In the Pink
Never have I felt quite so worldly as I did on my very first real date, when, after considered perusal of the wine list, I masterfully commanded the waiter at the Log Cabin restaurant in Lenox, Massachusetts, to fetch me a bottle of Mateus Rosé. In its distinctive Buddha-shaped bottle, with its slight spritz, it represented a step up from the pink Almaden that my friends and I sucked down in order to get into the proper Dionysian frame of mind for the summer rock concerts at Tanglewood. (And that seemed a classic accompaniment--rather like Chablis and oysters--to the cheap Mexican pot we were smoking at the time.) Later, of course, as I discovered the joys of dry reds and whites, I learned to sneer at pink wine; it seemed--as Winston Churchill once remarked regarding the moniker of an acquaintance named Bossom--that it was neither one thing nor the other. A few summers ago a bottle of Domaines Ott rosé in conjunction with a leg of marinated grilled lamb cured me of this particular prejudice; I thought I'd died and gone to Provence, though in fact I was at my friend Steve's birthday party in the Hamptons.
Rosé denotes neither a region nor a grape but a color; it is wine made from almost any variety of red grapes from which the skins are removed after brief flirtation with the clear, fermenting juice. The shade of the wine is a function of the length of contact between skins and juice. (Rosé champagne, confusingly enough, is made with the addition of still red wine to a sparkling white wine base.) At one time some of the "red" wines of Burgundy were actually pink, prized for their delicate oeil-de-perdrix (partridge's eye) color. The color of a rosé wine varies from faint copper to raspberry. And the color of these wines is half their charm. Emile Peynaud, in his classic The Taste of Wine, identifies such rosé hues as gray, peony rose, cherry rose, raspberry rose, carmine rose, russet, apricot, onion skin, orange hued, and salmon. Appreciation of such a palette requires the brilliant sunlight of a summer day.
Some years ago, on a stifling July afternoon in Tennessee, my wife and I hosted a garden party to celebrate the christening of our twins. Refusing to settle for beer and Bloody Marys, I decided to offer my guests their choice of Perrier-Jouët champagne or Domaine Tempier rosé. The Tempier was really the perfect choice for the weather and the food--grilled chicken, vegetables, and lamb. Yet I noticed that nobody was drinking the rosé; moreover, I was getting some strange, pitying looks, which at first I attributed to the fact that I had inelegantly sweated right through my linen suit. Finally, standing at the bar, I heard the bartender offer a guest her choice of champagne or white zinfandel. Stifling my first impulse, which was to cuff him sharply about the face and neck, I took the man aside and offered a few trenchant observations, as follows: So-called white zinfandel, with its pinkish or copper tint, is technically a rosé, but generally speaking these California blush wines have every reason to be embarrassed, dim and cloying as they are. At least one hundred makers, led by the prodigious Sutter Home, crank out ten million cases of the stuff each year.
The quality may evolve in time, but for now the makers of California's more interesting pink wines tend to use the word rosé for wines that are more flush than blush. The bartender, on being apprised of these facts, agreed to start offering rosé to my guests (who remained unimpressed), and I agreed to try not to be a neurotic geek. Rosés, after all, are not supposed to require a lot of fuss.
Anyone who starts analyzing the taste of a rosé in public should be thrown into the pool immediately. Since I am safe in a locked office at this moment, though, let me propose a few guidelines. A good rosé should be drier than Kool-Aid and sweeter than Amstel Light. It should be enlivened by a thin wire of acidity, to zap the taste buds, and it should have a middle core of fruit that is just pronounced enough to suggest the grape varietal (or varietals) from which it was made. Pinot Noir, being delicate to begin with, tends to make delicate rosés. Cabernet, with its astringency, does not. Some pleasingly hearty pink wines are made from the red grapes indigenous to the Rhône and southern France, such as Grenache, Mourvèdre, and Cinsaut. Regardless of the varietal, rosé is best drunk within a couple of years of vintage.
Among rosé's greatest virtues is its cunning ability to complement any number of foods, particularly those that we tend to associate with summer--not only grilled fish but also grilled meat; spicy food such as Mexican and Thai; and fried seafood dishes. Try a bottle of Bandol with a plate of fried calamari and you'll be converted. We all seem to have some primordial memory of a plate of grilled sardines and a bottle of rosé at an outdoor café overlooking the Mediterranean. For an authentic taste of Provence, look for the '99 Domaine Tempier or the Mas de la Dame. Tavel, from the Rhône Valley (try Vidal-Fleury), was a great favorite of A. J. Liebling. Rosé d'Anjou, from the Loire Valley (such as Charles Joguet's Chinon Rosé), can be nearly as delicious as the southerly juice. Hemingway, always reliable on the subject of country wines, was a big fan of Spanish rosado, and good ones are still made in Navarra (Julián Chivite, Gran Feudo Rosado) and Rioja. And yes, Virginia, Portugal still makes the spritzy, semisweet Lancers and Mateus, which no doubt our children will soon rediscover and abuse.
