Updated June 20, 2014 6:07 p.m. ET
ROSE IS SUCH a happy word. When the world seems bright, it's said to be viewed through rose-colored glasses. When people are cheerful, they tend to give off a rosy glow. And when the word is used for wine, it conveys pure palate pleasure. In fact, that's all most rosé drinkers really want. They're not looking for complexity and nuance, but sheer deliciousness.
Rosé also offers the seduction of color. That's what my friend Kate from California likes best about the wines. "I love the shades—the peach, the salmon, the pink," she said. "And rosé is also one of the most versatile wines with food. It can go with seafood or Mexican or a steak."
Sales of rosé have soared in recent years as more and more wine drinkers succumb to its charms. Recent export figures for rosé from Wines of Provence, a consortium of more than 600 rosé producers, reflect wine drinkers' growing obsession with the pink wine: Last year, exports of Provençal rosé to the U.S. were 40% higher than the year before.
But with so many wines crowding the shelves—generally organized by color—it's hard to know which wines are made strictly for profit and which ones are produced in a true love of rosé. No wonder rosé drinkers tend to rely on the same stock qualification, most often requesting "a wine from Provence."
Though Provence is widely acknowledged as the birthplace of rosé, pink wines are now made almost everywhere. Harmon Skurnik, president of Syosset, N.Y.-based wine importer and distributor Michael Skurnik Wines, has seen the rise of the rosé frenzy firsthand. Ten years ago he had three or four Provence rosés in his portfolio; today he carries 50 rosés from all over the map—from Italy to California and Hungary.
Although most people may think of rosé as one wine made one way, there are several ways to produce it. In Provence, the preferred method is direct press. This means red grapes are pressed directly, and briefly, to produce a wine that's often a very pale pink or peach color. The second method, called saignée (or bleeding), involves removing juice from a still-macerating red wine. The "bled-off" liquid that had limited contact with the skin of the grape will become rosé. The red wine that remains behind in this process is the more valuable product, as it's more concentrated. Many feel this sort of rosé is inferior to the direct-press rosés, although it's indisputably useful in generating extra income. A red and a rosé—two wines from one! A third method calls for the blending of red and white wines. Though it isn't permissible in Provence, such mixing occurs in places including Champagne, Australia and the U.S.
All Provençal rosés are made with some combination of the following grapes: Grenache, Cinsault, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Cabernet Sauvignon, Rolle, Carignan and Tibouren. International winemakers are crafting rosés from every conceivable red grape, including Pinot Noir, Syrah, Zweigelt and Touriga Nacional. Many of the resulting wines turn out to be delicious, while others are also-rans. That's the "bandwagon" effect of any popular wine—it attracts producers more focused on fiscal gain than actual flavor.
Most rosé drinkers want the same thing: a wine from Provence, or one that is Provençal-style (i.e., light-colored and refreshing). I'm a fan of Provençal-style rosé if it's true to the type, but too often a Provence wannabe can mean a pallid—even insipid—wine.
Not only are there more rosés on the market now, but the rosé season itself is starting earlier and earlier, as the wholesalers are looking for a commitment from retailers. Many retailers report having to commit to buy certain wines by January or February.
The new rosé vintage is generally bottled sometime between February and April, and shipped over the following few months. It isn't until the spring that the most sought-after wines hit stores—and retailers finally discover, along with their customers, how they actually taste.
Rosé fever has reached such a pitch that some retailers are even looking to sell rosé before the wines are in the bottles. "I've gotten calls from retailers in January asking when the new rosés are coming in," said Patrick Burke, the French portfolio director of T. Edwards Wines, a New York-based importer and distributor. "I tell them, 'When it's no longer grape juice.' "
Retailers have little choice but to sign up for pre-sale rosés. They might not get the wines that they want if they don't make an early commitment, since the best rosés quickly sell out.
Daniel Posner of Grapes the Wine Company, a shop in White Plains, N.Y., buys "pre-sale" rosés, although he professed frustration with the practice. Mr. Posner believes that it's partly driven by wholesalers who are afraid to have unsold wines in September. Even though some people are still drinking rosé, the season is over. "No one wants to be stuck selling rosé after Labor Day," said Mr. Posner.
Restaurants are less concerned about serving the latest vintage by season's end. According to David Gordon, longtime wine director at the Tribeca Grill in New York, most diners don't even notice the vintage of a rosé. Some rosés do improve with a year or two of bottle age, although most are at their best in the first blush of youth. Andrew Fortgang, wine director of Le Pigeon in Portland, Ore., offers some older rosés—that is, from the 2011 and 2012 vintages—and he's never heard a complaint that his wines were too old. Furthermore, he added, his customers don't care whether or not the rosé comes from Provence.
But the wine world is full of people who hew to the tried and true, and with rosé drinkers who rarely bother to learn the names of the best rosé producers so long as they know they can safely utter a single word when they're ordering: Provence. Even if the rosé that they recall liking wasn't actually from Provence, they want it to be the same pale salmon color as a Provençal rosé, according to Pierre-Olivier Camou, sales manager of Sherry-Lehmann Wine & Spirits in New York. "People get scared by dark rosés," Mr. Camou added, pointing to a bottle of the made-in-California Francis Ford Coppola Sofia rosé. It looked like a red wine next to its Provençal peers. (The Provence Wine Council actually put together a rosé color scale of acceptable colors, such as peach, melon or mango.)
