What’s the point of rosé wine? Top selections

What is the point of pink wine?
xI confess to a rather jaundiced view of rosé, having endured a series of very uninspiring experiences over the years. If we lined up four rosé wines picked at random, I feel pretty confident that one would be a sickly-sweet, syrup-laced, jammy concoction, another would be a mean, rather herbal affair with oddly unattractive flavours, and the third would be totally anonymous; a washed-out, vapid wine with no discernable character.

I can completely understand why most people, having tasted these three theoretical wines, would politely refuse the offer to try number four. Even its most ardent fans would admit there is a lot of very poor rosé about.

How it’s made
There are a few places were rosé can legally be made by blending red and white wines – notably in Champagne – and there are oddity grapes which actually have very pale pink flesh or skins (like the first wine in the list below). For most rosé however, the winemaker starts off as if making a red wine, fermenting crushed black grapes including their skins, then after a few hours or so the skins are removed and fermentation continues as if making a white, with the juice only. In theory this delicate extraction of flavour, pigment and tannin should produce the perfect combination; an ideal summer food wine with the complexity of a red, but the lightness and crispness of a white.

More than just a pretty face?
If you read other articles on rosé, most will perpetuate the lazy journalistic cliché that rosé’s downfall is its “image problem”. The claim that rosé is seen as a “girly wine” for people who can’t make up their minds between red and white is promulgated as the reason for its failure to capture the attention of serious wine lovers. I just don’t buy this: yes, rosé has an image problem, but its poor reputation amongst wine lovers is down to far more fundamental reasons than poor presentation. As a wine, rosé simply fails to deliver in many, many cases. The question is, why?

The pink cash cow
For some producers in traditional areas like Provence, Bordeaux and the Loire Valley, rosé has been a problem-solving cash-cow; a commercial wine that is quick to make and will shift in bucketloads for immediate consumption once the weather hots up. Many are liberally doused with sulphur and spritzed with C02 to keep them sweet and “fresh”. This is cheap and careless industrial winemaking, with no real love for the product. Another reason for the throwaway quality of some rosé is that certain producers will bleed-off juice from the fermentation tanks for red wine after a few hours in an effort to concentrate the extraction of what remains. Rather than discard the juice, a rosé is made, but it is little more than a by-product of the red wine process. Such rosés might wash down picnic fare happily enough under a Californian or Mediterranean sun, but don’t ask them to withstand closer scrutiny.

The other side of the coin
So what about that fourth rosé in our theoretical line-up that we never bothered to try? You guessed it: that is the one that was worth all the effort. There are some winemakers out there for whom rosé is a first choice, and one to which they are dedicated. There are barrel-fermented and aged examples, wines that are kept on their lees with stirring and fanatical attention to detail. A few such producers are making wines which they insist will age for a few years too. There are others which follow a more simple formula, but do so with careful selection of grapes, gravity-fed winery set-ups, minimal handling, and utmost respect for producing rosé at its delicate, vibrant best.

What I have not yet found is a truly profound pink wine; nothing with the depth and complexity of a fine red wine, or the authority and staying power of a top white. Whether this is down to some X-factor in rosé production, or because there is something intrinsically light-hearted about the people who make and drink it, I just don’t know. The best rosé does deliver that whistle-clean thrust of freshness, abundant fruit and some complexity.

Tastings and recommendations
There is no doubt that rosé is transformed by the right setting: well-chilled bottles sipped on a deckchair in the garden in mid-summer. As long as they avoid the worst excesses of sweetened-up, confectionery, there are even some cheap and cheerful rosés that will do the trick quite nicely. Below is my personal selection of 14 recommended rosés tasted in June 2003, covering the gamut of styles. It is not a prescriptive list, but there should be plenty here for getting on with if the summer weather plays ball. The first six come from rosé specialist importer Devigne Wines, whilst the second batch is available on the high street.