Back in the summer of 1973 I probably derived just as much pleasure from that first bottle of Mateus as I have from any number of first-growth clarets since. Maybe more. I had just acquired my driver's license, I was in the company of my first love; the night and, beyond it, the entire summer stretched out ahead of me like a river full of fat, silvery pink-fleshed fish. And that was what the wine tasted like. It tasted like summer.
When my editor told me that I could write about anything I wanted in my first column so long as it was Chardonnay, I thought briefly about killing her. In the years since Chardonnay has become a virtual brand name I've grown sick to death of hearing my waiter say, "We have a nice Chardonnay." The "house" chard in most restaurants usually tastes like some laboratory synthesis of lemon and sugar. If, on the other hand, you order off the top of the list, you may get something that tastes like five pounds of melted butter churned in fresh-cut oak.
Until recently the more expensive California Chardonnays tended to resemble the women of Playboy and Beverly Hills: Their homogeneous voluptuosity often had more to do with technology than with nature. Don't get me wrong, I have nothing against blondes with huge silicone-enhanced breasts. And likewise there's undoubtedly a place for big, heavily oaked, in-your-face Chardonnays. But the oenologists who were graduating from the University of California at Davis in the 1970s and fanning out around Napa and Sonoma seemed to have a single palate among them, and to be aiming to create the vinous equivalent of Chesty Morgan, regardless of the raw materials at their disposal. Throw in tartaric acid and yeast and then filter the shit out of it, dude.
In the 1980s, despairing of the domestic product and in lieu of investing in the stock market, I would buy the occasional bottle of white Burgundy. It's produced in France and is, in fact, made from the Chardonnay grape, although the label on any given bottle bears the name of the piece of ground that nurtured the grape rather than the grape itself: Meursault, Puligny-Montrachet, Pouilly-Fuissé, and Chablis are all regions. In Burgundy the allegedly key element of wine personality is the terroir, which translates into American as "location, location, location," or, alternately, "dirt." And in Burgundy every other half acre, practically, is a different region. This profusion of appellations, not to mention the abundance of proprietors within each appellation--added to the fact that the weather from year to year in Burgundy is less reliable than in the Napa Valley--is what makes Burgundy, white and red, so difficult to get a handle on, and what leads many New World drinkers to stick to domestic product.
What seemed to me to make white Burgundies worth the effort was the fact that they tended to have more character, to be better balanced, more elegant . . . more, how you say in English . . . more Catherine Deneuve. More Jules and Jim than Die Hard; less top-heavy and more food-friendly than New World wines. On the other hand, it was and is quite possible to spend forty bucks on a bottle that tastes like it has been barrel-fermented with a big clump of terroir, or with Pierre's old socks, or possibly his former cat. Yikes! Rather too much character, mon cher.
Fortunately, there is a new generation of California winemakers who seem to be taking lessons from Burgundy without slavishly imitating their French cousins. What they have in common is dedication to low vineyard yields, natural yeasts, French oak, little or no added acid, and little or no filtration. But for those of us who don't make wine and don't really understand how the hell it is made, what these California wines have in abundance is character and elegance, along with some of that ripeness and power that California is notorious for.
Leading the new wave is winemaker Helen Turley, who advises half a dozen of the top California makers and bottles one of the best white wines in the world under her Marcassin label; she happily cops to admiring and emulating the white Burgundies of France's renowned Michel Niellon. A recent trip to Sonoma nearly converted this California skeptic. And a subsequent tasting organized by House & Garden and Geraldine Tashjian of the Burgundy Wine Company suggests that California and Burgundy are no longer worlds apart when it comes to their treatment of the Chardonnay grape. Blind tasting five similarly priced pairs of '92 Burgundies and '93 Chardonnays was instructive: First of all, it was not always a cinch to identify which was which. I was inclined to think, for instance, that Kistler Vine Hill--matched against the Olivier Leflaive Puligny-Montrachet Champs Gains--was the French, given its lighter body, bright acidity, and slightly grassy taste. I was also surprised to find that two out of my three favorite wines in the tasting were from California--an opinion that was pretty general among the seven tasters. Helen Turley's rare '93 Marcassin Hudson Vineyard, like crème brûlée in a glass, was my personal favorite, followed by the '93 Talbott Sleepy Hollow Vineyard, which I found surprisingly elegant and complex, given my memory of earlier Talbotts as unsubtle and oaky.
Further exploration has yielded an increasing number of beautiful California Chardonnays. Landmark's Overlook, sourced from several areas, is always one of the best values in Chardonnay. Hanzell is making a very sleek and subtle Chardonnay from Sonoma--the '97 is well worth seeking out--while much farther south Greg Brewer and Steve Clifton are crafting amazingly Burgundian wines from Santa Barbara grapes. Helen Turley's Marcassin Vineyards Sonoma Coast Chardonnay has been, for me, the new benchmark ever since the first vintage in '96. The '98 and '99 are practically life changing. The rich, lees-y Turley style can be detected in the several Neyers Chardonnays, made by former Turley protégé Ehren Jordan. Among my perennial favorites are the voluptuous Sonoma County Chardonnays of Steve Kistler. On the same exalted level are the single-vineyard Chardonnays of newcomer David Ramey, whose '98s are already legendary.
I'm changing my mind about California. The movies are getting louder and dumber, but the wines seem to be going the other way.