Pink wines—some people love them because they are slightly sweet, fruity and inexpensive. Others detest them for the same reasons. Pink wines, however, may be one of the most misunderstood enological concepts in America.
Rosé is a semantically loose term for any wine from palest pink to pale rose-red. Rosés are common in the warmer areas of southern France, where there is local demand for refreshing dry wines that can be chilled and drunk young, but which still retain some of the character of the Frenchman's beloved reds.
Tavel is one of the most well-known French rosés. Tavel, a bone-dry wine with a hefty alcohol content, was a favorite of Louis XIV in the 13th century, and immortalized by French writers Balzac and Mistral. In fact, nearly three-quarters of the wines produced in Côtes de Provence are pale pink, dry rosés. These pale, fruity wines are a traditional match for the delicate oil-and-garlic infused dishes of Provence.
There are two ways to make pink wine. The least desirable method, yet one which some California vintners still practice, is to blend finished red wine into white wine. But the best and traditional way is to crush red grapes and allow them to sit just long enough for the juice to extract some rosy color from the pigment rich skins. The pulp of a grape—even a red grape—is generally white to pale pink, while the skins are rich in proanthocyanadolic blue-to-red pigments. Therefore, pink wines run the gamut from mass produced, commercially marketed rosés which are a blend of unidentified wines, to dry, oaky, refreshing pinks made from one grape varietal.
Blush is another loosely used term for lightly tinted wines made from dark-skinned grapes. These wines generally spend very little time in contact with their red skins. Instead, the juice is pressed off immediately, resulting in wines that are lighter and more purely pink than rosés. Blush wines encompass all the lighter pink wines made from dark fruit, including white zinfandels, white grenache and vin gris.
Vin gris is a French term which translates as gray wine, referring specifically to a light colored wine produced from dark grapes. A vin gris is generally a dry, slightly oaky wine produced from a single grape varietal. The term gray wine is not a highly marketable concept to Americans, so the name white zinfandel was born. In the U.S. it wasn't until the 1980's that white wines and blush wines began to overtake rosés in popularity, with white zinfandels leading the pack. Bob Trinchero at Sutter Home is famous for his aggressive marketing program, which made the term synonymous with affordable, pronounceable wine. Sales of Sutter Home white zinfandel rocketed from 25,000 cases in 1980 to 1.5 million cases six years later.
Many of the original white zinfandels were traditionally dry and oaky, but with the raging popularity in the 1980's of slightly sweet blush wines, coupled with the market intrusion of wine coolers, more and more producers began to give the public what it wanted—slightly sweet, fruity, affordable white zinfandel. However, its very popularity has spawned fierce price competition. At the same time, growing demand for premium red wines has increased the price of quality zinfandel grapes. Many winemakers now insist they cannot afford to produce a white zinfandel that will sell for only $6.50 a bottle retail (with heavy discounts to wholesalers) when they can produce serious, award-winning red zinfandels that will sell for $12 to $30 a bottle.
The good news for adventurous wine drinkers is that the pink trend is swinging back toward modern experimentation with traditional pink production, resulting in a recent proliferation of pink wines—white grenache, cabernet blanc, merlot blanc, blanc de noir, and traditionally-styled vin gris produced from grenache or pinot noir. Many of these modern pinks are dry, gently floral, and slightly oaky.
Bonny Doon makes a dry Vin Gris de Cigare ($8.50), made primarily from grenache, but also utilizing some of the same grapes as their famous red, Cigare de Volant. Eberle Winery in Paso Robles has recently released a Côtes-du-Rhône style pink, Counoise Rosé ($11.00).
The Wine Guy, a wine shop in Arroyo Grande, California, also carries imported pinks like a 1995 Tavel ($13.00), which owner Ron Rawlinson describes as "very vibrant," and a 1994 Terre Rouge Vin Gris ($9.99) from the south of France. Rawlinson describes the Terre Rouge as having "rose petal and white pepper characteristics. It's very perfumed, with spice and lightness on the palate."
"I drank a lot of rosé during my last visit to France," says Rawlinson. "Along the coast of France it's very common to start a meal with a chilled rosé, which is excellent with antipastos, and then move to a red wine with dinner."