Many remember the worst of times for pink wine: when it was sweet, oxidized, made from terrible hot-climate grapes and tasted awful.
Even today, people remember the universal badness of rosés made in the 1960s. Most had the delicacy of a demolition derby, the vibrancy of mud and actually made food taste bad.
There’s a world of difference between that swill and the glorious elixirs called dry rosé being made worldwide in the past two decades and which have become dramatic scene-stealers.
Several problems led to the terrible quality of pink wine 50 years ago, starting with poor, high-tonnage grapes that were badly handled at harvest time, allowing the juice to oxidize.
Also, fermentation science was still in its infancy, and few wineries had the refrigerated tanks needed to keep ferments cold enough to retain fruit.
The first signs of dry rosé’s potential hit shelves in 1972 in a form few people remember today. It was called Sutter Home White Zinfandel, and it was a startlingly delightful dry wine.
After years of underground success, and rapid sales to true wine lovers, Sutter Home’s White Zin hit what I predicted would be a pothole. One vintage of white zin refused to go dry in the fermentation tank, and the result was a sweeter version of the formerly dry wine.
At release, I told Sutter Home co-owner Roger Trinchero, “You’re gonna have a hard time selling this one, it’s so sweet.”
I was wrong. Very wrong.
Soon I began seeing other wineries making dry pink wines that were more delicate and captured the amazing fruit that most red wine grapes have but which is often lost in the quest to make dark red wines from them.
Some of the earlier “bad era” rosés had been made from grenache grown in hot climates in large volumes, guaranteeing diffuse character. But when grown in smaller tonnages and in more moderate climates, grenache has aromatics that are superb for pink wines, including cranberry, maraschino cherry and strawberry.
So grenache became one of the first dry rosé wines to excite wine lovers, and most notable were wines from Spain (where it is called garnacha) and the regions of the south of France, such as in Provence or the Rhône Valley.
The secret to these wines was the fact that grapes were harvested at low sugar levels (as low as 18 and 19 percent). Grapes for red and white table wines usually are picked at 22 to 26 percent.
The best way to make dry rosés is to ferment the juice cool after a period in which it sat in contact with the grape skins long enough to gain a bit of color.
The technique works well with the lighter-colored pinot noir grape, which can make an extraordinary pink wine, but at a cost. The best rosés made from pinot noir usually are made from the best fruit, and that fruit when made into a red wine can command prices upwards of $50 a bottle.
The benefits of making pink from such pricey grapes is, that the winery needs no expensive barrels (the best rosés are not aged in barrels for added flavors). They can be sold three months after harvest, not 18 months, as are most red pinot noirs.