Think back to when you first had a rosé wine.
Was it cheap? Sweet? Called White Zinfandel? That response will cover about 99% of us.
However, rosé wines are an extremely ancient style that solved many problems that early wine makers had—those being, “How do I make my red wines better with this horrible weather?" and just as importantly, "I am thirsty now and want something to drink!"
While there are many ways to make a rosé wine, I will focus on the traditional method that the French call saignée, or "to bleed."
All of the color in red wine comes from the skin of the grapes. Evidence of this is in the wines you drink on a daily basis—pinot noirs are generally lighter in color than a cabernet or Syrah. This hue, and many of the resulting flavors, follow that pinot noir has very thin skin and cab and Syrah very thick skin. However, you could take the biggest and darkest cluster of cabernet grapes, and if you crushed them in your hands, the juice that would pour out would be very clear. What the monk Dom Perignon is actually famous for is not "inventing" champagne, but developing the technique of make a white wine from red grapes, aka Blanc de Noir.
During the winemaking process, the red grapes are crushed to release the juice, and then the skins are left in contact—Maceration 101. During this time (one to two days), the grape juice slowly picks up the colors and flavors from the skins.
One of the hurdles that French winemakers have long faced is the climate—it gets cold early! In fact, it's sometimes too early for the delicate and unripe fruit. With grapes, you get one chance per year to harvest, and with an early frost, heavy rains, or snow, you could lose it all.
I actually visited a chateau in Bordeaux that had a sonic cannon that could automatically target and “shoot” clouds that had hail forming in them just to protect their valuable harvest.
The weather conditions winemakers to be cautious and harvest early, even if the fruit is not always ready. Better something then nothing, right?
But, remember that the color and many flavor elements come from the skin. So, if you crush the grapes, leave them in brief contact with the skins to pick up just a little color and a bit of the rich flavor, and then pull out perhaps 20% of the juice, you have the start of something really good. First off, the 80% of juice that is still in contact with 100% of the skins just got a boost in the “big” direction. Secondly, you have 20% of the juice ready to be made into a fresh, fruity, and crisp wine. This wine will tide you, your family, friends, and clients over until the red wines are ready.
So back to your answer regarding the first “pink” wine you had. It was cheap, sweet, and probably had White Zinfandel on the label. However, if you think about it, the wineries that produced these wines were so successful that entire generations think “sweet” when they see a pink wine.
Sugar is the fuel of fermentation—the longer it lasts, the more alcohol you get, and the less sugar/sweetness remains. Most traditional rosé wines were fermented until they were dry, as they did not have much sugar to start with.
So, whether you like sweet or dry, there is a bottle of rosé wine to fit your tastes. Give rosé a chance—all you have to lose is an empty glass!