Deconstructing Rosé: Simplicity is Complicated

rose“Here in France, restaurant wine lists now have a separate rosé section. And this is not confined to Provence … The world seems to have gone pink, perhaps one small sign of an increasing desire for simplicity when we sit down to eat and drink.”

(Peter Mayle, My Twenty-Five Years in Provence, 2018 – emphasis added.)

The world does seem to have gone pink, as Peter Mayle says. Rosé wine is the fastest growing wine category by far here in the United States and Rosé is now transcending the idea of wine by entering other products as a color, aroma, or taste. You can munch on a Rosé chocolate bar, chew on Rosé gummy bears, lick your lips with Rosé lip balm, anoint yourself (or someone else) with Rosé body polish, and … well, Rosé your way through the day and night, too.

The New Pumpkin Spice?

Rosé is the new pumpkin spice. Or maybe it just looks that way from here. Peter Mayle was on the money when it came to Rosé. And while he might or might not be right in thinking that Rosé is a simple beverage choice for over-whelmed consumers, I think it is wrong to think that Rosé is itself quite a simple thing.

Or at least that’s what I think I learned from attending a professional seminar on Rosé wines at the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium in Sacramento (which was followed two weeks later by another seminar at the Washington Winegrowers Convention that I was forced to miss when a snowstorm caused my flight to be cancelled).

Rosé is hot, so wine business people want to learn more about growing, making, and selling it. Sue and I got a heavy dose of Rosé last year when we visited Languedoc and the Loire Valley and met Elizabeth Gabay whose book, Rosé: understanding the pink revolution, is the best resource we have found for understanding everything pink. Herewith some observations as I try to deconstruct the Rosé phenomenon.

A Paler Shade of Pink?

I cannot think of any other type of wine where color seems to matter as much as for Rosé. This is a fact that was stressed in all the presentations we attended. Although the first Rosé wines I can remember tasting here in the U.S. were dark pink in the Tavel style, the fashion today, according to conventional wisdom, is that paler is better — to the point where one wine we sampled could have passed for a white wine!

I don’t know if it is true, but the word on the street is that consumers think pale is dry and darker is sweeter.  Pale and dry is associated with Peter Mayle’s Provence and those wines seem to fly off the shelf.

It is not the case that all French wines fit this profile — Tavel remains a noteworthy outlier, for example. And Rosé from Languedoc and from the Loire Valley come in a range of hues, as Sue’s photo from a Loire tasting makes clear. Rosé wines made here in the U.S. range from dark to light and I was once served a deep dark “Rosé” that was not a Rosé at all in my view — I think it was an attempt at saingée Syrah gone badly wrong.

One Hue to Rule Them All?

Does one (pale) hue really rule them all? I was interested in the presentation by Jason Haas of Tablas Creek at the Unified Symposium that provided some insights into consumer attitudes. Tablas Creek Vineyard makes two Rosé wines, which makes sense given its association with the Perrin family, which make a lot of Rosé wine in France. Together they account for about 20% of total production. One is a pale pink dry wine made as a Rosé using purchased grapes from the local area. It’s a big hit in the by-the-glass on-trade market.

The other wine, made in much smaller quantities, comes from estate grapes and is made using the saingée method, which means that some of the juice is drained off while still pink leaving a more concentrated red wine behind. You might say that the Rosé is a by-product of red wine making, but I prefer to think that the pink and red are co-produced. This wine has more structure and character and demands food. Sue and I thought it was the best wine of the tasting.

The darker wine, which might be a tough sell if it went into distribution because of its color and higher price, is reserved for tasting room and wine club purchases. It sells out every year in part, I suppose, because tasting room buyers can sample the wine and not just look at the color. And also, frankly, because it is different and a bit special and that’s something people look for. Haas thinks having two pink wines, each crafted for its own market, works pretty well.

Hitting a Moving (Color) Target

So pink isn’t as simple as you might think when it is time to sell the wines and it isn’t simple either when they are made. One speaker said that his Rosé was the hardest wine in his portfolio to make. I am not enough of an enologist to appreciate all the technical details that were presented (there were plenty of experts in the room all nodding their heads), but it was easy to understand how color makes things more difficult.

You might think that pink is pink and once you have the color you want, that’s that. But apparently you would be wrong. The color you achieve in the tank, we were told, is just the beginning and as time passes, and especially as SO2 is added at bottling, the wine gets paler and paler. So you need to begin darker than you want and then control the process pretty closely in order to coast into the shade of pale you are aiming for.

This is something that Elizabeth Gabay finds disturbing because it means, at some point, winemakers may sacrifice what’s necessary to make the best wine in order to get the right color of pink. Rosé wines in general might be better, she suggests, and more popular and drinkable, if color wasn’t such a central concern.

Simplicity is Complicated

The complexity increases when other issues such as grape varieties and viticultural practices are considered. Here in the U.S the Rosé wines are made from easily recognizable grape varieties. Barnard Griffin, a Washington State producer, makes a Rosé of Sangiovese that wins gold (and double gold) medals in competitions and flies off the supermarket shelves. Sangiovese is easy to understand and to like even if it isn’t part of the standard Provence recipe. But in the Loire we discovered wines made from unfamiliar grapes that are in fact only grown for Rosé! Who knew?

I guess Rosé is like any other type of wine. It can be as simple (or complex) as you want it to be. Will consumers revolt if and when they discover Rosé’s hidden geeky side? Yes, if Peter Mayle is right and they are fleeing what they see are unnecessary complication. But I’m not really sure that’s true.

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