How do you define rosé?
By Eric Asimov
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, 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.
“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% touriga nacional and 20% 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% merlot, 33% chardonnay and 6% 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 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’ll stick to calling them all rosés.