A Rosé is a Rosé is a Rosé, or is there more to it?

Wines from Provence come in many guises and are made for all seasons

Or is it? The famous quotation from Gertrude Stein doesn’t quite stand up when applied to Rosé wines today. A good rosé has a lot to offer says Elizabeth Gabay.

Rosé has had plenty of in-fashion moments throughout the centuries, with references from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries extolling the beautiful colours of these lighter red wines, comparing them to jewels, sunsets and even, somewhat less romantically, to the eye of a dying partridge — oeil de perdrix. The fashion for these lighter wines waned during the 19th century when big, deep, dark reds became the trend. A pink revival occurred after the second world war, especially in America, when pretty, girly-pink, off-dry or bubbles were all the rage.

The modern rosé boom started in the 1990s, and once again the visual element and the glamour played an important role, with books and films setting the scene of a bucolic Provencal idyll. Visions of floating through lavender fields or sitting under umbrella pines overlooking the Mediterranean became inextricably linked with the image of a glass of chilled rosé. The only problem is that lavender and vines do not grow together, and other than the pink and purple colourful imagery, there is little connection!

Provence took this one stage further, not only incorporating these images in their marketing over the past 30 years, but also tying in with the popularity of healthy Mediterranean cuisine. Restaurants along the Cote d’Azur benefitted from the enticing image of a chilled bottle of youthful rosé on a table laden with seafood, salads, a bowl of olives, with the sea and yachts in the background. The glamour of Hollywood, with the arrival of superstars Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie making their own rosé at Miraval in 2012, cemented this image. Who doesn’t want to fantasise about being a Hollywood star with a glass of pale rosé?

But there is another side to this reality. Pale pink does not indicate quality, and chilled, simple wines are rarely the answer when matching with food. Early on, restaurateurs found that while many consumers were happy to drink a bottle of chilled dry rosé as an aperitif or with a simple lunch, when it came to fine dining and more complex flavours, rosé lost out. Sommeliers started asking for a rosé that was more gastronomique and serious. More than just being the perfect wine for a group unable to decide between white and red, serious rosé should have a distinct character of its own. Rounder, darker fruit than goes into a white wine, without the big tannins of a red wine, a good rosé has a lot to offer.

Characterised by glamour and lifestyle imagery, rosés were stereotyped as lighter, non-serious drinks until the modern rosé boom of the 1990s

Initially, producers started to look at oak-ageing their rosés to make them more complex. One of the earliest examples is that from Mas de Cadenet, in the foothills of Mont Sainte-Victoire, whose original 1990 oaked rosé was recently tasted and was still fabulous. At Château d’Esclans Sacha Lichine, known as the King of Rosés, made oaked rosé more famous — and more expensive — in 2007 with his new wine, Garrus, then the most expensive rosé in the world at close to €80 a bottle. There were even accounts of yachts being fitted out with wine racks designed specifically for his magnums!

Two very different rosés, a restrained, elegant style from Provence, left, in the south of France and an exuberant, cherry flavoured one from Abruzzo, right, on the Adriatic coast in Italy

But not all oaked rosés work — many taste like a crude juncture of oak and classic pale rosé, and the category is still controversial. The best rosés often have barely visible oak, but they do have extra weight and structure, and, like Garrus, many have a higher percentage of white varieties, giving a creamy round fruit and essential paleness which blends the styles of both rosé and white wines. Garrus well represents the problem of all rosés being treated in the same way. Drunk young and fresh, these bigger, oaked rosés can be sorely disappointing. Serve at room temperature, decanted, or with some age, and they reveal hidden secrets. Aged, oaked rosé Lopez de Heredia Vina Tondonia Gran Reserva Rosado from Rioja is held up as the pinnacle of serious rosé.

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Pink Champagne is often closely associated with Provence rosés with their evocative image of glamour, but pink Champagne is also a style that is well proven as age-worthy, and terroir-driven, with some of the higher end rosés having serious weight and complexity along with fine acidity, making for a great match with richer food. Champagnes such as Alexandre Bonnet from the southern Aube region, has more than an intriguing nod towards red Burgundy in style, while a more classic style such as D de Devaux has pretty, creamy, floral, cherry charm.

Tavel in the southern Rhône was the original southern French rosé and remains one of the few appellations in the world uniquely dedicated to rosé. But unlike Provence rosé, colour is not the determining factor. Grenache-based (both black and white versions) with long skin contact, Tavel can bridge the divide between red and rosé, giving rise to more full-bodied wines with amazing ability to age, busting the myth that all rosé must be drunk within the year. A recently tasted 1976 was gloriously fresh with complex and rich flavours. Domaine Many’s Libiamo is a paler, creamy rich Tavel while Château Manissy’s Tete de Cuvée has more structural red fruit.

Miraval Rosé – Despite the Hollywood connection, rosés can be complex, serious wines that pair well with food

Restrained elegance is often the main descriptor for Provence rosé, but this should not be a reason to ignore some of the more joyful and exuberant rosés available, such as cherry-flavoured Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo, made with the Montepulciano grape from the Adriatic coast of Italy. Gianni Masciarelli makes a stellar example. Unsurprisingly, these full-bodied, dark rosés with vibrant freshness and a touch of tannin, are a great accompaniment to many of the tomato-based sauces found in Italian cuisine.

Pink Champagne is often closely associated with Provence rosés with their evocative image of glamour, but it is also a style that is well proven as age-worthy and terroir-driven

What about sweeter rosé? This can be the trickiest rosé of all. Tarnished by the reputation of the cheap, sweet pinks of the 1950s, producers rushed to make ‘grownup’ dry rosés. Tasting the off-dry rosés of Anjou, with the benefit of lower alcohol, can be a true revelation! Rosé d’Anjou is a pale softly off-dry rosé, loved by James Bond in the 1950s, perfect served chilled as an aperitif. Cabernet d’Anjou, made with either Cabernet Sauvignon or Cabernet Franc, has higher sugar levels but the best examples are so well balanced by the acidity, that the sweetness is barely noticeable, and gastronomically these rosés go with so many tricky dishes containing acidity and spice. Producers such as Château de Brissac or Domaine de Montgilet make good examples.

Why is the rosé category so exciting? The range of styles is large and the potential for food matching is limitless. All we need to do is to step outside of the comfort zone of young, pale pinks served ice cold….