In Defense of Dark Rosé
Despite being almost entirely a white wine island, Santorini isn’t such a bad place to drink rosé, especially when the sun is beating down and a plate of grilled octopus has just arrived at the table. That's where I was when winemaker Yiannis Paraskevopoulos from Gaia Wines gave me two rosés to try from his winery on the mainland, and asked me which I preferred: a pale pink one called 4-6h and a deeper red one 14-18h. They are named not after the best time in the day to drink them but how long the juice is in contact with the skins before fermentation. He was delighted when I pointed to the darker: “It’s the traditional Greek style, it really tastes of agiorgitiko [the grape].” But Yiannis isn’t a happy man: “Sales of dark rosé are plunging, salesman keeping asking me for lighter wines.” It’s a similar story at Biblia Chora near Thessaloniki. Annegret Stamos, their oenologist, told me that Greeks traditionally drank darker rosé all year round because it was so good with strongly flavored dishes, but now their lighter one is selling better.
All over the world, rosés are getting lighter. Steve Daniel, who has been importing Greek wine to England for 20 years, puts it bluntly: “It’s rosé fascism, judging wine by the color.” Elizabeth Gabay, an English master of wine based near Nice who wrote the book on rosé, confirms, “There is definitely a trend for lighter rosé. Five or six years only a third of rosé was pale, now it’s well over half.”
Countries such as Spain with proud darker rosé traditions are now making paler wines. Marques de Caceres Rioja Rosado, once strawberry red, is now a pale pink. A spokesman for the bodega confirmed that “Marques de Caceres Rosado has moved to a lighter style in recent years.” They’ve also changed from a Burgundy to a Bordeaux bottle, which, according to Elizabeth Gabay, makes the wine appear lighter still.
The wine has gotten lighter, but it hasn’t gone the full Provence like another Rioja bodega, Ramón Bilbao, has done with their flagship Lalomba rosé. Gabay told me the formula for making this style: pale skin red grapes, such as Cinsault and Grenache, picked underripe so that the skins have even less color. White grapes can be used to lighten the color further. They are then pressed very gently, like making a Blanc de Noirs Champagne, and the juice is fermented using a special yeast that gives that characteristic strawberry taste.
According to Gabay, producers love the Provence style because “the yields are double what they would be for red wine.” That’s not to say they are necessarily bad wines—the best, like Whispering Angel or Ramon Bilbao Lalomba, have a ripeness and creaminess that makes them quite irresistible—but the worst are, according to Gabay, “pink water with alcohol.” Anthony Lynch, son of Kermit Lynch, who has been importing wine from France since the 1970s, agrees: “It feels like a competition to see who can make the lightest rosés. Now many of them almost look like water.”
This move towards lightness might be a reaction to sweet wines such as Zinfandel blush or Mateus rosé. Gabay points out that “people think that a darker color means sweet.” Lynch, meanwhile, told me “some consumers are under the impression that less color is a marker of quality.” Whyever people are doing it, the pale color is now associated with sophistication.
“What other wine do you not like because of color? I get very angry about it,” Gabay says. And I have to admit that I too have dismissed wines for being too dark. Gabay thinks the answer is to use black glasses at tastings so people don’t judge by the color.
Indeed, some rosé producers who can’t or won’t make the jump are struggling. According to Lynch, “Tavel, once the king of rosés, is having an identity crisis because its wines have lost their popularity and sell poorly. AOC rules (French parameters according to the appellation d'origine contrôlée) regulate color in Tavel in France, so producers wishing to go paler than permitted must exit the AOC.” The Rioja authorities, however, changed the rules to allow paler wines. And who can blame them? At my local wine merchant, Provencal-style rosé, especially the expensive stuff, flies off the shelves, whereas the darker Spanish, Italian and Australian wines, sit gathering dust.
But there is still a market for these darker wines. Gabay told me about how certain producers in Bordeaux who make Clairet—a traditional style between rosé and red wine—are thriving. Darker rosés are a niche market, but some people love them. Pale might rule in America and Britain, but in South America, they prefer a darker wine.
Ultimately, the Provençal boom is led by fashion, and fashions change. Those ostentatious magnums of rosé have moved down from the St. Tropez set to the suburbs; they are beginning to look, well, a bit vulgar. At tastings amongst wine professionals recently, Gabay has noticed a marked preference for darker styles. And Lynch told me that darker wines “are perfect with richer dishes, where a light- or medium-bodied red would usually go.”
Still, don’t let the pendulum swing too far the other way and start dismissing pale rosé. As with most things in life, don't judge wine by the color.
Four darker rosés to try:
A rosé from Ribera del Duero with some guts, there’s tannin, and spicy, nutty, oaky notes here. It’s a blend of red and white grapes fermented together. Try it with some suitably gutsy food and you’ll love it.
Chateau Simone Rosé 2014 ($64)
Now, this might be the King of Rosés with a price tag to match. Made near Marseilles, it’s full-bodied and rich, with floral notes and something a bit like Turkish delight. It also ages beautifully.
This is a wine with so much flavor for the price, that it makes most rosés look a bit daft. Firm and meaty on the palate, warming but not overly alcoholic, this would be a superb wine with barbecue.
The red color here is a little lurid, but it’s wonderful where it counts; in the mouth, it’s spicy, herbal and full of varietal character.