What's behind America's once-a-year obsession with rosé Champagne?
At Rebelle in New York City, head sommelier Kimberly Prokoshyn is stocking more rosé Champagne and sparkling wine in anticipation of the Valentine's Day rush. "People seem to be into the 'pink' drink for the holiday," she says. Twenty blocks uptown, Maialino wine director Jenni Guizio admits she's had to "dangle the carrot of rosé Champagne on Valentine's Day" in the past, hoping people would drink Champagne at all. "I haven't finalized the wine pairings for this year, but I can assure you it will not be all pink and red!" she says.
Prokoshyn and Guizio aren't the only ones who have noticed an increased thirst for pink bubbly this time of year. The Champagne Bureau—the U.S. arm of the wine trade organization known in France as Le Comité Champagne—reports exceptional growth in sales for the rosé category over the last decade. In 2015, American consumers enjoyed over 2.9 million bottles of rosé Champagne, with a spike in interest around the Valentine's Day season. Whether it's certain brands nailing their marketing formula or the subliminal leftovers of lifetimes-worth of color association with the holiday, that seed is firmly planted in the American drinker's psyche. And there's nothing wrong with that.
Most people couldn't tell a rosé Champagne from a white one if they were wearing a blindfold.
"No harm, no foul if it means getting people to drink a style of wine that they'd normally reject in favor of, say, bottles of massive red," says Amanda Smeltz of Bar Boulud and Boulud Sud. But it begs the question: is there a misconception out there of what rosé Champagne actually is in relation to its non-rosé counterparts? Brie Roland—who's authored a wine list that goes long on Champagne at St. Genevieve in Minneapolis—thinks so. "There is a perception that there's something special about it due to its color," she says. "It's personified as flirty, fun and romantic and also maybe even a little more accessible, despite the fact that many rosé Champagnes carry a higher price tag."
So, let's review the basics. To make Champagne or sparkling wine pink, there are two methods. The first is called saignée (the French term for "bled"). In this scenario, the base wine soaks up pigment from the grape skins in the tank just after harvest and is then drained (or bled) off those skins before turning into a fully red wine. The second and more common method is blending, in which a little red wine is added to the white base wine before the prise de mousse (the in-bottle fermentation that gives Champagne its sparkle). The more red is added, the darker the resulting rosé will be. Note, however, that blending is common for white, or blanc, cuvées as well. Most non-vintage Champagnes are blends of wines from different years, different vineyard parcels, and different grape varieties. Some of those wines are even whites made from red grapes, like Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.
Rosé Champagnes produced by either method can be delicious, minerally, mouthwatering, and festive-looking when poured into a glass, but they aren't more luxurious or more romantic than non-rosé. Nor are they necessarily sweeter or in any way more "feminine" than blanc de blancs or blanc de noirs. Master of Wine Jancis Robinson once surmised that most people couldn't tell a rosé Champagne from a white one if they were wearing a blindfold.
More crucial to a Champagne's flavor profile than its color are qualities like ripeness, oak-aging and dosage. "I think we (as wine professionals) did a good job promoting rosé as an 'all day, everyday' wine instead of something that was only appropriate in summer," notes Roland. "But we also promote Champagne as a wine with complexity, character and nuance and not just bubbles. I'm interested to see how my guests' curiosity and relationship with Champagne in all forms will influence this year's Valentine's Day wine choices."