Summer is prime time to drink dry rosé, and top producers in France are celebrating. Sure, they’re happy that U.S. sales of imported rosé are up 42 percent over last year. But even better, in June they won a major battle against proposed European Union wine regulation reforms that would have allowed rosé to be made by mixing red and white wine together.
Does this victory for tradition really matter? After all, some complex and expensive rosé champagnes are blends of red and white. I set out to investigate.
Traditionally, rosé is made totally from red grapes. And within the EU, it still is, at least for now. Wine takes its color from grape skins, so after the red grapes are pressed, the juice is kept in brief contact with the skins until it picks up the correct shade of pink.
The back story of the conflict goes like this: At the end of January, the European Commission proposed allowing the blending practice as part of extensive wine reforms intended to take effect Aug. 1. The aim? Supposedly to let European producers make cheaper pink plonk that could compete with those from Australia and other countries in emerging markets such as China and the U.S. Even France’s representatives on the commission voted to approve it, though the country makes nearly 30 percent of Europe’s pink wine.
When winemakers in Provence protested in March that it would harm the image of their rosés, they were told the decision couldn’t be changed. A fight ensued with more than 30,000 people signing an opposition petition, a huge protest banner going up on a regional government building in Marseille, and producers insisting that French agriculture minister Michel Barnier do something. He took up their cause during his campaign for a seat in the European Parliament. Winemakers in Italy, Greece and Germany joined in. Americans sent e-mails of support.
According to James de Roany, board member of CIVP, the official Provence wine organization, those in favor of the change included big negociants and large producers of white wine seeking a way to get rid of surplus grapes.
The specter of pink chardonnay
“You need only three to four percent of red wine in white to make a pink wine,” de Roany told me via phone. “But it still has the taste of white. It’s white wine with makeup.” He brought up the specter of pink chardonnay.
After various delays thanks to the World Trade Organization, the final vote was scheduled for June 19. Suddenly, at 3 p.m. on Monday, June 8, EU commissioner of agriculture Mariann Fischer-Boel announced that the rosé part of the wine reform bill would be dropped. The announcement came the day after the European Parliament elections, in which Barnier won his bid to become a member. So much for wine and politics.
Since rosé champagne blends of pinot noir and chardonnay taste just fine, I asked a couple of adventurous rosé producers why blends couldn’t make good pink wine without bubbles.
Charles Bieler, who helped create the inexpensive Bandit wines sold in one-liter tetrapaks, is hardly wedded to tradition. And he makes a delicious Bieler Père et Fils Côteaux d’Aix en Provence rosé named Sabine. The savory 2008 is a bargain at $11.99. “In my experience, red wine additions bring noticeable bitterness and tannin above a 1 percent addition,” he explained in an e-mail.
For a New World reaction, I called Jeff Morgan, whose SoloRosa winery in Sonoma, Calif., makes nothing but rosé and who has written a book about it. I’m a fan of both his Russian River Valley and Pinot Noir rosé bottlings ($18 each).
Always a contrarian, Morgan didn’t see why you couldn’t make a good pink wine by mixing the two, though he doesn’t use that method. “Good wine/bad wine, a lot depends on the skill of the winemaker. If you added a touch of grenache or pinot noir to a bright, fresh, dry chenin blanc, it might be good. This is all about money, and an oversupply of grapes and has nothing to with wine quality,” he said.
It’s not so easy to find out which wines are blended. But I’ve been tasting rosés all summer, and all my top-scoring wines were made in traditional fashion. Many are 2008s from Provence that cost less than $14, such as lively, full, fresh Château du Rouët Cuvée Réservée Traditionnelle, crisp, refreshing Château Routas Rouvière, elegant Château Saint André de Figuière Confidentielle and zingy, fragrant Château Miraval Pink Floyd (the estate just purchased by Brad and Angelina). Best of all: subtle, elegant, savory 2007 Château d’Esclans Côte de Provence for $39, which is better than his two more expensive cuvées.
All of which explains why I find Peju Winery’s Napa-Mendocino blend of red and white grapes named “Provence” so misleading. OK, it doesn’t put the word “rosé” on the label and the wine isn’t bad, but clearly the goal is to trade on the appeal of Provence’s dry pink wines, all of which are made traditionally from red grapes.
Still, the issue is not completely settled in France. “It could come up again,” de Roany said. “Some people are trying to get it authorized for wines labeled vin de table.”
I hope they don’t succeed.
Château Routas in Provence.
Photo credit: Courtesy of Château Routas