What must a Rosé do to achieve a score over 90 points? We may absolutely love drinking them, but it seems hard for experts and reviewers to feel that something so delicate, so delightful as a Rosé can also be ‘serious’.
But the market knows what it likes – thank goodness! – and there are lots of sensible people out there who pay proper money for delicious examples. So we thought we’d spare a few words for a classic in this Rosé* genre.
*Editor’s note: the term Rosé is not usually capitalised, unlike every other proper wine term – like grape varieties (e.g. Grenache) and regional wines (e.g. Bandol). This seems downright unfair. So at Caro’s the word “Rosé” finally gets a big, grown-up letter in front.
The world offers many Rosé styles – from the strawberries-and-cream sweeties of the new world to the more refreshingly dry and elegant wines now sweeping onto our shelves. These dry and pale Rosés are coming from everywhere, including right here at home – like those from Black Barn or Man O’ War. But they are largely inspired by the old traditions of Europe. Looking back to look forward is a familiar theme in our maturing wine world, and the category of Rosé is no different.
Looking back through Rosé-tinted glasses means surveying one of the earliest wine regions of the world – the Mediterranean in general and, in particular, a stretch of France’s southern coast known as Provence. Greek settlers brought wine to this area in 600 BC. But the region didn’t get its modern name until much later – oh, about 121 years before Christ – when Gaulic invaders led Rome to take control of its first foreign ‘province’.
Provence is dry and sunny, with intense heat moderated by the sea and cooling breezes: the definition of a ‘Mediterranean climate’. So it’s not surprising that over history two things happened here: 1, grapes enjoyed a very good lifestyle and 2, so did the many invaders who came to grow them. And the invaders left a rich tapestry of varieties.
Ancient locals like Mourvèdre and Tibouren now grow alongside the white grape Vermentino – aka Rolle – brought by ancient kings of Sardegna. In the late 19th Century the hardy and well-cropping Carignan grape swept the region after the phylloxera epidemic, though it is now out of favour as rustic – especially since the other local rustic red, Cinsault, is considered better for Rosé. The early 20th Century saw occasional plantings of French ‘international’ varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Semillon (brought by an Alsatian winemaker Marcel Ott), which added to the fairly free and easy, patchwork feel of the place.
More recent times have seen modern invaders from the just to the north and west – Grenache and Syrah have been brought in to ’improve’ market performance. Today Grenache is the dominant grape in Provence wines, with Syrah, Cinsault and others in support. Mourvèdre plays an important role too – symbolic at least, being of serious complexity and local origin – with its deep hue and savoury dimension adding value to the Rosés of Bandol in particular.
This brings us to the beautiful paradox of Provence Rosé: the most delicate, light-coloured wine is made from the world’s deepest and richest red grapes. Grenache is light in colour and softly fruity – hence its leading role in Rosé blends – but the other grapes such as Mourvedre and Cabernet Sauvignon are among the darkest and most tannic. And all these including Grenache are very full-bodied, or sweet (depending which end of the fermentation you’re at). Which adds to the peculiar delight, perhaps, in tasting them in a Rosé form that is almost unnaturally pure, light, dry and fresh.
Apart from superb ‘village’ wines like Bandol and Cassis, there are only two expressions of Provence Rosé you need to know: those labelled ‘Cotes de Provence’ and ‘Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence’.
The style here has some variation, yes. But only in the sense that one breed of rose petal smells different from another. Flower experts can tell each rose by smell, but to most of us they just smell… like roses. Likewise the pink wines of Provence.
Some can be an incredibly pale and clear colour – almost a ‘blush’ or a ‘blanc de noir’. Others may have a touch more depth of the classical off-pink, ‘onion-skin’ or salmon colour. Generally such wines are made by a short maceration on skins, drawing out a light colour. A lesser role is played by the ‘saignee’ method: saignee (as in a blush wine) means ‘bleeding off’ the first pressing of juice with no skin contact and almost no colour. But this is often done to concentrate the remaining juice on its red skins, to produce a stronger red for someone else. So the resulting Rosé is a byproduct made from grapes not grown specifically for Rosé, instead ripened to heady ‘red wine’ levels. By such tricks the greatness of Provence Rosé may have been invented, perhaps, but it could not be maintained to elevated contemporary standards of winemaking perfection. In any case, today’s Provence Rosés are usually very light in colour – and you’d be surprised by a dark one.
Likewise flavour: Provence Rosé is almost always dry and fresh. The delicate red berry fruits should be barely there, almost being masked by what is usually in the ‘background’ of most wines – the wine’s mineral aromas and the neutral appley-citrus notes emitted by the pure white pulp of the grape. In other words, it’s not about fruit. If there’s obvious, perfumed strawberry and raspberry fruit you may be tasting a cheap ‘export’ Rosé that we wouldn’t have our our shelf.
But if, on the other hand, you put your nose in the glass and feel you can almost smell the refreshing acidity itself… and when you taste the stuff your palette is exposed to nothing but gently spicy, earthy minerals held together by filigree nuances of cranberry and citrus pith… then you are drinking something very, very special.
And you may notice, after swallowing, that a feeling of effortless coolness comes over you.
And this is Rosé’s raison d’etre. Because the cursed inhabitants of Provence have awful sunlight and heat to contend with, after all. Likewise the unlucky tourists who have flooded this sun-baked coastline, ever since the railways reached from Paris late in the 19th Century. Both locals and travelers are said to find Provence Rosé a welcome balm for their provincial woes. And by some magic the wine also complements the local cuisine – such as seafood and bouillabaisse – in which garlic and oil cries out for a drink with non-invasive flavours and a clean acid cut on the palate.
Thus this beautiful style came into the world – a perfect aperitif or a super-cool, elegant food match. These Rosés are almost guaranteed to delight, but at Caro’s we still make sure we have only the best. In Cotes de Provence we offer the classy, cool Coeur Clementine, as well as the super quality Xavier. Coolness and quality are rolled into one in the Hecht & Bannier – from two suave negociants who produce our darkest (though still pale) Cotes de Provence in a beautiful glass-stoppered bottle. One of our all-time favourites remains the phenomenal Saint Aix – a delicious Aix-en-Provence expression of the same style.
The famous Provence town of Bandol offers village Rosé that some consider more ‘serious’. And who are we to disagree – as our gorgeous Lafran-Veyrolles Bandol recently won number 2 Rosé in the world from Decanter magazine. Yes, number 2. But the style being light and dry is much the same – as, indeed, is the wine’s humble purpose of transforming your dry and dull afternoon into something timeless, bright and effortlessly delightful.
Other local climates in the Rhone and the Languedoc-Roussillon produce similar styles. These achieve a certain amount of the same charm, perhaps a lower price point (reflecting their off-classic status ‘next door’ to Provence). Such wines are the elegant 6eme Rosé by Gerard Bertrand and the lovely bright Ferraton Cotes du Rhone Rosé.
However the only true Provence wines are from Provence. There’s just something about these super-elegant wines in these tall, slim bottles. And if you taste closely you will notice many have perfect integration and no shortage of nuanced complexity.
But it is hard to think of anything complex while drinking them. And that may be why they are so overlooked as wines, non?
When your taste buds can no longer distinguish red berry nuances from splashes of subtly bitter, mineral freshness, and your eyes start to blur the pale blue of the sky with the sea-bound horizon (forgive the poetry), then you may have entered an alternate reality that, among wine lovers, is referred to as a mild state of Provence. How to quantify an experience like this – when a wine becomes more than just a wine? Well, at Caro’s we rate it very highly indeed. As for the reviewers who don’t – well, someone should just give them a hammock for Christmas.