Does rosé deserve a seat at the fine wine table?

In all but a handful of regions, rosé has traditionally been a winemaker’s afterthought. Red blended with surplus white, add plenty of sugar and there you have it. Sweet and pink. Served chilled on a hot day. Can’t go wrong.

In fact, Mateus – the Portuguese rosé brand that was huge in the 1960s and 70s – sold more than three million cases a year by appealing to the sweet tooth in all of us. Produced more like an RTD with a touch of effervescence, the residual sugar levels Rosé Glasseswere so high they would have The Diabetes Foundation hyperventilating today. Despite this almost cult-like success in the 70s, rosé as a category didn’t really kick off on the global market until the late 1990s when it enjoyed somewhat of a revival, led chiefly by the availability of sweet, lower quality rosés – in particular over-cropped white zinfandel from warm regions of California.

There was, however, one anomaly – the beacon of hope throughout the ages – Provence, France.   This region has a long tradition of rosé-making that is now inspiring the rest of the world to catch up. Altogether, Provence accounts for six percent of the planet’s total rosé wine production. And – thank the Lord – it is serious rosé.

Despite Mateus having been in business since 1942 and Provence quietly beavering away on rosé for hundreds of years, up until fairly recently rosés fell into one of two styles, generally speaking: sweet and brambly (Portugal and Spain) and dry and flinty (Provence and Southern France). But times, they are a-changing.

rosé splashAs with fine red and white wines, rosé-making is now being opened up to the full gambit of winemaking techniques – juice stabulation (stirring during cold settling to extract as many flavour precursors as possible), temperature controlled fermentation, specific yeast selection, barrel fermentation, co-fermenting white and red grapes, malolactic fermentation (or not) among others.

Candy FlossWith this more serious approach to winemaking, we are not only seeing more diversity of styles in the category, but varietal qualities are beginning to shine more than they ever have before. Customarily rosé was a cocktail of different varietals – the varietal itself being beside the point – usually the remnants of workhorse red varietals such as grenache, carignan, cinsault and mourvedre among many others. Now we see more rosés being made deliberately from single varieties that are better suited to this wine style, such as syrah, tempranillo, pinot noir, and malbec. The greener, later ripening red varietals such as merlot, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc are also making an appearance (perhaps less interestingly so, due to their methoxypyrazine – capsicum – notes that tend to dominate). We are also seeing single vineyard rosés that express site just as single vineyard red and white wines do. Even hand harvesting is a feature for rosés in the new world – something that would have been unthinkable 10 years ago.

Rosés are now stylistically so diverse they are catching up to whites and reds, so why are they still known by the generic tag ‘rosé’ – something that’s surely made obvious by the colour? If this wonderful category is to mature and improve, it is high time to move the rosé description to the back label where it belongs and let the colour and the variety do the talking.

Rosé Facts

– Rosé is synonymous with ‘summer apertif.’ And for good reason: moderate acidity, dryer, slightly elevated CO2 levels (spritzy-ness), summer fruits on the nose and natural body (from contact with the skins). Add in the visual stimuli of colour and you have the perfect pairing for a lazy afternoon in the sunshine.

– Drier rosés can often be slightly lower alcohol than their red equivalents. This is because grapes can be picked earlier, as they don’t require the same level of tannin structure (which is imparted by full ripeness and fermenting on skins) as red wine.

– Rosé colour can differ marvellously from pale salmon to vivid cherry. This is not – as many people believe – a reflection of dryness or quality. In fact, colour is more of an indication of process and grape varietal. Pale salmon is the marque of many dry-style Provence producers, hence that colour is sometimes (incorrectly) assumed to indicate a dryer style.

– New wave rosés are – on the whole – trending towards less sweetness. This is a good thing. As well as being on the naughty list as far as health goes, sugar tends to accelerate the ageing of wines – like rosé – with moderate acidity.

– Rosés are better consumed young. The combination of lower acid and less phenolics does not promote longevity. Add to this the fact that many rosés are still bottled in clear glass (that can allow ultra-violet light to damage the delicate fruit flavours) and you have a good excuse – if you needed another one – to drink them immediately.