They are the spring flowers of the wine world, neon rosés that bloom on store shelves with the first blush of warm sunshine. My local shop, normally more of a rye- and domestic-beer ghetto, has just made room for a full aisle of pink offerings, right next to the beer and wine coolers, a testament to the category's growing popularity.
"I love pink wine," said a woman in front of me at the cash upon noticing the generous assortment in my cart. "Me too," I feebly replied while glancing at the six-pack of beer in her basket. Like cold domestic lager on a sultry long weekend, rosés carry the promise of cool refreshment. Yet the trouble with too many, in my opinion, is that they fail to deliver.
That was the case with almost all the bottles in my cart, purchased out of due diligence – a wine critic's chore – rather than for patio-sipping pleasure.
The problem was sugar. I might as well have been filling my shopping cart with sacks of Redpath. These were not technically sweet pink wines in the image of Mateus or white zinfandel, mind you. Most would be loosely classified as dry by a lot of people. Yet they contained enough residual sugar to distinguish them from the truly dry rosés I love.
Sugar is a line in the pink sand. Serious rosés tend to be crisp and lively, the sort of wines that pair just as well with food as with sunshine. Provençal and Spanish rosés can be glorious with herb-infused fish or chicken on the grill. The richer examples of the Tavel district in France's Rhône Valley tend to be fuller-bodied, almost with the weight of a light red, able to stand up to roast pork or veal.
Then there's the new wave that seem designed for gulping like soda pop, chasing the sort of consumer who, as the wine-industry adage goes, talks dry but drinks sweet. One example from my cart was Folonari Pink Pinot Grigio, a blush version of the popular white pinot grigio from Italy. The vast majority of rosés owe their colour to brief contact with red-grape skins. Once the desired stain is achieved, the juice is drawn away and fermented at a cool temperature, just like white wine. In Folonari's case, the colour comes from extended contact with the slightly tinted skins of pinot grigio, technically a white grape.
Curiously, Folonari's crisp white pinot grigio contains a mere six grams per litre of residual grape sugar. The pink version? It's more than twice as sweet, at 14 grams per litre. And with only modest acidity to counterbalance the sugar, it's an off-dry wine in my book, a solitary note of confected fruitiness that lacks the more complex profile I expect, no matter how cheap and cheerful the proposition.
Excessive sweetness not only can rob a rosé of lip-smacking refreshment, it tends to drown out more interesting notes of herbs, flowers and mineral, hallmarks of serious pink wines.
"Sugar is often utilized to mask things in a wine that some might consider less desirable in this part of the world," says Peter Bodnar Rod, sales and marketing director for 13th Street Winery in Niagara, which makes the fine Pink Palette blended from cabernet franc and pinot noir.
By "this part of the world" he means North America versus Europe. That contrast was underscored last year when France banned sugary ketchup as a condiment for national dishes in school cafeterias. "Europeans have a bread-and-butter palate and we have a chips-and-ketchup palate," Mr. Bodnar Rod says.
Not all of us, of course. I generally prefer my rosés with a savoury kick, just as I prefer a dollop of tangy garlic aioli to a liberal squeeze of corn-syrup-laden Heinz on my fries.
Here's a walk on the drier side.
Château La Tour de L'Éveque Rosé 2011 (France)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $18.95
Provençal rosés tend to be lightly tinted, and that's the case with this pretty, salmon-pink wine. Light-medium-bodied, it's silky yet very dry, with notes of strawberry and cranberry supported by delicate bitterness and spice. Whole-grilled fish stuffed with herbs would be a lovely pairing.
Château d'Aqueria Tavel Rosé 2011 (France)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $18.95
The colour is a deep cherry red and the wine drinks like a light red, with notes of cherry, pear and earth lifted by spice. Try it with roast pork.
13th Street Pink Palette 2011 (Niagara)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $14.95
Winemaker Jean-Pierre Colas paints a rich canvas here, blending the dark-stained juice of red grapes with crisp white riesling and pinot gris. The saturated colour could almost qualify as red, and the wine offers nuances of sour cherry, cracked pepper and herbs. It could span a wide range of foods, from ratatouille to herb-grilled chicken to ham.
Mitolo Jester Sangiovese Rosé 2011 (Australia)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $18.95
The initial sweetness lends chunky weight rather than confected simplicity, dissolving in the presence of ample spice, lively acidity and a saline-mineral quality. Think grilled salmon, prosciutto-topped pizza or eggplant parmesan.
Tinhorn Creek Oldfield Series 2 Bench Rosé 2011 (British Columbia)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $22.99
I love the earthy, cigar-tobacco nuance of this cabernet franc-based wine, which underpins the primary characters of strawberry, rhubarb and flowers. Delicious on its own or with grilled sausages. Available from the winery, www.tinhorn.com.
Quails' Gate Rosé 2011 (British Columbia)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $14.99
Silky and round, it shows notes of strawberry, herbs, mineral and subtle jalapeno pepper. Lovely on its own.
Muga Rosé 2011 (Spain)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $12.95
Lean, tangy and dry, it's impressively complex for the money, with layers of strawberry, citrus, mineral and herbs. Ideal for grilled seafood, especially shellfish, squid or octopus.
Mas des Bressades Cuvée Tradition Rosé 2011 (France)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $13.95
Substantial in body, it delivers just enough smooth sweetness to amplify the gummy-raspberry and apple fruit, turning dry and floral on the balanced finish. It would flatter pizza with a mildly spicy tomato sauce.
Stoneleigh Pinot Noir Rosé 2011 (New Zealand)
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $16.95
Richly textured, with a core of chewy raspberry, it starts sweet and silky but resolves with a strong tingle of fresh acidity and lingering minerality, putting the "stone" in Stoneleigh. Attractive on its own, it would also pair nicely with salty ham.
Union Rosé 2011 (Niagara)
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $13.95
Attractively balanced, with a flavour that suggests raspberry and strawberry, it's delicious on its own.