First published by TELEGRAPH WEEKEND | Victoria Moore, Saturday 13th June 2015
Provençal rosé, once dismissed as a girly tipple, is now recognised as a serious summer essential
In a wine shop – the beautifully named Philglas & Swiggot – on Northcote Road in Clapham, south-west London, on a Friday evening in May, a bullish young man in a neck brace is explaining his injuries.
“Rugby. No, I’m not a forward, I’m a fly half. I’ve lost 18kg since this happened.” He hovers expectantly over the table where a tasting of gorgeous old Barossa wines is taking place, then swings over to the fridge, eventually departing with the voluptuous curves of a couple of bottles of ballet-pump-pale Domaine Ott Bandol rosé – £30.95 a pop – tucked under his chunky arm.
The gender stereotyping that once ghettoised pink wine as a drink for girls and big girls’ blouses is long gone. Rosé is everywhere. In France, sales have exceeded those of white wine for several years now. Over here, rosé is drunk winter and summer and goes stratospheric every time the sun shines. The colour helps; a glass of rosé or crowd of bottles glowing different hues of pink is attractive. With the rehabilitation of a wine once considered too frivolous and lightweight to be worthy of proper attention has come another phenomenon: the rise of Posh Pink.
Rosé is now a status symbol – an expensive, aspirational, incredibly desirable drink that comes in ego-boosting sizes, not just magnums but also jeroboams, imperials and six-litre methuselahs. As with yachts and Porsches, size is not everything. It is, of course, imperative to have the right sort. Trying to be flash with a glass of sweet, raspberry-coloured Californian blush zinfandel is about as smart as gluing “go faster” stripes to the side of a Ford Mondeo and entering it in the Monaco Grand Prix.
First rule of posh rosé (there are a few derogations, but not many): it must come from Provence.
This land of holidaying gazillionaires, lavender fields, Cannes and the Corniche, where the air seems permanently scented with traces of jasmine and dried thyme, is the only wine region in the world to specialise predominantly in the production of rosé. Don’t throw Tavel at me; Tavel, it’s true, is a rosé-only appellation contrôlée, but it is one small part of the wider wine region of the Rhône. Provence, on the other hand, encompasses many appellations, from the most common (and generic) Côtes de Provence to Coteaux d’Aix en Provence, Bandol (famous for its big-chested reds based on mourvèdre) and Cassis, home of some particularly refined whites beloved by Sybille Bedford. But the predominant output of this region is delicate, pale and it is pink.
This brings me to the second rule of posh rosé: like the social X-rays of Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities, or Wallis Simpson’s famous observation that you can never be too rich or too thin, the finest of the fine rosé wines vie for invisibility. Any shade rich enough to call watermelon, redcurrant or even salmon would be humiliatingly deep. The goal is pallor and transparency. The most desirable wines are a translucent negligee nude, so pale you have to hold them against a white tablecloth, twisting and turning the glass to make out the faint wash of colour – barely a pink, more a gris.
“I’ve spent most of my life discussing rosé. It’s the only wine that people have such a specific viewpoint on what colour means,” says winemaker Jo Ahearne, who consults on the Mirabeau project run by Stephen Cronk (of “how to open a bottle of wine with your shoe” YouTube video fame) in Provence.
“No one talks about white wine or red wine in such a way. You do feel some in Provence have pushed the envelope a bit too far, going paler and paler to prove they are ultra-sophisticated. Some are almost indistinguishable from whites. It’s virtually impossible to get a wine that’s quite that pale without fining [the process used to remove suspended particles from a wine].”
Colour in rosé – and red – wines comes from pigment in the skin rather than the juice of the red grapes used to make it. The length of time the must (the term comes from the Latin, vinum mustum, fresh wine) is in contact with the skins, and the temperature at which this happens is a major factor in determining the final colour of the wine. Flavour as well as colour compounds are extracted during skin contact, so this has an impact on the taste as well as the appearance.
Daniel Ravier at Domaine Tempier says that fine rosé is surprisingly hard to get right: it is such a nuanced balance – a little of this, not too much of that, and it can easily go wrong.
The quality I look for in rosé is a cobweb-like meeting of strength and finesse. A fine pink wine is discreet but also possesses staying power, on the one hand so subtle as to be barely there, on the other precise and still crisply present long after you have swallowed.
I also want a rosé to offer more than a slim dose of summer berries. There must be skeins of herbs and a shimmer of sandalwood; the more expensive a rosé, the more I expect it to deliver on these savoury flavours. I like the way Ahearne puts it: “The best rosé has – I know everyone hates the word – minerality. I personally love the white cherries, red cherries, rhubarb and raspberry with a little sprinkling of strawberry on the aromatics. But it needs more; imagine if you had a plate of gravadlax and you sprinkled some dill and shaved fennel over the top to get that extra layer – that’s what it should have.”
It still surprises me that such subtle wines can be so distinctive. It is easy to tell them apart.
I recently attended a blind rosé tasting at which the 36 wines had been decanted so that the shape of the bottle did not offer tasters clues regarding the origin of the wine. The traditional Provençal bottle is clear and curvy, like a skittle, but many of the serious rosé producers now bottle their wines in more idiosyncratic shapes. At Château d’Esclans they use thick, heavy bottles that are tactile and curvaceous. At Domaine Sainte Lucie, they searched carefully through the range of shapes offered by the bottle manufacturer, hunting out the most beautiful and unusual. Miraval didn’t just change wine consultant when it was bought by Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, it also switched its bottle: instead of being tall, straight and slender, it is now shorter and curved like a bell. Aesthetic as well as gustatory style is part of the offer.
So I didn’t know which wines were there, but they soon divided themselves into two camps: the ones that were more about red berries and powder and those with a more savoury bite.
Actually, three camps. “Bit of a foodie pink. Richer, really fattens out – oak, I presume – Esclans?” I wrote about No 13, which turned out to be Château d’Esclans Rock Angel, 50 per cent of which spends five months in oak. It was the same situation with No 15, another Esclans cuvée (Les Clans).
Château d’Esclans, near the Gorges de Pennafort, was bought by Sacha Lichine, of the famous Bordeaux family, in 2006 and has played a huge role in the recent rosé revival. Lichine was ambitious for rosé: he set out to treat it as another fine wine, creating a range of pale pink cuvées, the pinnacle of which is Garrus, which sells for about £72 a bottle – classed growth prices.
“I knew we had arrived when I got a call from a top yacht-builder wanting the dimensions of our three-litre double-magnums,” Lichine has said. “He wanted to make sure he built a fridge on a yacht that was big enough.”
I recently told this story to my brother as we sat on his sofa in Yorkshire scoffing fish and chips from the paper, with cups of tea, discussing which £6 wines he might serve at his wedding, while the baby screamed upstairs.
“I think it’s the most expensive rosé in the world,” I finished up.
My brother looked at me as if the world had gone mad.
“Really? Are you serious? £72 a bottle?”
“Lewis Hamilton’s just signed a new contract for £641k a week. There are plenty of people in the world with stupid amounts of money. That’s nothing. Why don’t they sell it for more?”
Counter-intuitive, but a dashingly good point.
Mirabeau Pure Rosé – Jo Ahearne is the consultant winemaker on this shimmeringly pale, fragrant, grenache-syrah blend. Gleamingly good.