Not that many years ago, pink wines were completely out of fashion, mainly because the only ones around were three or four pretty awful, cheap, sweet wines popular at teen parties and college-dorm gatherings.
Today, we adore our rosés (as we call them now) in the summer months, because they go so well with the season and summer food.
But the shift in this country from college-ghastly to adult-lovely began by accident. In 1975, Sutter Home Winery in California was making a dark, deeply flavored, purple-red wine from zinfandel grapes, when it ran into a technical problem. The fermentation stopped right in the middle of the conversion of sweet, light-colored wine juice into a dark, dry, high-alcohol red wine. The winemakers were left with a light-pink color, sweet, fairly low-alcohol wine. They set it aside.
After a few weeks, when Sutter Home tasted the stuck fermentation wine, they discovered it was pleasantly drinkable. Thus was born white zinfandel, which they decided to market to women. And within a year or two, Sutter Home had a runaway best-seller. Other wineries soon followed.
In southern Europe, meanwhile, pink-colored wines that bore no other resemblance except in color to Sutter Home had been around since the 1800s as a light table wine — best when consumed in summer.
Many of these wines barely touched 10 or 11 percent alcohol. In France, the wines were known as rosé; in Spain, rosado; and in Italy, rosato.
By and large, those wines were available locally. The word was that rosés did not “travel” well and should not be exported. But soon, American and British wine drinkers began demanding them anyway, particularly the rosés of Provence that were sold in every café along the Riviera.
They were inexpensive, bone dry, fruity with terrific acid and balance, low in alcohol, and tremendously refreshing. They were also light enough that you could drink them comfortably in a hot noonday sun without being laid low.
Now every summer, a slew of pink European wines make their presence felt on American wine-store shelves.
The French versions, especially those from the south of France, remain the best in terms of flavor, balance, and alcohol level, in my opinion. Rosés are also lighter, fresher, and drier. The Spanish versions tend to more stylistically resemble the thicker, darker, and sweeter French Tavel than the lighter rosés of Provence. The Italians are drier, and in style, they fall somewhere between the French and Spanish.
The differences between the three are the grapes used. The French primarily use syrah, cinsault, and grenache in just about any combination. The Spanish also use grenache, which they call garnacha, and tempranillo, the base grape in Rioja’s great reds. The Italians lean toward several grapes, including sangiovese, the Chianti grape, rossesse, corvina, and rondinella, used mostly as blenders in northern Italian red wines.
Most French and Italian versions come in at 11 to 13 percent alcohol, while the Spanish rosados are slightly higher.
One rule of thumb I follow, if I don’t know a particular pink wine, is to assume that the darker the color, the sweeter and more alcoholic the wine is likely to be. (Which is not always the case.) However, the newer the vintage, the better.
If a rosé is more than two years old, it might still be OK, but I would look for something younger.