Back to the Future with Dry Rosé Wine?

More than five years ago, I wrote in these pages that “dry rosés are increasing in popularity not only among open-minded wine drinkers but also among California winemakers.”

If I could write these words today they’d make me look like a pretty savvy wine economist. Dry rosé wines have experienced a boom in recent years and not everyone was convinced back in 2018 that the pink wave was real.

But I didn’t write this sentence. Mark Bittman did in an article titled “The Perfect Summer Wine?” that appeared in the August 1998 issue of Cook’s Illustrated magazine. (This issue sort of fell into our hands when Sue found it in the Little Free Library down the street. Someone in the neighborhood must be cleaning magazines out of the basement.)

Tutti Fruity?

You might be surprised to know that dry rosé was fashionable back in 1998, but actually that’s not the point that Bittman makes in this article. You see way back in 1993, Bittman’s tasting panel found lots of dry rosés that pleased them. But by 1998 things were going downhill, he writes. Too many of the wines they tasted were sweet, not dry. “Tutti fruity” one tasting note reads. “Just drier than black cherry soda, not unlike it,” says another.

That’s not to say that Bittman’s team couldn’t find delicioous dry rosés for the 1998 tasting. The thing that struck them was that most of them came from France and only a few from California. Three out of four of the “not recommended” wines were California products. Not exactly a Judgement of Paris result.

All but one of the “recommended” and “highly recommended” wines came from France. The sole California selection? Heitz Cellars Napa Valley Grignolino Rosé!

The Curse of the White Zinfandel?

I wonder if this was a “white Zin” effect? There was a time when sweetish pink California wines were very popular and the leader of the pack was White Zinfandel. Do you suppose that the popularity of that style of wine influenced Calfifornia rosé wines generally the way that the success of Kendall-Jackson Private Reserve Chandronnay influenced a lot of California Chardonnay producers?

The sweet/dry cleavage isn’t the only one that Bittman’s article highlights. There is also pale and dark to consider.

The top rosé wine, according to the tasting panel, was the same in both 1993 and 1998: Chateau de Trinquevedel Tavel. Younger readers may wonder in what part of Provence is Tavel found? This is a trick question because Tavel is in the Rhone valley and the wines are dark and full-bodied. I have always thought of them, in my simplistic way, as pink wines for red wine drinkers. Pale Provencal wines (like the #2 wine in 1998: Domaine de la Gautiere en Provence) are, by contast, pinks that appeal a bit more to those who like white wine.

Delightful and Affordable

The wines were not especially cheap in 1998: $15 for the Tavel and $8 for Provence. That is much more than Beringer White Zin in those days, but worth every penny, Bittman assures us, and I am sure he was right. The most expensive wine reviewed cost $22 in 1998 prices, which was a lot for a rosé back then. But what a wine: Domaine Tempier Bandol 1996.

Dry rosé is back with the French in the vanguard. But darker rosés like the Tavel are hard to find (Tavel wines are very hard in my local market). Everyone tells me that consumers strongly prefer pale pink to dark pink, even though the experts say that color and hue don’t determine flavor and aroma. If the conventional wisdom is correct in this case, then I feel a certain loss. Those Tavel rosés and wines like them deserve more attention.

Mark Bittman concluded his 1998 Cook’s Illustrated article saying

I wish I could write, as I did in 1993, that this was a “group of delightful, affordable wines.” But there are some delightful and affordable wines in the group; you just have to be a little more picky than you did a few years ago.

I wonder what he’d write today? Certainly there are many more rosé wines and a lot of them are surely delightful (how affordable they are is a matter of judgement I leave to you, but the majority seem affordable by the standards of the 1998 tasting). You probably still need to be a bit picky, however, to find what you want.

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