A third of all the wine the French drink is rosé. How and why did this style become so popular in France and elsewhere? For publication in week starting 14 August 2017.
Two decade ago rosé was seen as little more than an alco-pop, an alcoholic version of soft drink. But more rosé is now sold in France than white wine, and rosé imports to the United States are increasing 50 per cent a year. A third of all the wine drunk in France is rosé and it is appearing on the wine lists of fashionable restaurants around the world.
A documentary released this week explains this radical change from pseudo soda to sophistication. The Rosé Revolution, or La Revolution du Rosé: How A Ridiculed Wine Became a Winner, is the work of San Francisco-based video-journalist Ken Kobré. He shot the documentary on an iPhone in France, Italy, the United States and South Africa.
In a telephone interview Kobré said his summer home in Provence is surrounded by vineyards, and he set out to make a short wine video to help with the development of an iPhone app he created. The more he learned, the more fascinated he became with rosé wine because, he said, “perception trumps reality”.
The poor reputation rosé had in France started in the 1930s. Provence is considered the best region for rose. Parisians would go there on holidays and from the late 1930s restaurants in the capital started to order rosé from there. But the wine needed to have sulphites added as a preservative. These sulphites gave people headaches and rosé became known as the “mal de tete” or “headache” wine. Sulphites are mostly no longer added to rosé.
In the 1960s outsiders started to buy chateaux vineyards in Provence, hiring young winemakers keen to make a reputation. They planted grape varieties more suited to rosé, and experimented with new production methods. More recently movie actors have endorsed this style of wine.
Rosé can be made in four ways, though the fourth is illegal in France except in the Champagne region. With the direct press method, a pneumatic press like a big balloon presses grapes gently so that only light and fresh juice escapes through tiny holes in the base of the press. The resulting wine is pale pink. In the second method, known as the maceration technique, crushed grapes are left in contact with skins from two hours to a couple of days before the juice is cool-fermented in the same way as a white wine. The colour is determined by how long the wine stays in contact with the skins.
With the saignée method — the word means “bleed” in French — early in the production of red wine some of the juice is separated while it is still pink so it can be made into a rosé. The fourth method is mostly used outside the European Union and involves adding small amounts of red wine to a base of white wine. The same technique is used to make rosé champagne.
The colour of rosé varies from country to country. The French generally prefer paler, softer and more delicate pinks. Paler rosés tend to have less expressive flavours compared with darker or richly-coloured pink wines. Provence is still royalty in terms of rosé production but winemakers from outside this region are also making wines with the same ballet-shoe hue, often to an equally high standard. Rosés from Provence offer a fine balance of fruit sweetness and citrus freshness combined with an elegant mid-palate and a bone-dry finish.
The documentary describes how rosé labels are designed to attract women, who tend to buy more rosé than men. This has occurred around the world since rosé became widely available in supermarkets. Gilles Masson, director of the Centre for Research in Rosé Wine, concluded after years of testing wines profiles – using black glasses to disguise colour – that no correlation exists between colour and taste with rosé.
Some of France’s best rosé comes from the Languedoc, in particular from Gerard Bertrand Wines. One of the best is Château La Sauvageonne Rosé La Villa, which is matured in oak. It is said to be as good as barrel-aged Garrus from Château d’Esclans, long regarded as the benchmark for fine rosé. Bertrand’s rosé is about half the price.
Patrick Schmitt MW, writing in the drinks business magazine, said rosé was still mostly a relatively simple strawberry-scented drink “best served straight from the fridge” but noted that the range of styles had expanded over the past few years. “Not only that,” he wrote, “but the quality levels have broadened too, with rosé moving successfully into the sphere of luxury drinks.”
The darkest rosés come from Portugal and Spain, with hues from Italy mid way between those from France and the Iberian peninsula. England is making some quality sparkling rosés and these tend to be at the pale end of the colour continuum. Bolney Wine Estate in Sussex makes some crackers. Schmitt said it was “further evidence that England is becoming a serious source of fizz”. Greece is also making high-quality rosé, he said, citing the quality of producers like Alpha Estate and La Tour Melas.
Kobré’s documentary ventures into controversial territory for the final quarter of its hour duration. He interviews Professor Robert Hodgson of Humbolt State University in California about research proving that wine judging is very subjective. An identical wine was slipped three times into the same judging panels, and received a range of marks from gold to nothing from the same judges. Professor Hodgson repeated this experiment for a decade before publishing.
Wine is the second largest industry in France. Given that a gold medal sticker will boost wine sales in many countries by 50 per cent, Professor Hodgson’s research is important. Will this part of the video appear when it screens in France?
Research by Professor Hilke Plassmann at the INSEAD graduate school of business in France also features in the documentary. She used MRI technology to measure pleasure centres in the brain. People were served the same wine yet were told that the wine sold at a range of prices. The pleasure centre of participants’ brains glowed more strongly when people were told they were drinking expensive wines even when it was cheap wine. “Price as much as taste influences pleasure,” Kobre said.
La Revolution du Rosé: How A Ridiculed Wine Became a Winner is available for preview sales on iTunes from 11 August 2017. It is an important and timely contribution to our knowledge of the world of wine.
Noted Kobré: “I explored whether the price of a wine could affect a drinker’s pleasure, and also the actual significance of awards, plus the impact of award labels on sales of wines. No matter how well you think you know wine, I think the answers will startle you.” Do watch this important film.