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Rosé Champagne Debate

Wine editor Lettie Teague knew she could make her husband love rosé Champagne. But she didn't know it would take sausage and smoked salmon to do it.

My husband and I have different ideas about many things (the relative importance of televised sports, how much bread should be eaten in restaurants), but one difference has proven a particular hardship: our opposite views on rosé Champagne. Although it's one of the wines I love most, it's my husband's least favorite kind. "Who wants to drink an orange wine?" is his standard line.

In fact, it was the color—anywhere from a soft peach to a pinkish gold to a pale tangerine—that first made me fall in love with rosé Champagne. Created by blending red wine with white (Champagne is the only place in France where this is legal—though perhaps not the only place where it's done) or, less commonly, bleeding the skins of red grapes, rosés have not only more color than regular Champagne but more body as well. This, in my opinion, makes them great wines with food. A good rosé can stand up to some pretty rich dishes—smoked duck, lobster or even hot sausage. In fact, I'd drink a rosé Champagne with just about any food that demands a light, juicy red or a full-bodied white.

Not that I get to drink much rosé Champagne with my meals—at home or in restaurants—if I'm eating with my husband. He doesn't like to drink Champagne at dinner. "Why would I spend $200 on an orange wine?" he'll say. Though this is an exaggeration (only deluxe cuvées like Dom Pérignon or Cristal carry such price tags), it's true that a nonvintage rosé generally costs $10 to $15 more than its non-rosé counterpart.

But because hope springs eternal, in both wine and marriage, I was convinced that if I could just get my husband to taste a few really great wines, he would change his mind. And so I began amassing bottles. I ended up with so many that I invited our friend The Collector to join in the tasting. The Collector is a big rosé fan—or so I thought—since it had been at his house that I'd had one of the best rosé Champagnes of my life, the 1978 Dom Pérignon. "Will there be old wines?" asked The Collector, when I called to issue the invitation. I admitted we'd be tasting only recent releases. "Then I'll bring something older," he said. Perhaps, I hoped, another bottle of that remarkable Dom Pérignon?

While The Collector is partial to old rosé Champagnes, to me, rosé Champagne is generally best in its youth, when the fruit is most vivid, the color still vibrant. Of course, there are plenty of people who think like The Collector—and most of them happen to live across the Atlantic. No one loves old Champagne like the British. I don't know why, though I also don't know why they give their children names like Cedric or Nigel.

I gathered 26 wines altogether, including some of the greatest names in rosé Champagne. But my husband and The Collector seemed to be more interested in what we'd eat afterwards. "Will there be gravlax?" The Collector asked. There would not. I had an array of dishes I thought would show off rosé's range: lobster puffs, smoked salmon, sausage and quiche. No gravlax. The Collector sighed, "Rosé Champagne and gravlax go together so well." (The Collector's passion for gravlax was promiscuous; I'd seen him pair it with anything from a Sancerre to a Puligny-Montrachet.)

We opened 10 nonvintage cuvées to start. My husband gave the first wine a withering glance. "It looks like a tropical peach drink," he said. "Can you comment on something besides its appearance?" I requested. I'd thought it pleasant enough. "It tastes like a tropical peach drink," he replied. The Collector stayed silent.

The third wine, Bruno Paillard Première Cuvée, provoked more commentary. My husband, who insisted on calling it "Pale Ard" on account of its complexion, admitted it was a wine of some charm. I found it light but refreshing, a lovely, delicate drink, made by one of the undisputed masters of rosé Champagne. The Collector agreed with me, adding, "It's got some tropical flavor."

The next few nonvintage wines were entirely different—with so much flavor and color they were almost like red wines. Of the Vilmart Cuvée Rubis, made by the brilliant René Champs, who ages his wines in barrique, my husband said, "This wine has such distinction; I wouldn't have guessed it was a rosé Champagne." The Collector, meanwhile, seemed distracted by the absence of food. "Rosés taste best with food," he grumbled.

Fortunately (for our friendship as much as for our tasting), The Collector perked up at the next wine: Billecart-Salmon Brut. "This is one of my favorite rosés," he declared. It was one of my favorites too. Billecart is a bit of a rosé specialist; fully one fifth of their production is rosé—a much higher proportion than that of most Champagne houses. Even my husband admired the wine's elegance and purity, while I was struck once more by its beguiling nose and its incredible finesse.

The vintage rosés that followed were a mixed bag. Out of eight vintage wines, three 1996s—the Veuve Clicquot Réserve, the Charles Heidsieck Brut and the Deutz—were admired, though my husband again insisted he liked the Deutz most of all because it didn't taste like a rosé. The Collector (either cranky from hunger or finally loyal to the cause) snapped at him, "How can you say that? It's a good rosé. It has good rosé style. You're intellectually flawed. You have a closed mind." As much as I wanted to bask in the moment, there were still more wines to taste. And clearly The Collector was losing it. Not that I blamed him; Champagne is one of the hardest wines to taste, thanks to its carbonation and high acidity.

Finally came the tête de cuvée, or top-of-the-line, Champagnes. Not only were they made from the best grapes harvested in the top years (some were blends, some were from specific vintages), they were also, thanks to special glass, labels and decorative elements, among the best-looking bottles in France. The men were particularly taken with two of the bottles. The Collector repeatedly admired the dimpled surface of the Nicholas Feuillatte Palmes D'Or, while my husband was enamored of the pink flowers painted on Perrier-Jouët's 1997 Fleur de Champagne. But of the wine inside he said, "It's like a woman who looks beautiful, but when you take her clothes off, you wish you hadn't."

This seemed like a good time to move on to a new wine. Fortunately, the cellophane-wrapped 1995 Louis Roederer Cristal Brut could even end a man's conversation about naked women. Favored by rock stars and certain underworld figures (was it the cellophane?), Cristal isn't a wine I get to taste very often. Even The Collector, a man with cases of Dom Pérignon and Krug in his cellar, said he didn't buy Cristal because it was "too expensive."

While the Cristal lacked color (if a good rosé is peach colored, this was more like peach fuzz), in the mouth it was big and rich, with a gorgeously long, honeyed finish. In fact, it nearly trumped the 1990 Dom Pérignon that followed: a wine whose non-rosé counterpart is considered the greatest of a very great vintage. In the case of the Dom Pérignon, I had to admit The Collector was right. The wine was so concentrated and powerful it was still simply too young to drink now.

The last wine, Krug Rosé, came from The Collector. It was, he declared, almost two decades old. But compared to the rest of the Champagnes that we'd tasted, the mighty Krug seemed tired, though maybe no more so than The Collector himself, who now said very little beyond an occasional, faint "Can we eat now?"

I quickly brought out the lobster puffs, smoked salmon, quiche and four types of sausage, along with our seven favorite wines. As we tasted them with each food in turn, a remarkable change came over my husband. Suddenly he was in a rosé-induced frenzy. "I love this wine!" he shouted, pointing to the Nicholas Feuillatte, his mouth full of sausage. The rich, Pinot-like Vilmart he pronounced "perfect" with quiche, while he commended the light, delicate Bruno Paillard as a worthy companion to salmon. He even waxed rhapsodic about the color of the vintage Veuve Clicquot: "Like burnished sunlight glinting off the navel of an orange." I was right, he admitted: Rosé Champagne is a great wine with food.

As for The Collector, had he learned anything, I asked?

"Never to drink 26 rosé Champagnes again."

Published December 2002
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