The kids may be back in school but that doesn’t mean fall is here. We lucky denizens of lower Alabama still have summer-ish nights in store and many more chances to reach for a glass of cool rosé. I drink rosé all year long (bring on the turkey and dressing), but you can’t argue with chilling a bottle when it’s sweltering out — as our climatic soul-mates in Spain, Portugal, Italy, and even South America know. Lucky for us, they’re exporting oceans of fine rosés and you won’t have to look far to find them. American wineries are also contributing a wave.
I’m starting my to-drink list with the much-maligned Mateus, Portugal’s flagship rosé resurrected from the 1960s in a form you may not recognize. This wine suffered decades of neglect and frankly, deserved its bad rap. Since the turn of this century, though, it’s made a comeback and if you haven’t tried it recently (or ever), you really should give it a whirl.
What hasn’t changed about Mateus is its iconic oval bottle and its dirt-cheap price. The wine inside is so noticeably elevated from what it once was, though, that I’m amazed its price still hugs the ground. Today’s Mateus offers soft red-fruit aromas with a hint of spun sugar but also a cranberry zip, followed by wild strawberry and lemon-curd tastes popped around your mouth by the wine’s faint effervescence. It’s crisp like biting into a red cooking apple, but with unexpectedly generous flavors and a clean, short finish – possibly the world’s best wine with Chinese food. (11 percent ABV; widely available; $6.29, more or less.)
Maybe not as cheap as Mateus, but definitely still affordable, Zestos Rosado 2013 is a Spanish rosé made from 100 percent old-vine Garnacha (Grenache) grapes cultivated in the hilly areas surrounding Madrid.
Grapes picked from 40 to 50-year-old vines tend to produce more substantial wine and Zestos is firm and polished. Its pale-pink color and bright strawberry aromas give way to a richly flavored wine with myriad red fruits – sharp, bright, acidic and just a bit earthy. This is a classy, mouth-filling wine with zero sweetness (you won’t mistake it for White Zinfandel), but tons of ripe fruit and absolutely no sour thinness.
Zestos Rosado is one of the best rosés I’ve tried in a long time. It’s so good I almost didn’t want to change its taste by eating – but I tried it with brie and it was fantastic, due to its palate-cleansing acidity. This wine won’t stand up to a bacon-wrapped filet mignon, but it’s a fine partner for chicken, pork or pasta. It doesn’t “need” food, but it likes food. (12.5 percent ABV; available at Firehouse Wine Bar & Shop; $13.)
From South America, Reginato “Celestina” Rosé of Malbec (2011), is a sparkling rosé made from 100 percent Malbec grapes grown in Argentina’s Mendoza region, hand harvested and vinified in the traditional Champagne style (método tradicional, in Spanish). This family-run winery named its bubbly “Celestina” to honor the winemaker’s late mother, who must’ve been quite a woman.
Orangey-salmon colored, the first sip makes you think “Hmmm, I’ve never tasted anything quite like this before.” Full-bodied orange flavors mingle with ripe strawberries and sandalwood spice. It’s dry and rich, with food-craving acidity. Pair it with salty, oily foods like prosciutto, olives and sardines. “Celestina” isn’t a poolside quaffer; we’ve got Mateus for that. Still, I nearly drank the whole bottle in one sitting. (13.5 percent ABV; available at Red or White; $17.)
At the polar opposite, lemony-tart end of the spectrum, the R. Stuart & Co. Winery in McMinnville, Oregon, sends us its Big Fire Dry Rosé to startle and amaze. A blend of three Pinot grapes (Noir, Blanc and Gris), the wine’s color resembles fresh apricot skins and its sharp aromas accurately preview tart flavors to come. Acidic lemon and lemon peel jump out first, followed by heat like a fresh-cut chili –making me wonder if this vibe inspired the “Big Fire” name, or if the winery had intentionally contrived a heat-tinged wine. The winery makes a range of “Big Fire” wines, though, which it says are meant to be affordable “Tuesday night” beverages.
My advice about Big Fire Dry Rosé is to open it on Tuesday night, chill and decant, then maybe drink it on Wednesday. This young wine evolves dramatically with air. Its tart lemon and cranberry flavors mellow, its pepper dissipates and it generally becomes more friendly. Big Fire also shows best if you balance its acidity with fatty foods like clam dip or Gruyère cheese. I could see drinking it solo on a searing hot day when you’re craving lemonade but want to drink wine; otherwise I’d definitely add food. (12.8 percent ABV; 0.8g per litre residual sugar; various wine shops on both sides of the Bay; $17.)
Lastly, two novel entries for sweet-wine lovers – sparkling reds, not rosés. (How is sparkling red different from sparkling rosé? Well, the same way that still red wines are different from still rosés: grape juice and skins steep longer together, so the juice absorbs more color before being bled off to make wine.)
You don’t see a lot of sparking reds outside Germany (and maybe New York state) but wine conglomerate Castello Banfi makes a 100 percent Brachetto sparkler from native Italian grapes that’s granted Italy’s highest wine-quality classification – Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG), meaning the winemakers adhered to the region’s strictest production standards.
Banfi’s Rosetta Regale Brachetto Acqui is a low-alcohol wine and hence quite sweet, but well made and enjoyable as either an aperitif or dessert tipple. I usually run fast and far from sweet sparklers, but Rosetta Regale is delicious – no scary Kool-Aid factor. Just when you think its ripe-blackberry notes might be slightly jammy, tannic Brachetto notes bubble up to lend balance and drinkability. For a large-producer wine, it’s pretty special. (7 percent ABV; 4.5g per litre residual sugar; various shops and The Italian Fisherman; $15-$30, depending.)
For a boutique sparkling red, ask around for Demarie Birbet, a small-scale “Spumante” wine made from Brachetto in Italy’s Piedmont region and distributed around Mobile Bay by A&G Beverages. It has black raspberry, Bing cherry and blueberry flavors and, at 6.5 percent ABV, is also quite sweet but a great way to cap off a rich Italian dinner. Try it with hazelnut cookies and smile.