“It's hard to know which wines are made strictly for profit and which ones are founded in a true love of rosé.”
One of the best-selling rosés at Sherry-Lehmann is the 2013 VieVité Côtes de Provence. Not only is its color the preferred shade of pale pink, but it comes in a distinctive flat-shouldered bottle. The packaging helps drive the sales, said Mr. Camou, who added as a seeming afterthought that the $18 wine tasted nice, too.
Why so much Provençal love? Aside from obvious attractions like its sunny climate and Peter Mayle books, there is the promise of the "Provençal lifestyle" captured in a glass, suggested Annabelle Sumeire of Château Coussin in Côtes de Provence. She called Provence rosés "elegant yet unpretentious."
Ms. Sumeire's family produces rosés under the Château Coussin and La Croix du Prieur labels. Like most Provence producers, her largest export market is the U.S.—although she noted that Provençal rosé has become increasingly popular in France, even in once-rosé-indifferent cities like Strasbourg and Lille.
Since Provence is a large region with a wide range of terroirs, different grape varieties are emphasized in different locales. For example, a rosé from Bandol will have more Mourvèdre than a rosé from Cassis. Bandol is both a village in Provence and a prestigious appellation for rosé that's also home to Domaine Tempier, one of the most famous domaines in all of Provence.
The Domaine Tempier rosé inspired Andrew Tow, owner of Healdsburg, Calif.-based winery the Withers, to craft a Bandol-style blend of Mourvèdre and Grenache in the Sierra Foothills. They use the direct-press winemaking method preferred in Provence.
Mr. Tow is one of several producers in California (and places such as Italy and Spain and even Long Island, N.Y.) who are focused on making what they call "intentional" rosés. That means first-rate wines that were often created from grapes grown in vineyards planted specifically to produce rosé. Kathleen Inman of Inman Family Wines in Sonoma, Calif., has for over a decade been making, along with her highly regarded Pinot Noirs, an intentional rosé called First Crush. It consistently sells out.
The Withers and Inman Family Endless Crush rosés were among the nearly 30 rosés I purchased for my tasting, often at the suggestion of merchants whose taste I trusted. It was hard to actually stop buying the wines; there were so many rosés that I wanted to try. A substantial number were from Provence, but I also picked bottles from the Loire and Rhône Valleys, Italy and Spain, California, New York and Washington stilI had no trouble rounding up friends willing to join in the tastings. Almost all of these volunteers were self-described "rosé lovers," although very few could offer further specifics, save, of course, their fondness for Provence.
One of my fellow tasters was a Frenchwoman who used to live in Provence. She had the most specific rosé criteria: The wines had to be light and refreshing and "you should be able to start drinking them at 11 in the morning and throughout the day," she said. (No wonder so many people love the Provençal lifestyle.)
There were a few disappointments among the selections—some wines were slight or thin, and several lacked the vivacity that is one of rosé's greatest charms. But only five or six were downright duds; otherwise, the wines were quite delicious—some even outstanding.
Most of the wines were a peachy to pale pink, but there were a few dark rosés. Whether it was because of their color or the possibility that they might be higher in alcohol (13.5% to 14% as opposed to the standard 12% to 12.5%), these darker wines were generally less favored by tasters. Three exceptions were the 2013 Eric Kent rosé, a dark blend of Pinot Noir and Syrah from Sonoma, Calif., and the 2013 Mas Carlot, a rustic but pleasurable wine from the Costières de Nîmes in France. The other standout: the 2013 Cantina Zaccagnini rosé, an absolutely juicy wine from Italy's Abruzzo region (and a great deal at $14 a bottle).
The much-touted 2013 Miraval rosé from Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt's Provence estate won more praise for its packaging than for its taste (appealing but slight). Better bets from Provence included the lovely, floral 2013 Château Coussin; the fresh and lively 2013 Château Saint Baillon; the juicy 2013 Hecht & Bannier, with notes of strawberry and spice; and the complex and rich 2013 Domaine Tempier.
The 2013 Domaines Ott Château de Selle was a delicate and beautifully balanced wine that my Provençal friend declared the real thing, though she blanched quite a bit at the $45 price tag—rather steep for rosé.
There were attractive wines from other parts of the world, including the delicate 2013 Domaine Vacheron Sancerre rosé from the Loire and the Provençal-style Gramercy Cellars Olsen Vineyard rosé from Washington state, made of Cinsault, Grenache and Syrah. Two terrific Provençal-style rosés from California made from Pinot Noir were the 2013 Inman Endless Crush from Sonoma and the 2013 Sandhi Rosé of Pinot Noir. Both were ripe and juicy yet elegant. The 2013 Withers Rosé was a worthy take on the Domaine Tempier template—refined with a mineral edge.
The consensus was that the best rosés delivered much pleasure and a mood of conviviality and accord (aside from some debates about color—some thought that dark rosés were acceptable, a suggestion others vehemently disputed).
But the tasters were all in sync as to the mood that a good rosé delivered. As one of the participants remarked, "Rosé just makes you feel good." Perhaps that's the true secret to the Provençal lifestyle.