Through the Roof and Beyond – Rosé Rising

It was not quite the answer I had expected, but forty years later I remember it as if it were yesterday. I was in Paris talking to my father’s friend François Engel, a local journalist and novelist, while drinking – as one does at French cafés – a bottle of red wine. Conversation turned to wine, and I ventured that predictably naïve question, “François, what is the best wine you have ever had?”

Monsieur Engel was definitely equipped to answer this. During his eventful career as travel reporter, raconteur and bon vivant, François sampled the finest vinous offerings his homeland had to offer. The Grand Cru Burgundies. Bordeaux Growths One to Five. Enough Champagne to bathe a bevy of Cleopatras in. He had had it all.

“My best wine ever? Now, that question is not as simple to answer as it might seem,” said François, thoughtfully peering at me through a grey-blue wisp of Gauloises smoke. “But if I had to be really honest, the most delicious wine I remember ever drinking was a bottle of rosé. I was a student, working on a wine farm in Provence. Picking grapes under a tremendously hot sun. And at lunchtime we workers were given a sandwich of half a fresh baguette with ham and cheese and one bottle each of an ice-cold rosé wine. Well, the bottle did not even have a label, so I can’t say what it was. But that cold rosé wine on a hot day, with the scent of grapes and the wild herbs of Provence in your nose, well, drinking that was the best wine I can remember having. Ever.”

Monsieur Engel’s experience of a fresh, bracingly simple and deliciously cool wine is exactly what has made rosé such an easy drink for the world to fall in love with. However, although this pink wine style has been around for as long as any wine drinker today can remember, rosé is enjoying a spectacular surge popularity.

While other still wines – white and red – are seeing demand and consumption patterns slacken, global sales of rosé are currently growing at a rate of knots. In the UK, South Africa’s largest wine export market, rosé consumption is growing at over 20% per year. Across the channel in France rosé sales are closing in on those of red wine, threatening to topple the grip vin rouge has had on la grande nation for the first time in history.

Reasons for this charge by the pink wine sector are numerous. There is the fresh, appealing and uncomplicated flavour profile most rosé wines share. The lack of emphasis on grape varieties used to make rosé rids the wine of the geeky, complex baggage that drives younger consumers away from wines where cultivars and vintages act as an intimidating barrier.

Most rosé’s have modest alcohol levels of 13% and lower, itself a fashionable element among today’s new generation of wine drinkers. And talking of the new generation, the instagrammable appeal and social media street credibility of a glass of pink wine set among a vibey background of al fresco dining and sun-worshipping bodies dare not be underestimated. Fashionable and style are king and queen, and as far as wines go, only Champagne and sparkling wine can equal the vivacious appeal of the rosé inspired lifestyle.

Sweet for my sugar

Although rosé wines had enjoyed global popularity since the 1950s, the big brand pink versions that ruled the wine palates six and seven decades ago were far removed from the delicately styled wines driving today’s rosé sector. And to boot, they weren’t even French.

Mateus Rosé from Portugal, a semi-sweet wine coloured a vivid shade of light red and bearing a tongue-pricking petillant sparkle, took the world by storm in the 1950s to 1970s. This perky fruit-bomb of a wine in its characteristic round flagon bottle was at its peak one of the world’s top-selling wines, with some 40m bottles annually exported from Portugal to the USA alone.

With the former Portuguese colonies Angola and Mozambique on South Africa’s doorstep, Mateus was also the first rosé wines many South Africans encountered, and still today it is found on the wine-lists of local peri-peri houses from Milnerton to Alberton. And for a long time, the Mateus style was what most people associated rosé wine with: brightly coloured, semi-sweet and for fresh, cheerful glugging.

Of course, with a pioneering and innovative outlook, South African winemakers were not going to allow the Portuguese to take the whole rosé pie. Various local wineries were making rosé in the latter half of the 20th century, with Bellingham recognised as the first Cape cellar to offer a pink wine with the introduction of its rosé in 1951. Big commercial brands such as Nederburg, Grünberger and Autumn Harvest were making semi-sweet rosés, although I do recall that in the 1970s the blue-blood Stellenbosch estate Rustenberg was offering a rosé that swam against the grain of most of the local pinks by being bone-dry.

Provence and all that

Many global wine trends developed in the 1990s, a period announcing an increased world-wide interest in wine and wine culture, as well as introducing wine-lovers to the excitement and innovation found in the burgeoning New World wine countries. Paramount among factors driving this new wine wave were, among others, the influence of accessible fruit-driven Shiraz wines from Australia, New Zealand’s stratospheric success with Sauvignon Blanc, the sparkling wine offerings from Spain and Italy and South Africa’s re-entry into the wine world after decades of economic sanctions due to apartheid – to name a few.

With world-wide interest in wine increasing and France being as always recognised as the ancestral home of the fermented grape, eyes were always keenly slanted towards new and interesting drinkables from the Motherland of the vine. And here the Mediterranean French province of Provence was basking in the limelight. Keith Floyd, the pioneer of the witty and engaging television cookery show, was prancing around the Provençal countryside cooking ratatouille and beef daube among the lavender lanes and olive trees. Retired advertising executive Peter Mayle wrote a string of best-selling books about his retired life in France’s south. Starting with A Year in Provence, Mayle’s atmospheric sun-drenched, rosé-soaked memoires led to millions of people outside of France cultivating an awareness of the country’s southern region with its gorgeous scenery, easy-going lifestyle and history going back to Roman times, and before then.

