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Wednesday, July 30, 2008 01:39 am

Think pink

Contrary to some views, a good Zinfandel isn’t white

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When my husband, Peter, and I were recently invited over by longtime friends Phil and Pat Wheat for a glass of wine at sunset, we accepted eagerly. The Wheats' modern home is situated on Lake Springfield's eastern shore, so gorgeous sunsets are practically guaranteed. Pat is a talented interior designer, and usually when we visit she's added something new to their already spectacularly lovely home. This time the latest improvement was Phil's, though Pat undoubtedly had a hand in its creation: a climate-controlled wine cellar and tasting room, complete with a computer dedicated solely to the cellar's inventory, food and wine pairings, and other wine-related topics.

A recent trip to California's Sonoma Valley transformed Phil from someone who merely enjoyed wine into a passionate enthusiast, so we wanted to bring something special and a bit different. Handing over a bottle of Domaine Tempier's Bandol Rosé, I said that it's a wine we especially enjoy in summer and that it's regarded by many experts as the world's best rosé. Pat said, a bit dubiously, "But it's sweet, right?"

It's an all-too-common American misperception — even among those who routinely drink wine — that rosés are uniformly sweet. This is largely because of the ocean of white Zinfandel that began washing over the U.S. in the 1960s. White Zinfandel (a misnomer; white Zins are always pink) came about by accident. The Zinfandel varietal is one of California's oldest; in fact, for a while it was even thought to be native. Sophisticated DNA has proved otherwise. According to Dr. Carole Meredith, professor of viticulture and enology at the University of California, Davis, Zinfandel is identical to the Italian varietal Primitivo and has been traced back to parents in Croatia, Plavac Mali and Dobriãiç, thought to have been brought to Italy by monks. In the '60s a new generation of vintners in California, which had previously been primarily a source of generic jug wines, began making wines that would soon compete favorably with Europe's finest. They planted acres of Zinfandel grapes, but American consumers had yet to develop a taste for robust Zinfandel wines. Sutter's is generally credited (or blamed) for creating white Zinfandel. Vintners there crushed Zinfandel grapes and let the skins have brief contact with the juice (a method used for almost all rosés) and heavily chapitalized it (adding sugar during fermentation), which resulted in a light, sweet wine perfectly suited to soda-drinking Americans. Soon "white" Zinfandel was outselling red Zin six to one.

Almost all wine experts disdain white Zinfandel. An exception is David Rosengarten, whose Rosengarten Report has been hailed as "the best food and wine newsletter in America." To Rosengarten, white Zinfandel's appeal is "not in my taste for great wine. It's in my good sense in matching wine with food. The downside of white Zinfandel is that it doesn't have any Zinfandel flavor. In fact, it doesn't have too much flavor at all — just a mildly pleasant kind of generalized fruit quality. And that, to me, is its virtue when I'm planning menus. There is a great deal of modern [often ethnic] food that is on the sweet side. I say, if the food is a little sweet, let the wine be a little sweet."

Much as I respect Rosengarten (I've used his cookbooks and newsletters for years), I disagree with him on this. White Zinfandels are just too insipid for me. That said, I love rosés. In fact, if I were forced to pick just one style and color of wine that I could have for the rest of my life in all situations, it would probably be dry rosé because it's so versatile. I'm not alone in this: Renowned importer Kermit Lynch says that if he could have just one wine in his cellar he'd choose Domaine Tempier's rosé. Like Rosengarten, I tend to judge wines mainly on the basis of how well they match with food. Fortunately a host of wonderfully flavorful rosés — most completely dry and some barely off-dry — pair beautifully with an astonishingly wide variety of food; unfortunately, that white Zin stigma has made many American wine enthusiasts avoid them.

That's not the case in other parts of the world, where good rosés are routinely consumed. "We drank rosé all the time at home," says the Corkscrew Wine Emporium's Danielle Anderson, a native of Mauritius, a tropical island in the Indian Ocean that was a French protectorate for years before passing to the British and finally achieving independence. "Most of us weren't very familiar with [good] rosés before we started working here," adds the Corkscrew's Michael DeBeaulieu, "but [Corkscrew owner] Geoff [Bland] is real rosé fan; he introduced us to them, and now we love them. In fact, I had a rosé last night with a salad for dinner."

Dry rosés are common on the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal), in southern France, and, to a somewhat lesser extent, in Italy. Wineries in North and South America, New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa are producing excellent rosés as well. I've recently been enjoying rosés from Chile and Argentina made from a French varietal, Malbec, that's particularly at home in South America.

Some think rosés are a compromise between red and white wines. There's a degree of truth to that, but it's a compromise that's a virtue rather than a vice. The "red wine with meat and white wine with chicken and fish" dictum is a huge oversimplification, but it does contain a degree of truth. The tannins found in red wine, which come primarily from the grapes' skins, pair beautifully with rich and fatty things like steaks, braised meats, butter-based sauces, and even fish such as salmon. Some reds, particularly many of the big, powerful wines beloved by wine guru Robert Parker and his disciples, are prima donnas that overwhelm practically any food. In my opinion, at least, such reds are best enjoyed by themselves or with very simple accompaniments.

White wines, on the other hand, have few or no tannins but usually a higher acidity level that cleanses the palate, readying it for the next bite and allowing subtle and delicate flavors to shine.

Good rosés combine the best of both, making them versatile and food-friendly. The most successful are made from red grape varieties that are naturally moderately to relatively highly acidic; the abbreviated time the crushed skins and juice are in contact adds a hint of tannins.

Most rosés are moderately priced, though there are exceptions — sadly, the weak U.S. dollar has made Domaine Tempier's rosé almost twice as expensive in the short time since we visited the Wheats. Rosés come in various styles (depending on the grape varietal) and a wide range of colors (depending on the length of time the skins have contact with the juice), from palest blush to a deep pink that could be mistaken for red wine in low light.

I enjoy rosés throughout the year, but especially in summer. They're the perfect wines to pair with grilled steak or fish, barbecued ribs, or to just enjoy sipping under the sprinkler.

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com.

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