UNTIL I overheard the following exchange between a shopper and a sales advisor in the wine aisle of a well-known British high street retailer, famous for its socks and underwear, I didn’t think much needed to be said about rosé wine:
Shopper: "What gives it this lovely pink colour?"
Wine sales advisor: "It’s the rosé grape."
Oh dear [insert emoticon for pulling out hair!] Just as "yellow" is not a type of cheese, "rosé" is not a grape variety. It’s a colour. Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are grape varieties. A wine’s colour depends on the length of time grape juice remains in contact with crushed grapes’ skins. It’s called maceration.
Red wines are red because the juice macerates with red grape skins for anything up to four weeks. White wines are white because they are rarely macerated with grape skins for more than a few hours, if at all. In fact, white wine can be made from red grapes because grape juice is virtually colourless. That’s why white Champagne, called Blanc de Noirs, can be made from the red grapes Pinot Noir and/or Pinot Meunier.
Rosé wines are pink because the juice stays in contact with crushed red grape skins for less than a day, giving juice little time to take on much colour. Of course, red grapes must be involved in making rosé wine, as only red skins have the necessary pigments. However, even a pink wine may contain juice from white grapes, like Chardonnay.
In France (and in other European Union countries), rosé wines cannot - by EU law - be made by actually blending red and white wines, though this practice is typical in New World winemaking. Curiously, rosé Champagne is the exception: a dose of red wine is indeed added to white Champagne to make it pink.
So, with summer here, you may be wondering what kind of rosé to buy? And, do rosé wines go with food?
There are, roughly speaking, two types of rosé: the very pale, salmon-coloured, bone-dry pinks associated with Provence; and darker pinks that can resemble very pale reds. The former are rosés de soif (thirst-quenching, summer aperitifs); the latter are rosés de bouche (more complex pinks that happily accompany meals any time of the year).
Unhappily, many rosé wines come sealed under screw caps, not corks. If you buy one with a screw cap, make sure it’s not more than 18 months old, otherwise you may find the taste tainted by reduced sulphur aromas – like rotten eggs or burned matches – an unwelcome side-effect of screw caps’ hermetic seal (see April’s ‘The Terroirist’ column).
Also, spend a bit more than the average 4 or 5 Euros on a bottle as you’ll get a much better wine for your money. I recently tasted several dozen rosés from all over France and found the difference between ho-hum and memorable is about 2 or 3 Euros. And don’t hesitate to splash out even more for an exceptional rosé because there’s nothing inferior about good pink wine.
Winemakers favour certain grape varieties for making rosé wines. The popular soft and fruity off-dry to semi-sweet Anjou rosé is made with Gamay and Grolleau. Côtes de Provence rosés rely heavily on the dry and earthy Tibouren. The Languedoc’s supple pinks often include red-fruit flavoured Cinsault, while gutsy Grenache is popular in rosés from the Roussillon. There’s a trend for making rosés from unexpected and/or neglected varieties, like Carignan, too.
However, it would be churlish to overlook the Gold Medal prize winner in the rosé category at this year’s International Wine Challenge, which beat 367 challengers from 21 countries recently in London. Made from the little-known, early-ripening Rondo (a red grape variety well-suited to northern climates), it’s a refreshing deep-coloured pink with a smooth, long and creamy finish.
Unfortunately, Denbies winery, in Dorking, 25 miles south of London, in Surrey, only produced 7,000 bottles of the IWC prize-winning Chalk Ridge rosé in 2010, and it’s sold out. It cost £11.99 per bottle. So, while customers eagerly await next year’s vintage, the famous British retailer (above) has time to make good on its wine buyer’s stated promise "to help our customers make informed choices."