I recently gave a talk on rosé wines for my wine appreciation class at Southern Oregon University and, as I knew they would, the words "white zinfandel" came up.
It doesn't matter where I give talks on rosés, "white zinfandel" haunts me like a pink specter, a sort of liquid cotton candy that will not leave me alone. I think we need to put this baby to bed and talk about sturdy, thirst-quenching, complex rosé.
Prior to the early 1970s, choices for dry, clean, cuisine-oriented rosés were limited in the United States. The standout for cuisine was made by Almaden, a very fruity yet cleanly acidic and well-balanced Grenache rosé. The brother to this wine was the "nectar rosé," which sported about 2 percent residual sugar and was very deficient in acid. This wine was very popular for garden parties and weddings and was served from buckets full of ice. Like the great majority of American-produced rosé wine, the sweeter wines were served to almost the freezing point because the warmer they got, the less drinkable and cloying they were. Also, there were a few "pink" offerings in larger format, gallons and half gallons (the liter system had not yet hit our shores) that were almost impossible to drink because of their cotton-candy nature.
To compound the issue, Sutter Home White Zinfandel arrived on the scene with what seemed to be an alternative to the heavy-weight zinfandel with its massive fruit, high alcohol and oak. This baby brother was supposed to maintain the zinfandel taste but not the heaviness of the big boy. That it took off in sales showed winemakers and consumers that a blushed-out red varietal could be a wonderful alternative to the stable of white-wine varietals such as pinot gris and chardonnay.
The problem was, of course, that it, too, became a sweetie and the more sophisticated wine folks split the scene. The overall complexity of the zinfandel grape was washed away by the sweetness. But it is my belief that other winemakers saw the possibility of blushing-out red varietals and began to experiment with making rosé that would maintain structure, do well with food and offer quite an alternative to what was going on in the blush scene. Many winemakers took stock of the traditional rosé wines of Europe which, ultimately, became the template for what we are experiencing today: small releases of very, very sound dry rosé wines throughout the New World.
Also, and this is really fun, the rosé releases coming from the Old World are getting better and better — cleaner, more affordable and with more staying power. Portugal, Italy and Spain now rival France for the claim to very well made rosé wines.
Here's how to buy rosé wines:
Lorn Razzano is former owner of the Wine Cellar in Ashland and still works there part time. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.