is seldom seen anywhere except the European communities to which they are a part of. Tourist will often sing the praises of wines they had at a little bistro in the south of France that cost less than a few Euros per bottle. It’s not because they keep the best for themselves. Quite the contrary. These are usually bulk grapes that just aren’t worth the cost to produce, bottle and ship to the United States. Yet we continue to import more wine than we can consume.
Rosés are created through several methods: when red wine grapes are left in contact with the skins for a few days, which is called the skin contact method; when some of the red juice is added to the free-run juice called saignée; or through blending a white wine with red juice (which is highly frowned upon in the wine world...but we all know bartender or two who does that).
Rosé is a powerfully elegant, refined and structured expression of some of the more “masculine” red grape varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon, Tavel from the Cotes du Rhone, Syrah, Tempranillo from the Rioja region of Spain, Grenache and Cinsault. Rosés made of these varietals will have you looking twice at the label. These bold and savory wines are showing notes and flavors that spam the spectrum of green peppercorn, watermelon, cherry sauce, black currant, green olive, peach skin, tamarind and minerality. Some even have a meaty-like flavor such as cured beef, cold cuts (even fried chicken) which make these pink wines perfect for barbecues. They are usually higher in alcohol and lower in acidity and a great alternative to big reds when pairing with a variety of different foods on a hot summer day. For a lighter, crisper rose, look for pink wines made with Pinot Noir, Mourvèdre, Sangiovese, or a Provence Rosé blend of Grenache, Cinsault, Syrah, and Mourvèdre. These pale pink roses will show notes of strawberry, watermelon, red plum, raspberry, cotton candy, green melon and lemon custard. They are lower in alcohol with crisp acidity leaving you wanting more and they pair well with spicy foods, shellfish, clambakes, goat cheeses or simply on their own.
But we have a little gem right here in California and it’s White Zinfandel. At a time when Big reds and Chardonnays are soaring past the $100 mark, White Zinfandel might just save the American wine industry, and it wouldn’t be the first time either. At a time when the United States is the number one importer of wines, it’s time we embrace a long misunderstood style of wine made by mistake.
Although its origins have been identified to being the same grape as Italy’s Primitivo found in Puglia, and Crljenak Kastelanski in Croatia, Zinfandel thrives in California and accounts for over 10% of grapes under vine. White Zinfandel is actually made from the black skinned Zinfandel grape sought after in some of the best AVAs in California, yet this hearty variety also thrives in some of the toughest regions known for producing bulk grapes that will eventually end up in the box or the jug.
Zinfandel has a relatively long history in the United States, having survived phylloxera and Prohibition due to its hearty root stock (some vines have never had to be grafted and are as old as 150 years old). It’s versatility as a grape ranges from rich and spicy, to light and sweet. It grows rampant in regions where other varieties would fail, and produces more grapes with high sugar levels per bunch, thus higher alcohol. So how did this rich, lush grape turn into America’s Rosé darling? A fortunate accident.
In the early 1970’s, Bob Trinchero of Napa Valley fame, and family owner of the Sutter Home Estates, was attempting to make his Zinfandel more robust by fermenting some of the free-run juice that had limited exposure to the skins and was a pale pink color. It started to gain some popularity as a refreshing alcoholic beverage but the mistake had yet to be made. For some unknown reason, the fermentation stopped, leaving about 2 percent residual sugar. People who normally wouldn’t drink wine loved it, and production increased. It was refreshing, fruity and affordable. In an era of the Pepsi Generation, sweet was desirable. America drank more and more of an otherwise overlooked grape. The money rolled in as more wineries produced the palatable blush wine to keep their vineyards afloat while big reds aged to perfection. The downside was that some wineries cut corners, adding sugar, using inferior grapes, etc. Oenophiles sneered at White Zinfandel drinkers.
It was White Zinfandel that saved a floundering wine economy, and although the sweet juice created a bit of a hangover, it got people interested in American wine. Today, “Big Wine” companies are buying up the family farms and producing a high-end version of “bulk” wine. But we have grown up a bit since the 70’s. We know how to refine and finesse our grapes. Zinfandel still reigns supreme in the American Rosé market, but we too have Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre and Cinsault growing on some of the best soils in Central California. Look no further than Paso Robles for some amazing Rhone varietals. Put a little cowboy kick into your next wine getaway.
Speaking of adding a kick - turn your “Day Water” into a “Weekend Warrior” and try my new best friend inspired by the talented mixologists at #Damngoodhospitality:
The Basil Lemonade Rosé Wine Cooler
Makes one cocktail
2 large basil leaves, ripped into dime size pieces
1 lemon wedge
5 ounces of White Zinfandel (or any other rosé)
1 ounce citrus vodka
Simple syrup (to taste)
Muddle basil and lemon
Fill glass with Ice
Add rosé and citrus vodka
Shake the shit out of it
Top with Simple Syrup
Repeat as necessary!
At a time when friendly, affordable Rosés are again in fashion and being imported by the score, maybe it’s time we keep an eye on the ball and start looking right here in our own backyards. After all, we may not be able to get these foreign fluids into the country...just saying. Keep it light and easy. Stress may be good for the vine, but it will kill us. Sneer all you want oenophiles, but us “Day Drinkers” need to stay refreshed and still be able to afford brunch.