Keith Floyd, the galloping gourmand.

And of course, looking towards all things Provence between the games of pétanque played with the metallic boules, the lavender honey, the Roman ruins and the olive groves, Provence-acolytes noted a wine, and the wine was rosé. If you wanted a taste of Provence, as the world did, you had to drink rosé. Because whether one is a visitor or resident of Provence, when wine is asked for, it will be rosé.

The history of rosé wine in this part of the world can actually be traced back to the Phocaea people from Greece who founded the city of in Marseille – capital of Provence – 2 600 years ago. As was the wont of colonists in early times, the settlers immediately began to plant vines and these here in Provence were the first vineyards to be established in France, making it the country’s oldest wine region.

The wine these first “French” wine farmers made was blended from red and white grapes, resulting in – yes – a pink wine. And by the time the Romans began colonising France 2000 years ago, the pink wines of Provence were already a regional feature.

Marseille, the ancestral home of the pink wines.

As they say in the classics, why mess with a winning recipe? The Romans took-up where the Greeks left off, continuing to make this characteristic pink wine of Provence, although for centuries the practice of creating these rosés has not involved the blending of red and white, but a technique that forms the foundation for rosé production in South African and other parts of the world.

Let it Bleed

Before being influenced by the Provençal style of making rosé, the common practice among South African and winemakers from other countries was to simply blend a red and white wine until it had developed the right shade of pink deserved of the rosé name. However, with a few thousand years ahead of other wine nations in the making of a blush, pink wine, the French were to lead the way – as they so often do in things wine – in teaching the world how to make rosé that tastes like a true Provençal rosé.

This involves making rosé exclusively from red grapes. Because the juice of most grapes is white, all a wine needs to gain a slight hue of onion-skin, salmon or sunset pink, is the briefest contact with its dark skin. Thus, unlike the making of red wine which involves days’ and weeks’ contact with the grape-skins to draw out the dark colour, making rosé involves a gentle crushing and bleeding-off of the juice after it has had the briefest of contact with the dark skins.

Petri Venter, winemaker at Pink Valley Wines in Stellenbosch’s Helderberg and a winery exclusively committed to making rosé, says that among the winemakers and wine-lovers of France, when it comes to rosé, it is all about colour.

“In Provence a rosé is judged by its colour before aroma and taste, which I initially found quite weird,” says Venter who has made rosé at Domaine Vallon des Glauges near the Provence town of Eyguières. “But I suppose that if a wine’s very character is identified by a colour – rosé – it probably deserves playing an important role.”

Accordingly rosé winemakers go to great lengths to achieve the lightest colour possible, a feint onion-skin hue being seen as the ideal. Venter said that his sojourn in Provence taught him the method of making an exceptionally lightly coloured rosé at the Pink Valley winery, the result being a wine so light of colour that its initial rosé status was queried by the local wine authorities.

“It is all about timing, as whatever rosé wants to be, you have to capture freshness along with the distinctive colour,” says Venter. In making his style of rosé, the grape juice from Sangiovese and Grenache Grapes spend 45 minutes in contact with their red skins. But even this brief brush with the dark skins is not enough for achieving the desired palest of pale colour. Here the Provence trick comes in. “Once removed from the skins, the juice spends five weeks in stainless steel, cooled to 2°C degrees to prevent fermentation,” says Venter, “and this is where the classic onion skin colour is achieved. During this time – prior to fermentation – the phenols settle at the bottom of the tank, resulting in the extraordinarily light colour we want.” 

Although French Mediterranean varieties such as Syrah, Grenache, Carignan and Cinsaut, to name a few, are also frequently used in South African rosés, there is no limit to the red grapes that can be used to make the lovable pink wine. Cabernet Sauvignon delivers a cracking rosé as shown by Stellenbosch property Mulderbosch in a wine of depth and complexity while still retaining the vivacious, zesty elements of refreshment for which this wine style is renowned.

Pinotage, that legendary variety that was developed in 1925 and which South Africans like to call their national grape, has proven particularly suitable for rosé. The late Spatz Sperling from Delheim pioneered Cape rosé from Pinotage, and the suitability of this early-ripening variety has made Pinotage Rosé a formidable category on its own.

A prime example is GlenRosé from French-owned Stellenbosch winery L’Avenir. Dubbed South Africa’s first luxury rosé, GlenRosé is made exclusively from Pinotage and its inviting, sensual powder-pink colour is enhanced by an elegant, crafted bottle, underscoring L’Avenir’s belief that rosé deserves a rightful status at the top echelon of premium wine offerings and priced accordingly as just shy of R300.

The current rave around rosé will no doubt soon be raising the issue of whether these quaffable pinks and their fashionable status deserve recognition as harbouring the same iconic appeal as white or red varietal wines such as Chardonnay from Burgundy or Cabernet Sauvignon from Stellenbosch.

It is going to be interesting to watch this discussion unfold with a bottle of chilled rosé on hand whilst determinedly looking at the world through rosé tinted glasses. And thinking that Monsieur Engel just very probably could have been right.

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