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Rosé: A Brief History and Cheat Sheet to French Regions

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One of the many idyllic vineyard scenes in Provence. [Source: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/84554176@N00/5204954122/">Flickr/Giam</a>]
One of the many idyllic vineyard scenes in Provence. [Source: Flickr/Giam]

Welcome to Vintage America, our column on the history — and future — of American wine. Every week Talia Baiocchi, author of the Decanted column on Eater NY, will take a look at winemaking from Virginia to Texas to California, to uncover the people, events, and trends that have made America one of the most dynamic countries in the world of wine.

There is no way that this column can discuss the history American wine without making more than one reference to the many anxieties we've inherited from years of heavy Franzia and Sutter Home use. So, today, in the spirit of summer, we'll tackle rosé — another category challenged by White Zinfandel and the subsequent boom of "blush" wine. But before we get to this crisis of consumption, let's take a look back.

Roots in Ancient Greece
The roots of rosé winemaking can be traced back to ancient Greece, when much of the red wine produced was pale red. There are at least two competing theories on exactly why that was:

According to myth, Amphictyon, son of Deucalion and Pyrrah, first mixed red wine with water at meetings of his councilors to dilute its strength in order to minimize quarreling. But, as Russ Bridenbaugh points out in his excellent expose "Stop and Smell the Rosés" in Wines & Vines Magazine it was probably a product of something a bit less mythological and a lot more practical: wine was not left to macerate for as long as it does today and, thus, never became fully red.

Eventually the Romans popularized darker red wines in Europe around the mid 100s B.C., but rosé wine remained popular in parts of France — most notably, Provincia Romana (today's Provence region) — and the surrounding Mediterranean area.

A.D. Production
Post Jesus, rosé laid down roots in Bordeaux where, during the Middle Ages, 'clairet' — a dark rosé wine that's all but extinct today — became the most common regional wine exported to English. This domination lasted until the 18th century, when darker wines (which eventually took the name 'claret' among the Brits) again became dominant.

By the 19th Century the practice of producing "light wines" via shorter contact with grape skins during fermentation eventually spread to the United States, where rosé wine found a marginal place in California around the mid 1800s.

During the following century Provence reclaimed its former glory as tourism grew along the Côte d'Azur and brought more visibility to the wines. This inspired countries throughout Europe — notably Italy and Spain — to build the category as well. The birth of the wine U.S. was, on the other hand, a bit of an accident.

The Birth of American Blush Wine
By the 1970s, demand for white wine in California exceeded the availability of white wine grapes. California producers, ever sensitive to the market, resorted to making "white" wine from red grapes via the saignée method.

The first pink wines weren't necessarily sweet, but after the success of a batch of semi-sweet rose released by Sutter Home — the result of a stuck fermentation. The category of "blush" wines was born. These inexpensive "pink and sweet" wines caught fire, eventually breeding a generation's worth of negative connotations for rosé wine.

Today dry rosé is finally gaining popularity in the U.S. as not only a seasonal drink with the charm of a 1950s afternoon, but a legitimate category of wine that can often translate variety and terroir with great intensity. So, in honor of this storied category, below is a short cheat sheet to rosé's production methods and the French regions where it's most prevalent.

Rosé Production Methods
Saignée (in French "bleeding") is a method of production in which a portion of the juice from red grapes is removed in order to increase the color and concentration of the red wine. The juice left over from the bleed off is vinified into rosé. Producers have a long history — particularly in America — of vinifying the pale juice as rosé and regulations require that all Côtes de Provence rosé contain 20% Saignée wine.

Skin Contact is the traditional method of rosé production and the process that yields the most serious wines. Instead of pressing off the juice, it's left in contact with the skins of the grapes for a short period of time (from a few hours to several days) to derive color and tannin from the skins before removing them.

Blending finished white wine and red wine together to create rosé is common in Champagne, but was illegal until 2009 and is still an unfavorable method of production.

Most Important French Regions for Rosé:

Provence
· Palette: whites, reds and rosés are produced in equal quantity here. Its claim to fame is Chateau Simone — a historic producer with its own AOC within Palette. Chateau Simone makes one of the most age-worthy rosés in the world. Grenache is the star variety here.
· Bandol: This one of the most visible rosé producing regions in the US market. Here the main red variety from which rosé is produced is Mourvèdre. Reds and whites are also produced, with red wine claiming the majority. The mineral-driven rosé wines sourced from Bandol's limestone vineyards are also among the most structured.
· Coteaux Varois: This is one of the cooler AOC regions within Provence and another one whose production is dominated by rosé. Principal grapes are Grenache and Cinsault.
· Coteaux d'Aix-en-Provence: The second largest region in Provence and an appellation that appears in frequency here in the states. Around 35% of the production here goes to rosé. Major grapes here are Grenache, Cinsualt, and Mourvèdre.

Rhone
· Tavel: Arguably the capital of French ros&eacute and the only AOC in the country to produce only rose wine. Home to some of the most legendary and long-lived pink wines.

Loire Valley
· Reuilly: White wines are dominated by Sauvignon Blanc in Reuilly, but rosé goes to Pinot Gris which is vinified on the skins to produce mineral-driven, light rosé.
· Chinon, Touraine, Anjou: Cabernet Franc, if handled correctly, can produce delicately herbal, juicy rosé.

Burgundy
· Marsannay: Burgundy is first and foremost known for its reds and whites, but what many don't know is that Marsannay, in the Côte de Nuits, is responsible for some of the most interesting rosés out of France. Despite the fact that 1/3 of Marsannay's production is pink, they can be tough to find.

Champagne
· Home of Rosé Champagne: the queen of rosé wine.

Talia Baiocchi is the former editor of WineChap in the U.S. and a contributor to the San Francisco Chronicle, among others. In her previous life she was a dressage trainer for unicorns and her mother still thinks she'd make a great lawyer. Find her on Twitter at @TaliaBaiocchi.

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