Barbie's Revenge

Pink wines have a bad rep in this country. We all know why: Barbie, adult women trying to distance themselves from Barbie, and the cultural plague that is white Zinfandel. The Kool-Aid of Bacchus. The wine to pair with Benson & Hedges Menthol 100s, deviled eggs, Hormel's Lil' Smokies, and an afternoon spent finding a buyer for your broken Arctic Cat so you can spring your sister's boyfriend from detox. The single wine that, even worse than insipid flavor, expresses the one thing that the wine community cannot abide: the lower classes. In fact, so deep is middle-brow wine consumers' fear of the of white Zinfandel that most American wine drinkers won't touch anything *ACCENT rose: not pink Champagne, and not any pink, salmon, or copper-colored still wine, no way, no how, not now, not ever.

This has led to a very happy state of affairs for people who taste with their mouths, not their social fear: Good pink wine is completely undervalued in today's marketplace.

What makes a good rosè? Usually something floral in the nose, with plenty of acid, and no watery holes in the body: a dry, crisp, balanced rosè is the gold standard. How can you find one? Basically, walk into any store, and if you see a pink Spanish wine of the latest vintage, just buy it. I tried this theory out in Minneapolis liquor stores in mid-September, and, literally, four out of the five bottles I bought were very, very good. The fifth violated my own rule: It was a 2003 (the current vintage being 2004), Bodegas Castaño Monastrell rosè, for which I paid the princely sum of $7, and it wasn't exactly bad, it was just...nothing. No fragrance, no body, nothing offensive, just a null sum, with good acid and dryness. In fact, even as null as it was it was a lot like, and slightly better than, a lot of California Pinot Grigios I've tasted. In all my years of seeking out the good and the cheap, this has to be the highest success record I've ever had for a group of wines all priced under $11.

What makes Spanish rosè so good and so cheap? The "so cheap" part just comes from worldwide ignorance. Similar wines from Tavel, in France, cost quite dearly more, largely because they're just better known. The "so good" is more complicated. I'm going to go out on a limb here and guess that it comes from having good grapes, long experience in controlling sugar levels (Spanish winemakers were dealing with grapes ripening in their hot, hot hills for literally thousands of years before there were places called California and Australia), and a cuisine full of either big and salty, or Oceanic and fresh flavors that require dry, versatile, drinkable wines.

Rosados usually are made entirely with red grapes that are lightly crushed, after which the juice is left in contact with the skins, flesh, and pits for some length of time between a few hours and a full day. This is where they get their stunning color. (In fact, more time with the skins means more tannins and more subtle flavor elements, so fear not the electric Kool-Aid-looking rosados.) After some time with the skins, the grape juice is run off into stainless steel tanks for fermentation, and the wine is bottled not too long after that. (One writer jokes that the reason Spanish rosados are so good is that the Spaniards had to have something to drink while they waited the years and years for their reds to emerge from oak.)

After bottling, shipping, customs, and more shipping, Spanish pinks make it to this market sometime in our early spring, and retailers start discounting them sharply when the temperatures plunge, so they'll be gone by Christmas. If they sit too long in their bottles they lose their fragrance, which is why you should always keep the old joke in mind: Garçon, no expense will be spared, bring me your freshest wine! No, really. Bring it. If you make the mistake of buying rosado of elderly vintage you'll end up with wine that is pfffft--nothing.

Will we always be guaranteed that any and all Spanish rosado of the current vintage is good? Probably not. There's another way to make rosado: If you're actually busy trying to make red wine, sometimes you have to bleed off a certain amount of your juice to lower the ratio of juice to grape solids so that the remaining juice stews around and gets really intense. If word gets out in the Spanish countryside that Minnesotans will pay good money for winemaking byproduct, our local Spanish rosè quality could plummet. Until then though, drink, drink more, and be merry. And don't look a gift no-brainer in the mouth.


*SQUIGGLE Vina Vilano, Ribera De Duero Rosado, 2004, $10

Made from 100 percent Tinto Fino, which, if you'll remember, is Tempranillo by another name, this terrific little wine shows what happens when the very dark grape is separated from its skin early in fermentation. You end up with something dry, well structured, and colorful. The wine is an exuberant flamingo rose color, and has a very subtle nose, a bit of strawberry, and perhaps a hint of a sage-like herbaceousness. But in the mouth it has a nice weight, balance, and roundness, and it finishes for minutes, in a silky, strawberry-touched way. Ideal, like most rosados, to serve at parties where there will be lots of assorted fruits, dips, cheeses, chips, salsa and what have you. Also a nice pair for lime-, lettuce-, and noodle-based Vietnamese takeout because of its palate-cleansing freshness and the way it doesn't have a lot of perfume to get wrecked by the citrus.


Torres, De Casta rosè, Catalunya, 2004, $9

A thoroughly enjoyable, widely available wine with a fascinating tobacco, ripe cherry, and dried-sage nose--slightly shocking in a wine of such giggly hot pink it could be the house wine at Barbie's Dream Home. Made of Garnacha and Cariñena (or Grenache and Carignan, your pick), the Torres De Casta combines a pleasant dryness with good acid, a nice mouth-filling weight, and a long, soft, rich finish. If I had one wish to wish tonight, it would be that every restaurant in the world that offers both fried cheese and tuna tartare as an appetizer would put this on their wine list. If Pinot Noir-based Champagne is the universal best food wine, this Torres De Casta gets my bid as the best universal food wine under $10. It's kind of hard to imagine a popular American appetizer, from spiced olives to buffalo wings to calamari, that this wouldn't go with.


Cresta Rosa, Castillo de Perelada, NV, $10

Coming from just south of the French border on the Mediterranean coast, this slightly sparkling, beautiful, deep crimson wine might be gone for the year, but if you see any, snap it up. It's light and crisp, with a scant hint of lemon rind and green grapes in the nose, and a fine, crisp mineral and silk finish. Cresta Rosa is an ideal shellfish pairing; it would go perfectly with oysters on the half-shell, or even ceviche, and it looks spectacularly festive in the glass, as if you're drinking something bubbling, made of hibiscus petals.


Marqués de Cáceres, Dry Rose, Rioja, 2004, $9

Made with the same classic Rioja blend of Tempranillo and Grenache that produces such powerful, oaky reds when subjected to a different sort of winemaking, the Marques de Cáceres rosado is simple and utterly likable. It's got a pretty nose of peaches, raspberries, and sweet cream resting on a rich body with plenty of acid. Not as dry as most of the Spanish rosados I've seen lately, it's another great wine for potlucks and the jumbled menus of everyday life. Nachos? Smoked lake trout? Baked brie? Bring it on. I've seen this wine drop to $6, or even less, at various sales this summer; when it does it's a great case-buy. It's also an ideal Thanksgiving wine, guaranteed to fit with everything in the room: the cranberries, the pie, the wine-phobic great aunts, and the wine-snob cousins.

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