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Provençal Provenance 

Getting to know the pink wines of southern France

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Here's a fun fact that I'll bet not even most sommeliers know: Rosé wines in France are more popular than whites. It's true. Most of them—certainly the best ones—come from the southeastern France region of Provence, which stretches from the Italian border on the east to the left bank of the lower Rhône River, and ends at the Mediterranean Sea to the south.

There was a time when I eschewed pink wine just as I avoid Justin Bieber tunes. I'd always equated pink- or salmon-colored wine with the dreadful white Zinfandels of California. But then, I found myself in a small café—probably Le Fournil—in the village of Bonnieux, Provence, where I like to stay when I'm in France. To my surprise, all the natives at the tables surrounding me were sipping rosé. There were sweating, chilled carafes of pink wine on every table. So, "when in Rome" ... or Provence. I ordered a local rosé, and was happily surprised to find that it didn't taste sweet as I expected. I don't remember the maker of the rosé; it probably came from Cave de Bonnieux, the winemaking collective in the village. I only remember that I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I've been drinking rosé ever since.

Although rosés drink more like white wines than reds—they're typically chilled, pair better with lighter fare, and are crisp and dry on the palate—they're made solely from red grape varieties. In a nutshell, the process of rosé production is to make single-varietal wines in small batches from grapes like Grenache, Cinsault, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Tibouren, Carignan and sometimes Cabernet Sauvignon. The single-varietal wines are then blended together in a process called assemblage.

The reason that rosé wines aren't redder in color, even though they're made from red grapes, has to do with the method of production. The grapes are crushed and allowed to macerate with the skins only long enough to let the juice turn pink.

Then, the juice is separated from the skins during "run off," and the wine is put into tanks to ferment. The limited contact of the red grape skins with the juice results in lighter-bodied wines with little or none of the tannins found in red wine.

Rosé wine is to Provence what corn production is to Iowa. Nearly 90 percent of the wine made there is rosé. And it's becoming increasingly popular outside of France. In fact, the United States is the largest market, after France, for rosé wines. This makes me very happy, since rosé is such a versatile wine that pairs with a wide range of foods. Although it's still largely considered a spring or summertime wine, I drink it year round. And, while it's renowned for pairing with Mediterranean Provençal fare such as bouillabaisse and pissaladère, I like to drink rosé with burgers and brats, too, or even chili con carne.

For a sunny taste of southern France, I recommend trying the 2014 Whispering Angel from Caves D'Esclans Sacha Lichine in Côtes de Provence ($18.99). It's a peachy-salmon-colored rosé with notes of sweet strawberry, raspberry and cherry, yet it's completely dry with a solid acidity and a long, clean finish. I also really like the rosé from Commanderie de la Bargemone Coteaux d'Aix en Provence ($16.99), made from Grenache, Cabernet, Cinsault and Syrah. Crisp tangerine and melon flavors mingle with hints of white chocolate in this sexy sipper.

Hey, once you go rosé, you never go back.

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