A dozen pink rosés…

Frédéric Lornet (Jura) Crémant du Jura Rosé
This bronze-tinged traditional method sparkling pink wine is immediately appealing. It is made from 100% Poulsard, an indigenous variety of the Jura, that is pale red-skinned, and makes natural rosé wines with skin contact. It is quite aromatic, with soft red fruits and a floral note, straw and just a hint of caramel in the background. On the palate the mousse is lively and the flavours very crisp; raspberry and red fruit flavours are quite robust and earthy, with a softer, peachy, strawberry undertone. There is a little tannic grip and incisive acidity freshening the finish, in this food-friendly, fairly serious style of fizz. Drink with pâtés, terrines or cold chicken salad. £9.40 Devigne Wines.

Château de Lancyre (Pic St-Loup) Rosé 2001
From the high quality cru Pic St-Loup in the Languedoc, this pale crimson wine is a Grenache / Syrah blend with a sweet, perfumed nose of creamy strawberry and raspberry leading to a burstingly fresh palate of crisp summer berry fruit and bright, focused acidity. A very nicely-made, dry wine with plenty of vibrancy and panache. £6.90 Devigne Wines.

St. Sardos (France) Lou Muscadou Rosé Doux
This highly unusual sweet rosé is made from Muscat Noir grapes and has a dark salmon pink colour. Fine muscat nose, with lots of floral and confectionery sweetness, grape juice, and a little hint of rose-hip and sweet cherry. On the palate it is sweet and quite juicy, with a liquidised summer fruit character; lots of strawberry and grapy sweetness, and very good balancing acidity. This has enough tension between sweetness and acid to be a great garden sipping wine, or pair it with sorbets or crêpes suzette.
£6.90 Devigne Wines.

Reserve de la Paleine (Saumur) Cabernet de Saumur 1999
Who says rosé doesn’t cellar? Here we have a four-year old wine from Loire specialist Joël Levi, made from 100% Cabernet Franc. The colour is a deep, bronze-tinged warm pink, and the nose is very vinous, with attractive raspberry fruit, a brackeny quality, rose-hip, and a touch of schisty minerality. On the palate it is full-flavoured and savoury, with a real earthiness of slightly peanutty red fruit, and clean citrus acidity. This lacks the vivacity of some of the other wines here, but what a fine, complex and unusual style. Interestingly, I opened a bottle of 1966 Cabernet d’Anjou last year (it’s a long story!) which was definitely past it, but this is drinking well. £7.10 Devigne Wines.

Château Bas (Coteaux d’Aix-En-Provence) “Pierres du Sud” 2001
A blend of Syrah, Grenache and Cabernet Sauvignon, this pale but vibrantly-coloured wine comes from Provence, which is the natural home of European rosé wines. It has a lovely, evocative nose, that just makes me think of summer in the south of France. There is lightly-floral, strawberry fruit, with just a hint of something herbal. On the palate it is a balanced, very poised wine, with good fruit quality, a little firming backbone of tannin and lovely acidity. Very good indeed. £7.50 Devigne Wines.

Château Bas (Coteaux d’Aix-En-Provence) Cuvée du Temple 2001
The top cuvée from Château Bas, this is a blend of selected lots of the best Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon which spends around three months in oak. The colour is a delicate salmon pink, a little less vibrant than the previous wine. It has a lovely nose of warming, rich, nutty red fruit, with a cherry and soft strawberry undertone, and a little hint of vanilla. On the palate this has a similar punchy fruit profile as the Pierres du Sud, with herbs and raspberry fruit and a tight-grained hint of tannin. Acidity is fresh and serves to lengthen the finish, where quite a kick of powerful fruit concentration and some wood tannins gives this savoury, food friendly appeal. A serious wine by any standards, and very good indeed. £10.30 Devigne Wines.

