Until recently, pink was wine's polarizing colour. People who knew nada about fermented grapes drank rosé. So did people who knew a lot. Pretty much everybody else feared it and stuck to white or red.
The first type of drinker typically guzzled sweet, soda-pop styles, such as American white zinfandel and the Portuguese fizzy, Mateus. The second almost exclusively sought out the dry European stuff, notably the debonair rosés of Provence and Tavel in southern France.
Now pink is red hot and edging into the mainstream. The wine press has dubbed it the "pink tide." Among French producers, the news has been especially cheery at a time when exports of just about every other style are suffering. France now produces about six million hectolitres of rosé annually, roughly 30 per cent of the global market, up from 4.5 million hectolitres in 2002. Almost incredibly, in 2007, France began producing more rosé than white wine.
What happened? A sea change in perception. Many wine enthusiasts, especially new drinkers outside Europe, began cluing into the fact that rosé need not be a saccharine, soda-pop substitute - or what some of us think of as wine with training wheels. In fact, most serious pink is seriously dry.
It's encouraging to watch the tide wash up a growing selection of dry offerings, not just from France, Spain and Italy, the traditional sources of the best rosés, but also such New World countries as New Zealand and Canada. Springtime is high tide for rosé wine.
At their best, dry rosés deliver an uncanny essence of summer berries, lifted by crisp acidity and often a hint of fresh herbs. They are consummate warm-weather apéritifs, but they also pair sumptuously with a variety of foods, from light vegetarian fare to simple grilled shrimp, poached salmon and ham.
They're probably most spiritually at home with casual appetizers. In northern Spain, land of so many undervalued rosés, the pink stuff is classic with tapas, the snack plates served in bars. (Dry sherry is another favourite option, especially in southern Spain.)
Despite rosé's growing popularity, prices remain reasonable. Many great examples sell for between $12 and $15. That said, some producers have been testing rich people's gullibility. Domaine Ott, admittedly one of the most talked about French rosés, sells for more than $40 a bottle in Canada. You can often do just as well, in terms of elegance and complexity if not snob appeal, for half that price. It's only rarely available in Canada anyway.
But Ott doesn't take the cake for blushworthy shamelessness. Sacha Lichine, son of Alexis Lichine, a famous winemaker and writer in Bordeaux, charges the Canadian equivalent of roughly $150 a bottle for a relatively new rosé from his Château d'Esclans property in Provence. (It's not currently available in Canada as far as I can tell.)
Year after year, one of the best widely distributed bargains, at least in my book, is made by the fine producer Muga, located in Spain's northern Rioja region. Muga Rosé 2009 ($12.95 in Ontario; $15.30 in Quebec), to be released this Saturday in Ontario, along with several of the other offerings below, is a steal. Tinted a seductive salmon-pink, it offers up a pure core of strawberry, with crisp acidity lifting its medium-bodied frame. Like all rosés, it should be served well chilled.
Most quality rosé is made exclusively with red grapes. The dark skins are pulled away from the otherwise clear juice shortly after fermentation starts, leaving just a light stain of colour. You can also make rosé by blending red and white wines, but few good producers do, with the notable exception of some Champagne houses.
It's possible to make rosé from any red grape, but some varieties work better than others. In southern France, the standard-bearer for dry rosé, syrah, grenache, carignan and cinsault are favourites. You'll find the first three in Domaine Lafage Parfum de Vignes Rosé 2009 ($14.95 in Ontario). From the Côtes du Roussillon region that hugs the Mediterranean east of Provence, it's medium-bodied with a soft, rounded texture and notes of cherry and banana.
Direct from Provence comes Gassier Sables d'Azur 2009 ($14.95 in Ontario), which glistens salmon-pink through its clear, hour-glass-shaped bottle. The flavour here starts with a blast of herbs and blossoms, followed by nuances of strawberry and bitter lemon peel. I'd give it higher marks for sophisticated flavour than for precision and balance. Think of Audrey Hepburn with a few bangs out of place.
If you prefer a rosé with almost red-like robustness, consider Citra Palio Rosato Montepulciano d'Abruzzo Cerasuolo 2009 from Italy ($13.95 in Ontario). Saturated cherry-red in colour, it's got an almost-sweet core but finishes dry, with notes of cherry and strawberry.
In spite of the consumer lunge toward dry, there persists among New World winemakers a belief that most people subconsciously desire a dose of sugar in their pink potations. I confess to a disdain for this surreptitious nod to white zinfandel, the decidedly sweet style of rosé, made from the red zinfandel grape, that still accounts for a huge segment of the market. California is a big source of these pseudo white zins, which is why I tend to steer clear of the Golden State when it comes to pink. Australia is another crimson minefield.
One admirable example from California that stays on the drier side is Ironstone Vineyards Xpression Rosé 2008 ($13.95 in Ontario). You may think it sweet at first, with its candy-shop flavour and rounded texture, but it finishes cleanly.
And new vintages of two of Canada's best rosés were just released for spring, one from Niagara and one from British Columbia. Malivoire Ladybug Rosé 2009 ($15.95 in Ontario) is light medium-bodied with hints of strawberry, cranberry and herbs and a solidly crisp finish. The B.C. offering, Joie Farm Rosé 2009 from the Okanagan Valley ($21, Joie.ca), is inspired by pink wines from northern France's Loire Valley, with moderate alcohol (12.5 per cent) and a nice yin-yang of sweetness balanced by firm acidity. The 2009 tasted refreshingly crisp to me. Bright cherry-red in colour, it offers up flavours of cherry and strawberry in a deftly balanced frame. It's the kind of pink wine that I could see appealing to just about any wine lover. Would that be depolarizing?