Writing a book about rosé taught Elizabeth Gabay MW that pink is defined by more than Provence.
In case you haven’t noticed, the world is in the midst of a rosé revolution. The young and flirty alternative to red and white wine, the pink drink is toast of summer fun from the Riviera to the Hamptons to the Gold Coast. But, there’s more to rosé than the easy drinking and rather generic “swimming pool rosé,” as local Master of Wine Elizabeth Gabay refers to it: from the premium Provence rosés being made to intriguing drops coming out of countries least expected. As she tells me, writing a book on the rosé revolution quickly turned revelatory.
“Being based in Provence, I was of course very Provence-centric in how I defined a good quality rosé. I spend most of my time listening to the conversations of producers down here about whether putting the rosé in oak creates a quality rosé or not, and similar sort of discussions. It coloured my approach. Then I started coming across a large number of regions that have actually been making rosé for at least as long as Provence, if not longer, and suddenly I had to take a step back and teach myself not to be blinded by the pinkness. You don’t think of every red and every white being made in the same way do you?” she asks rhetorically.
It took Elizabeth nine months and 1500 wines to produce her groundbreaking tome Rosé: understanding the pink wine revolution (available to buy from her dedicated website pink.wine). And, like some of the best ideas, it all stemmed from an offhand remark. “I was asked by a publisher to review a book, and I jokingly said how about I write one on Provence and ten minutes later they came back and said ‘What about rosé instead?’” Her initial reaction was that it would be easy. “I thought I would be able to knock that up in about six months because there wasn’t a lot to write about,” she admits. “Then we extended the deadline from the end of June to the end of September because I just kept getting more and more samples and discovering more – and I still wasn’t able to put everything in.”
Revelations flooded in, from corners least expected.
“Like Rosé de Riceys AOC in Champagne where they add in whole bunch grapes (Pinot Noir) in with the crushed grapes, they ferment in barrels, they don’t release it for three or four years and it is a serious, serious wine, almost on the scale of a Burgundy.” Perhaps the greatest discoveries came from outside France, however. “I tasted Retsina rosé from Greece, you know the kind of thing that sounds weird. Yet it really was the most elegant wine, with beautiful balance and this tiny twitch of resin giving it an edge but not dominating it.” She also mentions a rosé from the Azores in Portugal. “Think maritime climate, lots of salty wind and volcanic soil. I put it in a blind tasting and someone said oohh ‘That’s a bit like a pink Chablis, it’s so elegant and long and refined,’ so that was very exciting,” she enthuses.
I tasted Retsina rosé from Greece, you know the kind of thing that sounds weird. Yet it really was the most elegant wine.
She admits that she had to revisit certain wines several times. “Every time I tasted wine from a different region in fact, because you have to change your mindset. If you only taste a rosé from Provence, when you taste rosé from another region your first reaction is ‘No, this is not rosé.’ Poland, Germany, Slovakia, the whole swathe where they use a bit of residual sugar to balance a very high acidity and you initially think ‘That’s lolly water,’ and then you get the examples that are beautifully balanced and have lovely fruit and character and you realise that they would be really good with food.”
Along the way she discovered just how misunderstood rosé is as a category – by both trade and consumers alike. “When I announced that I was writing a dedicated rosé book, I did get lots of friends in the industry saying ‘You’re a Master of Wine, why are you wasting time on rosé as a subject?’” she admits. “Some even said ‘When you find a good rosé, call me.’” But, as one local sommelier reminded her, it’s time we all stopped looking at the colour and concentrated on the taste. So it sounds like she’s on the verge of triggering a paradigm shift? I ask her if she thinks we’ve been approaching rosé without really understanding what it is. Perhaps both wine professionals and consumers need to start looking at rosé differently? “I think there’s an obvious need to target the next generation of people who are learning about rosé,” she replies. Hopefully this book will start a much-needed discussion and lead to new opportunities in wine education.
But, as one local sommelier reminded her, it’s time we all stopped looking at the colour and concentrated on the taste.
As for Provence, what’s next? The region acts as a yardstick for the rest of the world to emulate. It’s a title, Elizabeth says, that doesn’t sit comfortably with its winemakers. “Provence is happy being the benchmark for Provence but one of the problems with everyone treating them as the benchmark for all rosé is that a lot of other regions are attempting to make Provence-style rosé which only serves to increase the competition for local producers. What would be nice would be if a restaurant wine list would have several regions with totally different rosés – totally different. Not just each country attempting their version of a Provence style rosé.” In Australia, she tells me, the biggest selling rosé is Jacob’s Creek Le Petit Rosé. It’s even marketed as reflecting a ‘style of Rosé that is common in the provincial French countryside,’ as the company website explains.
She is looking forward to seeing more Provence wines move away from a generic style and “embrace a local character.” She expands further. “As a purist I really like the minerality you get down in La Londe with someone like Château Sainte Marguerite, some of the producers there have really stoney style and then you go up to Sainte-Victoire where producers like Château Gassier and Mas de Cadenet have a broad, limestone creamy acidity and then you go to Fréjus and there rosé just needs a year more ageing before starting to show any charm.”
Her book has shown her that there’s much more to rosé than Provence and Elizabeth is showing us that it’s time we start looking at rosé in a completely different light.
Elizabeth’s new book Rosé: understanding the pink wine revolution explores the history, viticulture, winemaking and business of rosé wine and is available to buy now.
Elizabeth recommends three interesting rosés to look out for:
“Great in youth and with superb ageing potential, these will all go well with food.”
Prima Donna, Domaine Maby, Tavel. Made largely with the varieties used in Provence rosés, but by making the wine in the traditional Tavel method with longer skin contact, the wine is not only darker but also richer and fruitier with a firm dry structure. This wine is a single vineyard wine coming from a plot where the grapes are particularly ripe and fruity.
Domaine des Hautes Ouches makes a delicious Rosé d’Anjou from Grolleau Noir and Grolleau Gris. The high acidity is balanced by some residual sugar creating not a sweet rosé, but a rich wine full of rich dried fruits and fragrant floral notes.
Domaine Bastide Blanche in Bandol makes an almost savoury rosé from old vine Mourvèdre and Cinsault. Less fruity than the other two, it has a firm and powerful structure in youth which will open out with age.