- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Don’t forget the champagne. When you raise a toast to your Valentine next Wednesday, no other wine will do. This year, why not make it pink — or pale orange, copper, salmon, or any of the many hues that color rose champagnes? After all, roses rank among the most romantic renditions of the world’s most amorous wine.

Maybe it’s the gentle hiss of the cork finding freedom from the bottle, followed by the first fizz when the wine enters the glass. Or the sight of all those tiny bubbles. Or the taste — dry but luxurious, and very, very elegant.

No matter the cause, the effect is the same. Rose champagne always seems ready to whisper passion’s sweet nothings, or even better, love’s far sweeter everythings.

Some people think that rosy-hued sparkling wine has to be sweet. This idea is left over from the days of Cold Duck, and other now mostly forgotten cheap American bubblies. In truth, though, rose champagne — the real stuff, from the eponymous region in northeastern France — is dry. It contains no more sugar, and in fact sometimes less sugar, than pale-colored champagne.

The other common misconception regarding roses is that their quality isn’t high. Nothing could be further from the truth. Good roses are just as balanced, harmonious, nuanced, and long — the telltale marks of high quality in any wine — as other good champagnes.

They are, however, somewhat scarce. Most firms make at least one rose, with some offering two or three at different quality (and price) points, but few produce all that many bottles. Only about 3 percent of the total production of wine in champagne comes colored pink.

Although that low percentage reflects market demand to some degree, rose champagnes have no difficulty attracting buyers. These wines, however, are tricky to make, or make well, and that may be the more important reason why not that many are made at all.

It’s not easy to make any champagne. The winemaker ferments barely ripe grapes and then induces another fermentation by adding a little yeast and a little sugar to the young base wine. Because this second fermentation takes place in the bottle, the bubbles are trapped. After many months or even years of aging, during which the maturing wine develops more and more flavors, including nutty, toasty ones from contact with the spent yeast cells, the residue from fermentation is disgorged. The winemaker then adds a small amount of wine to top off the bottle, and voila — champagne.

The whole process is long and labor-intensive. In addition, the chalky, limestone-laden land where the chardonnay, pinot noir, and pinot meunier grapes grow is limited and expensive. That’s why true champagnes never come cheap.

The color of rose champagnes can range from a pale, onion-skin tone to a deep topaz, and it comes in one of two ways. The first and most common method involves adding a small portion of still red wine to the base wine before the second fermentation. The rarer second technique is to keep some of the dark grape skins in contact with the juice during the first fermentation.

The real trick with rose champagne involves getting depth of flavor without loosing elegance. In this regard, neither process is inherently better than the other.

Champagnes come in different styles, ranging from light-bodied, almost ethereal-tasting to full-flavored, and even earthy. Some show best as a prelude to dinner, while others exhibit so much depth and character that they make excellent partners for all sorts of foods. One note of caution, though: Except for wines labeled “demi sec” or “extra dry” (a confusing misnomer), they do not pair well with sweet desserts. “Brut” champagnes, and virtually all roses fall into that category, are just too dry.

The following 10 wines, listed in ascending order by price, exemplify the range of styles available. All are highly recommended, whether you plan to pop the cork on the 14th or at some other point in the future. If well-stored (meaning kept in a cool, dark place), champagnes age wonderfully, gaining nuance and subtlety. I wouldn’t keep any of these roses for 20 years, but five or so should pose no problem at all.

Philipponnat Brut Rose ($45). Fairly light, with bright flavors reminiscent of strawberries and cream, and a persistent finish.

Soutiran Grand Cru Rose ($63). Medium-bodied, with fresh fruit flavors enhanced by echoes of nuts and brioche. A good partner for light fare.

Charles Heidsieck Brut Rose 1999 ($75). Deep flavors (berries and buttered toast) and exquisite balance distinguish this wine, which tastes delicious and promises to get better and better if stored well. This firm’s wines age beautifully.

Laurent Perrier Cuvee Rose Brut ($75). A delicious aperitif wine, overflowing with lively but delicate berry flavors. This is one wine that probably won’t benefit from extended aging.

Billecart-Salmon Brut Rose ($80). A delicately flavored but richly textured champagne, with near perfect balance.

Louis Roederer Brut Rose 2000 ($80). Salmon-colored, with aromas and flavors resembling raspberries, and a slightly nutty undertone, this would be an excellent partner for many seafood dishes.

Veuve Clicquot Rare Vintage Rose 1985 ($90). Fully mature, with deep flavors that echo fruit, nuts, spice, and even caramel, this is definitely a wine to serve with food. Given its age, it offers very good value.

Perrier Jouet Fleur de Champagne Rose 1999 ($180). In its etched belle-epoque flower bottle, this wine even looks romantic. It tastes so, too — rich, round and very luscious.

Krug Rose ($230). Krug makes full-flavored champagnes, and this rose is very much a food wine. It shows real depth of flavor, with wonderfully complex flavors, and is substantial enough to accompany meat or poultry dishes.

Dom Perignon Rose 1996 ($400). The rose rendition of the world’s most famous luxury champagne tastes simultaneously rich and refined, with delicate aromas and deep, long-lasting flavors. It should age well, and for true romantics, would be a wonderful way to toast a wedding proposal.

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