Season of rosés

KAREN MACNEIL-FIFE

During the early summer in southern France, people are drinking something special we Americans rarely do. The same is true in southern Italy. And certainly in Spain. It's something so glorious and so perfect for warm weather that it is totally baffling why we remain largely oblivious to its pleasures.

This something is pink wine ― or, as it is traditionally known, rosé.

Okay, I know we are only in the third paragraph, but I suspect some of you are already on the verge of flipping the page. "Rosé?" you're thinking. "Not for me."

Well, hold on. This could be the summer you convert.

Our collective American hang-up with rosé is not a matter of the wine's quality ― it's a matter of its image. And rosé's image is anything but rosy. To begin with, in every one of the last several decades, there was at least one popular rosé that wine connoisseurs loved to hate. In the '60s it was Lancers and Mateus (about which I have fond memories). In the '70s it was Riunite. And by the '80s, "white" Zinfandel (a pink wine showing the depth of its identity crisis) was known coast to coast. With one brush stroke, pink became the lowbrow drink.

It's now, of course, the end of the '90s, and in this last summer of the century, the tide has begun to turn. Refreshing top-notch rosés abound here, and convincing Americans of their merits may just be a matter of getting them to take that first chilled sip. "If we can get people to try rosé, 80 percent of them will love it," says Bill Hart, assistant winemaker at Hart Winery in Temecula, California, "and the rest of them will be lying."

Like all of the other top domestic rosé producers, tiny Hart has had an uphill battle turning people on to its scrumptious rosé. In the end it's the makers' passion for the wine that keeps them going ― and their wacky humor. "Our newest promotional campaign is a T-shirt," Hart explains. "It says, 'Rosé has gotten a bad rap because people always drink it with their clothes on.'"

Ahem.

Though many wine drinkers assume that rosé is fairly simple to make, that's not exactly the case. Mediocre rosé may be a cinch, but the great rosés possess an uncanny balance of crispness and fruitiness that is not easy to achieve. Moreover, rosé is not like chocolate milk; to make it, you can't just mix half a vat of red wine with half a vat of white.

The winemaker has two main options. In scenario one, he or she crushes red grapes and puts the soupy mass into a tank. The skins begin to tint the juice red (red or white, grapes always have white juice). When the juice is pink ― but before it's red ― the winemaker drains it off the skins so it won't get any darker.

Scenario two is a French method called saignée (French for bleeding). Here, the winemaker's primary goal is to make a rich red wine. To do this, he or she "bleeds off" some pink juice early in the process so that the rest of the liquid has more contact with the skins. The result is two wines: a concentrated red and, as a bonus, a wonderful rosé.

Rosés can be made from any single red grape variety or a combination. Simi's tasty Rosé of Cabernet, for example, is made from only Cabernet Sauvignon, while Zaca Mesa's sensational Z Gris is made from a veritable rainbow of grapes ― Grenache, Counoise, Viognier, Cinsault, Mourvèdre, and Syrah.

So experiment to find the wines you like. Here's the plan: Some night this week, imagine you are on the Riviera, where everything is beautiful, everyone is in love, and just about everyone is drinking pink.

ROSÉ SENSATIONS

Rosés (which can be still or sparkling) are consummate warm-weather dinner wines. Nothing could be better with salads and simple grilled chicken or shrimp. Here are some of my favorites.

Chateau Potelle "Riviera" 1997 (Amador County), $12 (Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon). Bold, simple, and tasty ― much like a southern French rosé.

Hart Grenache Rosé 1998 (Cucamonga Valley), $10 (Grenache). A spicy, strawberry-like stunner. (Available mostly through the winery; 909/676-6300.)

Joseph Phelps "Vin du Mistral" Grenache Rosé 1997 (California), $12.50 (Grenache, Mourvçdre). Lively and fresh; strawberry and watermelon flavors.

Simi Rosé of Cabernet 1997 (Sonoma County), $10 (Cabernet Sauvignon). Fresh and delicious ― like a Shirley Temple for grown-ups.

Zaca Mesa "Z Gris" 1997 (Santa Barbara County), $10 (Grenache, Counoise, Viognier, Cinsault, Mourvçdre, Syrah). Totally scrumptious, with elegant flavors reminiscent of rose petals, peaches, and apricots.

SUNSET'S STEAL OF THE MONTH: McDowell Grenache Rosé 1997 (Mendocino), $8 (Grenache, Cinsault, Syrah). While most top rosés are a steal, for just $8 it's hard to beat this one ― snappy and refreshing, with a rush of berry fruit.

Sunset's Wine Club