wine features Wine: Mediterranean Rosés: Provence, Rhone, Navarra, Piedmont, and the Abruzzo, on StarChefs
Ripe Red Grapes Lighten Up for Summer
July 2009

There’s an irony to wine grapes: most red grapes grow best in warm or even hot climates, yet we crave them in the winter to fight off the chill; white grapes prefer cooler climes, but as we broil in hot weather, we yearn for a chilled, refreshing white wine.

The Mediterranean has an older answer for refreshing wines in warmer weather, one that has crept back into fashion: rosé. If you’re moving the mouse toward the “back” button, stop: these are not the sweet, bland White Zinfandels and Mateus Rosés we once used for making spritzers. The Mediterranean’s rosés are dry and flavorful. But it’s not for everyone. When a guest asks for a White Zin, say, and I hand them a Spanish rosé, they usually taste it, grimace, and hand it back. But when a red wine drinker wants to cool off, the same wine elicits a, “Hey, that’s not bad!” (Do White Zin fans a favor and turn them on to German-style Riesling. It’s got that touch of sweetness they crave, with plenty of fruit, interest, and elegance).

“That’s not bad” may seem like damning with faint praise, but we’re not aiming for greatness. These are festive fun wines that don’t call for brainy analysis or meditative sipping. The wines of summer: just as you don’t pack Dostoyevsky in your beach bag, you don’t need a complex wine, either. Instead, pop open the Elmore Leonard of the wine world—at paperback prices as most of these rosés are quite reasonably priced.

Not only is that important in today’s economy; it also makes a strong downsell. We don’t drink heavy reds very quickly in the heat, whereas these wines are so quaffable that guests down them quickly and are soon ready for a second bottle—and they can afford it.

On the other hand, there’s no excuse for boring wine. For many producers, rosé has been a sideline, a place to sell off grapes from vineyards that didn’t perform well, young vines, and the like. In the past, it didn’t get much attention from winemakers as long as it was cheap to make and provided a home for problem grapes. For some wineries, at least, that’s changed, and winemakers are giving rosé its due. Truth be told, this isn’t entirely new, as sometimes what’s changed is not on the winemaking, but the importing: as White Zin’s star has faded, importers are realizing that the market for pink wine has changed, and are bringing over wines that they previously left on the dock.

Tavel, in the southern Rhone, and nearby Provence are France’s home for rosé: the red fruit character of the locally-planted Grenache does pink quite well, as do other popular local varieties, like Cinsault and Mourvedre. Unfortunately, many producers coast on the tourist trade and the area’s reputation, or only make rosés as an afterthought to their red wine production. From Tavel, look for Chateau d’Aquería or the Domaine Lafond “Roc-Epine.” In Provence, the Bandol area is on the rise for rosé (and meaty, Mourvedre-based reds, as well); Domaine Tempier and Domaine Terrebrune are readily available. Another Provencal producer, Domaine Triennes, is one of the handful that give their rosé top billing, and look toward white wine production as a role model, bringing exceptional freshness to the wine.

In 1981, Bodegas Julian Chivite, in Navarra, Spain, released the Gran Feudo Rosado, a pink wine made of 100% Garnacha (Grenache under its Spanish name).  Navarra had always been known for its rosados, perhaps to distinguish it from its more famous neighbor, Rioja. Spain’s pink wines sold well domestically, matching well with the country’s predilection for seafood and their regional hams; Chivite’s wine led the way onto the international market. Fellow Navarrese producers Las Campanas and Señorío de Sarría Viñedo have followed in its wake. Nowadays Rioja itself also makes a number of good rosados, as do some producers farther south in up-and-coming regions, like Yecla and Jumilla.

Italy’s “rosatos” are making gains in the US market, and often have a quirky, individual character. Nebbiolo is the varietal for the country’s most expensive reds, Barolo and Barbaresco, but also makes wonderful and much more moderately-priced rosés, especially in other, more northerly parts of Piedmont. Sperino’s rosato is one of the best; also look for Aldo Rainoldi’s pink wine from neighboring Lombardy. These aren’t terribly traditional to the region, but suit the grape variety: its earth and rose notes come through, but the grape’s tough tannins are by-and-large left aside (like the color, the tannins come from the grape skins).

Further south, the Abruzzo’s Montepulciano grape makes a spicy, more richly-colored wine (called “cerasuolo” for its cherry-like hue), flavorful, but without the chunky rusticity the grape sometimes shows as a red wine. Look for Cataldi Madonna or Masciarelli. In Puglia—the heel of the boot—the Negroamaro grape also makes some refreshing rosatos.