“Rosé does not merit serious tasting”

…Such were the recent words of a fellow wine writer, one very knowledgeable about wine, and one whose opinion I respect immensely on general wine-related matters.   He did not offer any caveats; his was a broad proclamation that rosé, as a category, is not serious, nor worthy of my attention.

Long referred to as a wine for “unthinking drinking,” a quick Google search will reveal that people are not only thinking about rosé, they are writing about it. Consider the following brief review of Château d’Esclans’ Rock Angel rosé from Jamie Goode’s Wine Blog; excluding the red cherry reference, he could easily have been describing a white wine:

13.5% alcohol. Very pale in colour. Tight and a bit reductive with some bright grapefruit and lemon notes. There’s freshness and precision here with some savoury notes alongside the fruit. Nice stoniness here, and a hint of red cherry in the background. I like this quite a bit. 90/100

Second, terroir is a point of distinction among rosés – like reds and whites, it matters where the grapes are grown.  “Terroir is paramount in the production of the big rosé wines,” said Aurélien Pont, a Provence wine consultant whom I know from his time at Château Pigoudet.  The soil, climate, and landscape – all aspects of terroir – crucially “contribute to the complexity, the intensity, and the seriousness of the wines of Provence.”

Matthew Jukes, a leading UK wine expert and award-winning wine writer, also emphasized the significance of terroir. When introducing the top two rosés from Château d’Esclans at a recent luncheon, Jukes asked, “Does [the wine] have all the integrity and honesty of a postcode wine, a wine with a GPS, a wine that comes from a certain part of the world and tells the truth about that soil?”  Only when it does, he suggested, can the wine be contemplated as “totally top-end, ultra-fine.”

Patrick Léon, the world-renowned winemaker of Château d’Esclans fame (in addition to his unparalleled global pedigree in oenology), said understanding the terroir was one of his first tasks when Sacha Lichine, who had just purchased the château, challenged him to make “the best rosé in the world” back in 2006.  Léon painstakingly identified over 40 different parcels of the 52 hectares (130 acres) of vines and vinified each parcel independently in the corresponding number of separate barrels. Léon and Lichine originally intended to make two rosés, but the terroir and its interaction with the grapes was so distinctly different across the different parcels, they ended up with four rosés (the same four that comprise the d’Esclans portfolio today).  The top two rosés of the line-up, Garrus and Les Clans, are characterized by significant structure, richness, and complexity, and each is distinguished in part by its terroir.

For Patrick Léon, food and wine are so intertwined that he said he would never finalize the blending of the top-tier wines at Château d’Esclans until he has had them with food.
In April, I attended a vertical tasting of Château d’Esclans’ Les Clans and Garrus rosés at a luncheon at Le Bernardin, Manhattan’s prestigious French restaurant (three Michelin stars).  I’m going to go out on a vine here, but I don’t think Wine Director Aldo Sohm – recipient of the “Best Sommelier in America” award in 2007 – would allow any wine that isn’t serious, in his estimation, to accompany Chef Eric Ripert’s extraordinary seafood. Just guessing.

We were treated to Les Clans rosé (2015) with Seafood Truffle Pasta, a fabulous mélange of crab, scallop, lobster, atop tagliatelle and topped with a black truffle emulsion.  We enjoyed Garrus rosé (2015) paired with Poached Halibut surrounded by asparagus, spring peas, fava beans, and morels.  These pairings were not only exquisite – they were synergistic.

Sacha Lichine was the first to tell me, in a very early conversation, that rosé is, in fact, the hardest wine to make.  “It takes a lot more effort to make good rosé,” Lichine told me in an interview in Boston in early 2014. Because maceration is very brief or not used at all, Lichine explained it is difficult to get the character, longevity, and flavor while keeping the distinctive pale color of Provence rosés. “Quality is an accumulation of detail,” said Lichine.  Among many others, Jean-Marie Quef, the young director and œnologue of Domaine de l’Amaurigue, echoed the same sentiment in a recent interview:  “People can’t imagine how complex it is to produce the dry Provence rosés.”

Furthermore, the best vines – those generally reserved in other regions to make red wine – are devoted to rosé in Provence.  These vines are often quite old (e.g., over 90 years old at Château d’Esclans for their famed Garrus rosé) and very low yielding but with high flavor concentration.  It is worth reminding (at least some readers) that these are the same varietals (especially Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre) that would have gone to top quality reds in other appellations.

The UK’s Matthew Jukes knows those 90-year-old Grenache vines at Château d’Esclans well and he recently said that if the grapes from those vines were vinified as a red wine, it would be the biggest, darkest, heaviest, most powerful red wine one can imagine; only a highly dedicated rosé winemaker would use them for rosé.

by Susan Manfull