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Endless summer of roses

September 29, 2004|Charles Perry | Times Staff Writer

For years, a sure sign of approaching summer has been the cry of wine writers lamenting how prejudiced Americans are against rose. There are many fine dry roses from Europe, the writers would point out, but we doltishly ignore them because we lump all roses with sweet, unsophisticated white Zinfandel.

This seems to have been the summer in which we caught on. Just look on restaurant wine lists -- there's a far greater range of roses than there was five years ago. Check out the wine shops, where roses often have displays of their own. At the Wine House in West Los Angeles, they're the only wines not grouped by region, a sure sign that people are specifically shopping for them, not just browsing among the Chateauneuf-du-Papes and picking up a Costieres de Nimes rose by accident.

And we're not going to stop drinking them just because it's "not summer" any longer. In Southern California, it's always rose weather, not just from Memorial Day to Labor Day, but straight on through Thanksgiving and even New Year's. Why do you think it's called the Rose Parade?

A lot of attention has been paid in the press to California roses, and Jeff Morgan, who makes nothing but rose at his Solorosa winery in Napa Valley, is writing a book on the subject. We're likely to see more California roses too; the grape glut that has led to the super-budget Charles Shaw wines may make rose a more attractive proposition to winemakers.

But though respectable roses are made in many places, the real pink action these days is in a belt that runs through southern France and northern Spain.

"I've always related drinking rose and being in France," says Caroline Styne, wine director of Lucques and A.O.C. "I used to stay with friends in the south of France at an 18th century chateau in the middle of nowhere, and all we would do all summer was drink vin gris and eat foie gras. Or we'd go to the beach and have steak tartare with rose. So that whole Bandol-Languedoc-Provence area is still pretty much where rose is for me."

The man who introduced Californians to these Mediterranean roses was Kermit Lynch, the Bay Area wine merchant who was the first American to go exploring off the beaten track in France. He brought the Bandol rose from Domaine Tempier to the attention of his neighborhood restaurant, which happened to be Berkeley's famous Chez Panisse, and Chez Panisse practically made Domaine Tempier its house wine in the 1980s.

You couldn't ask for better advertising. As early as 1988, Domaine Tempier was commanding $13.95 a bottle, unheard of for a rose. Today you're lucky to find it for less than $30.

Pretty and refreshing

Bandol has caught on for good reason: It's approachable but not cloying; it's fragrant and pretty and refreshing and easy to drink.

The best French and Spanish roses have the light, attractive perfume and moderate alcohol that make them something you'd like to sip out on the patio, along with the crispness to make them work with a salad, and enough body (and even a little tannin) to stand up to bouillabaisse or grilled butterflied leg of lamb.

The great rose grape is Grenache (called Garnacha in Spain), which naturally makes a light-colored red wine -- it takes special effort to get an intense red out of it -- so making rose is not a stretch.

Its simple charm, along with its tolerance of drought and its success in stony soils, have made Grenache the second most widely planted grape in the world.

However, Grenache doesn't score high on acidity, tannin or perfume, so in the rose zone it's usually blended with other grapes. In Navarre and adjacent parts of Aragon, Spanish winemakers often add some of the great local red wine grape, Tempranillo.

In France, the varieties most often added are Syrah for backbone and distinction, Cinsault for fresh fruit and Mourvedre for tannin and acid.

This is as true in Languedoc to the west (Corbieres, Costieres de Nimes) and Cotes de Provence in the east as in the southern Rhone Valley itself (Tavel, Lirac, Cotes du Ventoux).

In Bandol, though -- in the southernmost spur of Provence -- Mourvedre is the primary grape. Normally the variety, whose aromas have been described as "stewed" and less flattering things, is used primarily for blending.

But in Bandol, the law requires that rose be made from at least 50% Mourvedre. This explains the distinctive flavor of Bandol rose, not to mention its particular color.

Instead of the pretty rose or cherry shades of Grenache-based roses, Bandol has a salmon pink color shading into pale orange or onionskin.

The first southern French rose to be "discovered" was Tavel, which Ernest Hemingway declared his favorite wine some 70 years ago, so it's widely available, often a bit pricey and frequently insipid. Meanwhile, Bandol has become prohibitively expensive.

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