Côte Sauvage (France) Cinsault Dry Rosé 2002
An decent example of a bubble-gummy, tell-it-like-it is good time rosé with jammy raspberry fruit. On the palate it has balanced acidity giving an edge to bright strawberry pulp, confectionery fruit. £3.99 Somerfield.

Arniston Bay (South Africa) Rosé 2002
I liked this vividly pink wine just because it was a no-nonsense, commercial, off-dry rosé absolutely packed with rose-hip and strawberry fruit, with no pretensions to be anything else. It is lip-smacking and fresh, but has abundant fruit with lots of raspberry brightness on the palate. Very good. £4.99 Tesco, Safeway, Spar, Somerfield, Alldays.

Goats do Roam (South Africa) Rosé 2002
This has a medium ruby/pink colour, and a nose of straw, peanut husks and subdued red fruit. The palate is quite dry and backed up with a little tannin, but robust red fruit pushes through, which has a sweet cherry edge. This mind boggling blend of 10 varieties named on the label, with 48% being Cinsault, is quite a substantial mouthful and is lightly oaked. Not entirely to my taste, but very good. £4.99 Oddbins.

Château Guiot (Costières de Nîmes) Rosé 2002
This has a pleasant nose, with an attractive gravelly quality and a little peppery hint to straightforward cherry and raspberry fruit. It is really quite meally and savoury on the palate, and has good quality. Very good. £4.99, 2@£4.49 until 01/09/03 Majestic.

Château des Sarrins (Provence) Rosé 2002
Cinsault, Syrah and Mourvèdre grapes are tipped straight into the press, where they undergo a very gentle, 10-hour pressing. The 2001 of this wine was an absolute favourite of mine (read the report of my visit to Château des Sarrins here), made by Champenoise Bruno Paillard in his little Provence estate. This 2002 has a lovely nose of soft summer fruits, a gentle, aromatic note of wild herbs and lots of crisp, raspberry and mineral suggestions. On the palate it is dry and really very elegant, with fine, pure fruit and terrifically a precise, long finish with whistle-clean acidity and just a touch of tannin. 12% alcohol. Very good indeed. £6.99 Bibendum, Everywine, Noel Young, Philglas & Swigott

Château de Sours (France) Bordeaux Rosé 2002
Well, having tasted the last three vintages I would have to say this is the best rosé in the world to my knowledge. It is a terrific wine: 100% merlot, it is a deep, pale ruby colour with a soaring, inviting nose of red plum, raspberry and strawberry fruit, with little hint of fudge and a summer-fresh minerality. Mouthfilling, crisp and full of vibrant fruit on the palate, there is a superb quality of ripeness and rich fruit, whilst crystal-clear acidity keeps it beautifully poised and balanced. A rosé with genuine character and a high-quality wine by any standards. Excellent. £7.49-7.99 Majestic, Corney & Barrow.

Lazaridi (Greece) Amethystos Rosé 2001
This is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, from the high quality Kostas Lazaridis, in the Drama region of Greece. It immediately suggests a more powerful style of rosé, with a relatively deep, brilliant vermilion colour. The nose is punchy and vivacious, with lots of cassis and raspberry, and a gentle, earthy yeastiness from lees ageing. On the palate it really is a nice mouthful of vividly fruity wine, with lots of crisp redcurrant and rose-hip notes, and a lovely integrated mineral acidity. Quite powerful (though only 12.5% alcohol) and long, this is very good indeed. £7.99 Oddbins

Niepoort (Portugal) Redoma Rosé 2001
This rosé is certainly not a weak link Dirk Niepoort’s impressive Redoma range of unfortified Douro wines. Quite vinous on the nose, but lovely sweet cherry and earthy aromas too. Soft and yielding, with little floral aromatics. On the palate there is quite sweet red fruit, with a flood of crushed strawberry pulp and then crisp, well-defined acidity lengthening and sharpening the picture. A little bit of barrel fermentation adds a hint of smoky weight. Very good indeed. £7.99, Raeburn Fine Wines.