No wine implies a mood more than rosé. That mood? Sunshine, patios, cottage docks and, if you're overly imaginative like I am, a café table in St. Tropez overlooking the Mediterranean and a beach crawling with swimsuit models.
Yet there's an irony about rosé. A food wine par excellence, it's probably more often paired with sunglasses than a knife and fork.
The irony was driven home to me last week at a lunch at Allen's restaurant in Toronto. Dubbed "Men in Pink," it was the second-annual gathering of about 25 Ontario winemakers and restaurant suppliers organized by Allen's proprietor John Maxwell and wine critic Billy Munnelly of the Billy's Best Bottles newsletter. The invitation came by e-mail with a politically incorrect stipulation: men only - no female escorts allowed. The point was clear. We were to be missionaries, because on this side of the Atlantic rosé has been stigmatized as a genteel ladies' libation, a sort of low-alcohol surrogate for the pink cosmopolitan cocktail on days when the mercury calls for something less potent than vodka.
I'm not certain I agree with the stigma, nor am I comfortable with the sexist overtone. Dry rosé has in fact been on a roll of late, with robust global sales defying the implication that the smarter gender is putting back all the pink. But the lunch for me underscored the impressive pairing potential of a wine I adore yet have too often restricted to predinner cocktail duty.
Our prime exhibit: a beef strip loin deftly seared to medium-rare and served with grilled potatoes, asparagus and a portobello mushroom cap drizzled with balsamic vinegar. Wine-snob convention would dictate a hefty red with a hunk of red meat, a cabernet sauvignon, for example. But I tried the beef course with several dry rosé styles, from the crisp, bright Cattail Creek to the vaguely sweet Cave Spring to the full-bodied Wildass from Stratus, all from Niagara, and they each mingled nicely with the earthy steak, cutting the fatty juices with zippy, refreshing acidity and adding a complementary essence of fruit.
Mind you, we were sitting in Allen's back patio. The sun was high and so were our spirits. (Working lunches like this sure beat an office job.) The 20 chilled rosés on offer matched the time and place better than a room-temperature red would have. But I'm not just bootlicking my hosts or the pink-wine producers present when I say the blush beverages were a surprisingly fine accompaniment to the beef.
Perhaps just as important, crisp rosé is a far better foil than cabernet for the herbaceous asparagus and balsamic-infused mushroom. And that may be what I love best about rosé with food. It takes on the whole plate, not just the main ingredient.
Of course, to some extent, the fun of pairing rosé with food lies not in the food itself but the ambience, both social and climatological. With the exception of a few overpriced examples from France (Domaine Ott, come on down), pink wine tends to cost less than 15 bucks and thumbs its nose at pretension.
"It's not so much what food does it go with, it's like what time does it go with, what attitude does it go with," said Daniel Speck, co-owner of Niagara's Henry of Pelham winery, a guest at the Men in Pink event.
"Burgers, steaks, you name it - anything you can eat in the summertime al fresco like this, this is the wine to try," said Leonard Pennachetti, president and founding partner of Cave Spring Cellars in Niagara, another of the Men in Pink, who, like me, came to the lunch dressed in rose-coloured shirt from London haberdasher Thomas Pink.
The Mediterraneans discovered this al fresco gastronomic synergy long ago, of course. Pink is unapologetically consumed with just about everything in restaurants across Provence, the Côte d'Azur, coastal Spain and beyond.
And to some extent their food has evolved alongside the wine, and vice versa. Think of classic rosé partners as pissaladière (the vibrant, anchovy-topped flatbread of Provence), bouillabaisse (the brothy seafood soup) and paella, the Spanish rice dish containing both meat and shellfish. On Corsica, the hilly island where the fare is often gamey, hearty and grilled, pink wine virtually runs in the population's veins. "In Corsica, if we are having lamb, if we are having kid, we are going to be drinking rosé," Mr. Maxwell told me. "Rosé is versatile, always refreshing. And what is particularly nice about it is enhanced acidity, which is perfect with barbecued food."
Rosé, though always chilled, is not a single style and can be made with any red grape. Typically, the colour comes from letting the dark skins steep just briefly in the fermentation vat before the lightly tinted juice is separated away and finished like a white wine. Depending on the grape variety and the winemaking technique, it can range from lean and crisp to slightly sweet to robust and astringent. Leaner styles such as those based on pinot noir or gamay can be good with vegetables, oysters and goat cheese. Off-dry styles can be nice with spicy fare. And fuller-bodied, dry rosés based on grenache, cabernet sauvignon or syrah are best for meats.
Then there's Tavel. A district of France's southern Rhône Valley specializing in full-bodied, saturated rosés, its wines often exceed 14-per-cent alcohol and can taste like a chilled red. "It's a gastronomy wine, it's not a sunshine wine, it's not a beach wine," Fabrice Delorme of Domaine de la Mordorée, producer of some of the best Tavels, told me in April when I visited his estate. "It's quite heavy. It's 14.5-degrees alcohol. So it's not the kind of wine you can drink when you are on the beach - or you have to sleep after."
Asked to cite a consummate pairing for his wines, he offered a recent meal epiphany: carpaccio of langoustines with citrus juice, salt and olive oil, topped with a scattering of shaved truffles. Although truffled dishes classically call for a sturdy red, he said, the pairing with a 2009 Domaine de la Mordorée "was incredible."
If you can't get over the idea of a rosé with truffles, try making the dish at home - even with more widely available scallops in place of the langoustines - and eat it with sunglasses on. The wine will look red.
Pinks for food
(All prices Ontario except where noted.)
Argento Malbec Rosé 2009 Argentina, $9.95: Try with grilled flank steak.
Chivite Gran Feudo Rosé 2009 Spain, $11.95: Try with paella or ham.
Flat Rock Cellars Pinot Noir Rosé 2009 Niagara, $14.95: Try with grilled salmon and lentil salad.
La Bastide Blanche Bandol Rosé 2009 France, $21.95: Try with bouillabaisse or seared scallops.
Mas Belles Eaux Collection Languedoc Rosé 2009 France, $13.95: Try with pizza topped with goat cheese and red peppers.
Mission Hill Five Vineyards Rosé 2009 Canada, $14.99 in B.C. (Missionhillwinery.com): Try with lamb curry or chicken tagine.