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2 Roses in Bloom

July 11, 1996|MATT KRAMER

Wine writers, like chivalrous knights, have a habit of championing wines. It's best, of course, if the wine is obscure. Or if the producer is trying to make a comeback. Or if a once-acclaimed grower is down on his or her heels. In short, the more oppressed, downtrodden and derided, the better.

That's why, every summer, chivalrous wine scribes take up the cause of rose. It's an irresistible choice for would-be saviors. No wine is more derided, dissed and generally dumped on than rose. Wine snobs everywhere abhor it--or say they do. Winemakers are even more derisive, making frankly opportunistic bottlings of cloying sweetness and no flavor. I cannot recall, outside France's Tavel district, where nothing but rose is produced, a winemaker ever lauding his or her rose.

There's only one flaw in this otherwise impeccable choice for chivalrous do-gooding: Rose doesn't deserve it.

The fact is--and it is a fact--the vast majority of roses produced everywhere in the world are junk. They are pink and not much else. The American versions, exemplified by white Zinfandel, typically are sugary sweet, with no redeeming acidity, let alone character.

Most French, Italian and Spanish roses invariably are dry, but they too run on empty. It's a rare rose from anywhere that warrants even newsprint, never mind championing.

Why? Largely because exceedingly few winemakers set out to make a really good rose. Even most of the best roses are afterthoughts, an economizing leftover from sincere attempts at making great red wines.

What happens, typically, is that a serious grower discovers that the yield of his or her Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Cinsault (pronounced san-so), Zinfandel or other red variety is too high. So the grower engages in a practice called "bleeding off," in which juice is siphoned off from the skins before fermentation starts. The idea is to mechanically readjust the ratio of juice to skins. It's the skins that have the flavor. Too much juice to skin and the wine lacks concentration and depth of flavor.

French winemakers, especially in Burgundy, where harvest rains dilute flavors by swelling the grapes, are frequent practitioners of this technique. It's so common that, today, American winemakers routinely use the French verb saigner, to bleed, when they talk about the technique, as in "I saigned the wine by 20%."

Used judiciously, this practice of bleeding off excess juice is a good idea. Not least, it inadvertently can create good roses (though this is rarely done in Burgundy). The reason is simple: Really good grapes--if a little too high yielding--are used for a wine that would never otherwise see such privilege. It's the vinous equivalent of an airline upgrade.

Still, there's only so much flavor a rose can deliver. Oddly, some red grapes seem to work better than others. You'd think Zinfandel, which is a pretty savory red grape, could make a swell rose. But I've yet to taste a Zinfandel rose (or white Zinfandel) that's convinced me, even though producers like Buehler and De Loach make sincere attempts at fine Zin roses.

Other grapes can be too intrusive. Cabernet Sauvignon often creates a rose with a noticeable vegetal scent. Yet Cabernet Franc, famous for just that quality, seems to impart less of it when used for rose. Pinot Noir makes a fine, delicate rose. Such South-of-France varieties as Cinsault, Mourvedre and Grenache are often splendid choices. Italy's Sangiovese is yet another good grape, among many others in Italy's vast repertoire of savory red wine grapes.

Not least, roses can be tricky to make. You want to get the color just so. There's no standard for what that tint might be except that, to paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart's famous observation about pornography, you know it when you see it.

Color can be created either by leaving the juice in contact with the skins for a very limited time or by blending finished white and red wines to concoct just the right hue, as at a paint shop. Interestingly, it's almost impossible for a taster to know which technique was used. Many winemakers employ both, engaging in what's known as "back blending" to tweak the final color with a splash of red wine before bottling.

The two roses that follow are exemplars of their type. Not only are they genuinely tasty, they also probably can support many sorts of dishes. To test this assertion, I tried both with a rich risotto, the sort I would usually ally with a bold Italian red. Both roses passed with flying (pink) colors.

* 1995 Les Jamelles Cinsault Rose ($7.95): Simply put, this is a world-beater rose. Everything about it is ideal--taste, tint, packaging and, not least, price. Les Jamelles is a brand name created by Melvyn Master, who lives in France and scoops up various lots of wines, typically from the south of France, for this label.

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