When I started writing about wine lo these many years ago, it was something of a struggle to interest readers in pink—rosé—wine. At the time, the only examples most consumers had encountered were marketed as “white zinfandel”or “blush.” These were highly technical wines made on an industrial-scale. A bit of carbonation and sugar was often added and there might be an aromatic grape — like gewurztraminer or muscat — thrown into the mix.
By the mid-nineties these wines had taken on a distinctly declassé character—nobody with even a smidgen of pretension to sophistication wanted to be seen drinking them—and with good reason.
But, by taking rosé off the table completely, lots of good wine—indeed a whole category— was being ignored, it seemed to me. And if one travelled now and then, one knew that the quality rosé wines of Provence, for example, could be very good. Interest in the Mediterranean diet was just cranking up then—and it was a natural accompaniment to much of it.
Well, things have changed. Today pink wine is hot, and the time seems right to interrogate it. What’s out there? How do we organize them? What impact are they having? What do consumers need to know about them?
Let’s start with some history. The story of red wine that isn’t really red reaches back to the ancient world. We know from Roman agricultural treatises that landowners who needed a weak, low alcohol drink to pour for farmhands and slaves could create one as a byproduct of making ordinary red wine.
Here’s how it worked (and, to a certain extent, still does): A winemaker crushes red grapes and starts his fermentation. At a point early in this process (perhaps only a few hours), he draws off some of the fermenting juice. This has the effect of rebalancing the ratio of solids to liquid in the vat in the favor of solids. By this means, the remaining wine attains more concentration and density than it might otherwise have had. The juice that was drained off, having had only a short time to macerate, is typically pale in color with less concentration. The French later called this wine like beverage ‘piquette.’ Today, pink wine may be may still be a product of red winemaking the so-called saignée method), but the more commercial enterprises eliminate this step entirely, opting for a shortened 1-3 day maceration (“direct press”).
How hot is pink wine? Very hot indeed. I’ve read that the U.S. is importing more than 800,000 cases a year now—and that doesn’t account for what is made domestically. The New York Post reported recently that in the boroughs some have begun calling rosé “Hamptons Water” because so much of it goes down each summer at Long Island’s toniest addresses.
Today pink wine is hot, and the time seems right to interrogate it.
From a retailer’s point of view, pink’s newly-won popularity should be unmitigated good news, right? Not entirely. At Formaggio, we must now declare how much rosé from certain desirable estates we will commit to as early as February—a scant six months after the grapes are harvested. We have to put in our orders before the wine can be tasted, or we risk being shut out and face a long summer of having none of the most recognized labels on our shelves. The competition has gotten so keen that in order to get our hands on a few cases of the pink wine of one elite estate whose name I won’t mention, we are, shall we say, strongly encouraged to buy a few cases of their flagship red wine. Which is very good . . . but still.
These days, I think of pink wine as falling into two categories: recreational and gastronomic. The first is something best suited to sip on the deck or by the pool. Winemakers who make this sort of stuff see that it conforms to a certain profile—light, pale, dry, fruity, innocuous. It’s this kind of wine that’s carrying the trend right now.
The second category is more like the sort of red and white wine elsewhere on our shelves—the kind that can actually make a meal more appealing, not just wetter. And, like most of the other wines on our shelves, they tend to come from smaller producers working in a natural way.
And this brings us to the final point—the degree to which the current trend in pink wine is tending toward a bubble of the kind it has so recently escaped. In a bubble scenario, demand rises sharply. To meet it and to take advantage of the money to be made, more acres are devoted to the fad wine, and production volumes soar. Because quality wine is not something that readily scales without a concurrent diminution of quality, much of the new wine that enters the market isn’t very good. At some point, this begins to become noticed, and more sophisticated drinkers leave the market and eventually the bubble bursts.
Of course, this can all take years to play out, but some signs are already visible. For example, according to François Millo, president of the Provence Wine Council (CIVP) more than 85% of all Provencal production is now devoted to pink wine. Another bad omen is the number of rosés we encounter that don’t even taste like real wine but are replete with the flavors of bubble gum or gummy bear candy.
I’m hoping pink wine doesn’t suffer a second round of debasement and collapse similar to what we witnessed decades ago. And I still plan on pouring and enjoying authentic rosé at my summer and fall table.
In our on-air segment, I poured four wines for Chris to taste. The first wine I consider primarily recreational, and the remainder of the gastronomic variety. Here they are:
- 2015 Schloss Gobelsburg “Cistercien” Rosé (Austria)
- 2014 Clos Cibonne Tibouren Rosé (France)
- 2015 Bisson Ciliegiolo Golfo del Tigullio Rosé (Italy)
- Fatalone “Teres” IGT Puglia Rosado (Italy)
When it comes to distinguishing pink wine that’s merely surfing a trend wave from the authentic kind, bear in mind that the smaller the production and more natural the farming and winemaking the less likely you are to encounter fad wine. Be sure you’re doing business with a wine shop that appreciates the difference.
Stephen Meuse can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org