The Colour of Rose

pride of provence rose wine more than bleeding and blending People & Places Articles
  • Monday 8 June 2009

All the recent talk about rosé has revolved around how it should be made. But there’s more to the wine than just bleeding or blending, says Margaret Rand.
Colour, for a start…

According to the posters, Provence is where rosé was born. A contentious claim, but the posters are a nice colour – brilliant coral sunset. The shade of the sunset is pretty much the colour of Provence rosé, which is presumably not a coincidence; because colour, of course, is what rosé is all about.

It’s odd that it should be so. Rosé is the only wine style sold above all on its colour: red wine, to wine lovers, is never just red wine, white wine is never just white. But because pink wine, to most consumers, is just pink wine, its producers all over the world are drawing lines in the sand, trying to associate themselves with particular shades. In South America it’s usually dark pink, sometimes light red; Navarra likewise. Provence has picked paler shades. If it was possible to copyright such things, you can bet the lawyers would be getting busy. We have to be made to realise that one shade of pink is better than another. They want us to be colour-conscious.

Colour in rosé is not entirely a matter of choice. Yes, some grapes have more colour than others, but terroir plays its part, too. At Provence’s Centre de Recherche et d’Expérimentation sur le Vin Rosé, identical microvinifications of Grenache from 14 different terroirs (four in Coteaux Varois and 10 in Côtes de Provence) produced a spectrum of very different colours, from very pale to fairly dark. And that’s before you introduce winemaking differences.

Provence rosé, left to itself and to its myriad individual producers, would be all over the place. But rosé now constitutes 85% of Provence wine and one of the tasks of the research centre has been to help define it. This has led to some muttering: accusations that it’s too focused on grapefruit flavours and pale colours. And indeed, the idea that rosé from anywhere should ideally taste of grapefruit is, on the face of it, curious. But let’s look at colour first.

The research centre has isolated 21 shades typical of Provence rosé; it even has a little demonstration box of the nine most typical (pictured overleaf), in the form of glasses of tinted gelatine. The names of the colours – peach, melon, lychee, pomelo, mango, raspberry, apricot, mandarin and currant – may be more fanciful than strictly accurate (the mandarins in my kitchen are much more orange than the research centre’s gelatine, and a peach can be almost any colour) but it’s pretty and, they emphasise, these colours are not mandatory.

What is more important is the insistence that rosé should be treated as rosé in the vineyard: that rosé should be an end in itself, not a by-product of red. In most of the world it’s the latter: ‘we bleed the red vats’, producers will tell you proudly. Yes: that means that their focus is red wine, and the vines have been cultivated and the harvest timed with red wine in mind. That’s fine: you can produce a perfectly nice wine that way. But (and leaving aside the current debate over whether to allow the blending of white and red wine to make rosé, see Primeurs, last month) if you’re growing your vines for rosé, your picking dates will be different; how you treat the grapes before fermentation may be different; where you grow which varieties may also be different. You will be aiming not at the dark hues and plum and mulberry flavours of a red wine, but the fresh, melon-cherry flavours of rosé.

Some Provence rosé is made by bleeding the red vats, certainly, but the method that is encouraged is direct pressing: you macerate the grapes for just long enough to get the colour and some red-fruits flavour, and then you press them.

Yes, red fruits. Surely that’s what you want in a rosé? Yet grapefruit flavours are encouraged. Some Provence rosés do taste of grapefruit, but they’re not, to my palate, the most attractive. Sure, you’ll never please everybody, but how did they hit on grapefruit? Because, says Nathalie Pouzalgues, research centre winemaker, it’s in the wines. The compound that gives grapefruit flavours is called 3MH, and Syrah has more than Carignan or Mourvèdre, Grenache has more again, Rolle even more, and Caladoc the most.

But it can’t just be the grape. Hermitage doesn’t taste of grapefruit. Some of it seems to come from the choice of yeast, and how you make the wine: protecting against oxygen encourages it, must-settling discourages it. If you didn’t want grapefruit you could probably avoid it, thinks Pouzalgues.

Most Provence rosés, though – even the palest – do not taste hugely of grapefruit. They’re crisp; think raspberries and cherries and you’ll be nearer the mark. But their texture is also important: they have a creaminess which sees them marry with food very well. To be both crisp and creamy makes them sound like a certain brand of doughnut; but I doubt that even Provence rosé could handle that sort of food.

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