How Do You Define Rosé?
Certain categories of wine must be approached on tiptoe, as opinions surrounding them will be tenaciously defended, even if their champions are ill-informed. Arguments will ensue.
Riesling is like that, for sure, and natural wine, without a doubt. But rosé?
Rosé is a popular, beloved sort of wine, I imagined, that all would embrace. It’s for lovers, not for fighters, connoting relaxation, not combat.
Yet as we explored an assortment of rosés in our latest unit of Wine School, I was surprised to find substantial disagreements not only on how these wines were experienced — that’s always a given — but also on the nature of rosé, how to define it and whether it has any value at all.
Informed debate and discussion is the purpose of Wine School. Our aim is to promote exploration and understanding, first and foremost, as well as comfort and ease with wine. Achieving these goals, however, requires actually drinking the wines and forming opinions based on your impressions.
You can never be wrong in describing how a wine makes you feel. That is a matter of taste, informed by experience. Our belief is that with increased knowledge, by which I mean trying many different sorts of wines, opinions may evolve. When it comes to wine, being open-minded means extra pleasure.
As usual, I recommended three bottles. They were: Wölffer Estate Long Island Rosé 2019, Tiberio Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo 2019 and Arnot-Roberts California Rosé Touriga Nacional 2019.
The idea was to look at different ideas of rosé, from different places, made from different grapes, using different techniques.
Many people look to Provence as the spiritual center of rosé production, and they would not be entirely wrong. It’s the Provençal ideal of pale pink wine, combined with the idyll of pastoral tranquillity, that forms the mental picture of rosé as generally conceived. It’s not a wine, it’s a state of mind, right?
And yet, rosé has so much more to offer. Many rosés are made with haste to be drunk young, as Jason Carey of New York pointed out. But not all of them. The rosés of Bandol, for example, age beautifully, for many years sometimes, and over time offer more and more complexity and nuance.
Many people assume that the paler the rosé, the better. Yet one of our three bottles, the Tiberio, was cherry red. The great Bandols are pale, yes, but some of the world’s best rosés, like Château Simone in Palette, a small town in Provence, and Domaine Ilarria in Irouléguy in Southwest France, are as dark as the Cerasuolo.
One reader tweeted at me that the Tiberio was “not a rosé but a Cerasuolo,” arguing that the darker color meant that it should not fall under the same classification as lighter, easier-drinking bottles.
I understand the point. The Cerasuolo is a completely different style of wine than your basic pale Provençal rosé, or, for that matter, the other two wines we tasted. I grouped them together as rosés because even though their hues vary, they are in that middle ground between white and red. But maybe it’s time to go beyond that.
“My feeling is that classification as red, white or rosé is so 19th century,” Elizabeth Gabay, an English wine authority, wrote in the same Twitter thread. She suggested relying on vinification technique rather than color.
By that standard, are these three entirely different wines? If you try them all, it seems so.
The Arnot-Roberts, from California, was the most conventional rosé, even if its components, 80 percent touriga nacional and 20 percent tinta cão, both leading port grapes, are unusual choices for rosé.
After harvest, the grapes were crushed and the juice was left to macerate with the pigment-laden skins until the desired color was achieved, about 24 hours. The wine was fermented, but malolactic fermentation, in which bacteria transform malic acid into softer lactic acid, was blocked in order to maintain liveliness. It was aged briefly in steel vats.
The result was a superb pale rosé, fresh and energetic, with complex fruit, floral and herbal flavors and a chalky minerality.
The Wölffer, from the South Fork of Long Island, was made differently. It was roughly 60 percent merlot, 33 percent chardonnay and 6 percent cabernet franc, with small amounts of a few other grapes. It’s quite rare for good rosés, other than sparkling wines, to be made from a blend of red and white grapes.
The Wölffer winemaker, Roman Roth, told me that the merlot is harvested with plenty of color in the juice and does not require maceration with the skins. The chardonnay, he said, lightens the color of the merlot and adds texture. He, too, blocks the malolactic fermentation — a step, he said, that has become more important with climate change.
The wine, which had a pale salmon color like the Arnot-Roberts, was dry, lively and well rounded, with floral, peachy flavors. This is a fun wine, not as complex as the Arnot-Roberts, but just what you might want poolside or at other casual summer gatherings.
The Tiberio Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo is different. This dark style, made entirely from the montepulciano grape, is traditional in the Abruzzo region. Like the Arnot-Roberts, the juice is macerated with the skins until it achieves the desired cherry red color. As with the other two, the malolactic fermentation is blocked.
The wine is fresh and lively, energetic and dry, with tangy, stony, floral flavors and a touch of salinity. It has complexity and character, and is simply lovely. While the other two might go best with relatively delicate dishes, this is definitely a food wine and would go well with a wide range, including lamb, as Martina Mirandola Mullen of New York suggested.
Paradoxically, grouping these wines by vinification technique, as Ms. Gabay suggested, would put the Arnot-Roberts and the Tiberio together. These two very different-looking and -tasting wines both achieved their colors through maceration.
The Wölffer, which resembled the Arnot-Roberts, would be in a separate category. For now, I think, I’ll stick to calling them all rosés.
Reaction to the rosés was quite mixed. Martin Schappeit of Forest, Va., made a salade niçoise and paired it with the Wölffer, which he said, “joined the party like a fruit cocktail in an orange swimsuit” — not a compliment. Houston of New York, on the other hand, described the Wölffer as “perfectly delicious on a hot day in the city.”
Almost everybody who tried the Tiberio loved it. Ferguson of Princeton was one of several people who pointed out that the Wölffer and the Arnot-Roberts were quite different despite their similar appearance.
I had asked readers whether rosé by its nature was a lesser wine. This question seemed to puzzle people. Dan Barron of New York compared it to asking whether “a yogi was less than a boxer.”
I asked the question because rosé has a long history of being demeaned. Houston of New York actually concluded that rosé was a lesser wine because it lacked some of the hallmarks of great wines. I personally believe that every style of wine, including rosé, has an occasion for which it’s the best choice. These three wines would require three different occasions.
But several readers tried to answer this question not having tasted the three wines or possibly any good rosés ever. This did not stop them from drawing conclusions.
“Rosé is not a thing, it’s like Pabst Blue Ribbon in Southern France or Corona beer in Mexico,” Zika of 10K Lakes wrote. “No one drinks it here or there. Ignore it and wait for the next thing.”
PM of MidSouth echoed the sentiment: “There is no earthly reason to choose rosé.”
Maybe it’s simply the combative times we live in. Or perhaps offering an opinion as a statement of fact reflects a deeper strain of American culture.
Back in 1980, a smart man who happened to be my uncle, the author Isaac Asimov, reflected on anti-intellectualism in American life, which he said was “nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’”
We’re here at Wine School not to argue but to learn. With wine, there’s only one way to do that: pour and drink.
By Eric Asimov