If you’re looking for the road less travelled when it comes to rosés this summer, can I suggest the one with a Burgundian soul?
Anson: Rosé de Riceys
A borrowed description, I have to be honest, but it’s a good one. This is a rosé fashioned in the furthest corners of the Champagne’s Côte des Bar region, as it heads towards the early stirrings of the Côte d’Or.
Made up of three almost-touching communes, and replete with just the perfect amount of shady squares and half-timbered houses, Les Riceys has more hectares under vine than any other Champagne village, and is the only wine-growing area in France to be able to claim three appellations d’origine – AOC Champagne, AOC Côteaux Champenois red wine and AOC Rosé de Riceys.
The first time I tasted a rosé from here was 18 years ago, on a weekend in Champagne with friends from London. We had driven over for the night, and before heading into Reims to visit the grand houses, we ended up at a party in Les Riceys, where some of the steepest slopes in Champagne grow mainly red grapes (a little over 92% Pinot Noir). I can still remember the first taste of this dried herbs and hazelnut-tinged, slightly oxidized rosé that reminded me of a fino sherry (I have since read a description of a decades-old version being like a tawny port).
This is a rosé that you approach slowly, piecing together its history and its taste like a jigsaw. It’s little known even in France itself, thought to date back to 8th century, with a highpoint under Louis XIV who was apparently not only a fan of the wine but used the local stone to build Versailles – the story goes that the stone came first, before the stonemasons introduced him to the wine.
More recently, it has become what is sweetly termed in French as ‘confidential’, meaning severely under the radar, although it has been an AOC since 1947. Less than 20 producers make it, with the best known being perhaps Jacques Defrance, Alexandre Bonnet and Morel Père et Fils, and all seem to make less than 10,000 bottles. Even these producers don’t make it every year, only when the Pinot Noir grapes reach sufficient ripeness, so when Olivier Horiot’s bottle arrived at my house last week, I made sure to ask French friends over to join in the unveiling.
April and May are traditionally the months when the year’s new crop of pink wines start fully hitting the shelves. Over the past few weeks I have had the great pleasure of tasting the 2016 vintage of Châteaux Miraval, d’Esclans, Fondrèche, a number from the Côtes de Bordeaux and even a 2017 from Uruguay.
But this is something different. There was plenty of questioning the label when it arrived at the table. Not the 2016, but the 2012 vintage. Four years old for a rosé is usually about the time to turn off the defibrillator, but this particular bottle had just been released. The back label gives you the reason – aged for one year in neutral oak, then bottled in 2013 and held back at the estate until now.
‘The fascination for me living in this area has always been that we take the Pinot grape and express its potential is so many different ways,’ Horiot says.
‘With Rosé de Riceys we are continuing an artisan tradition that could easily have died out, because turning the grapes into Champagne is financially enticing, and easier to find a market once in bottle’.
Taking over from his father in 1999, Horiot works biodynamically, sourcing the grapes for the Rosé from two Pinot Noir plots that he vinifies separately, starting them off with a small amount of foot treading before adding the rest of the bunches that he leaves these whole, following the carbonic maceration process more typically found with Gamay in the southern reaches of Burgundy (most producers follow the saignée method of crushing the grapes and then running the juice off the skins after a short maceration).
The wine is then aged in oak barrels – using chips or staves is forbidden in the production charter. The same charter allows the resulting rosé to be sold from the July following harvest, but Horiot’s choice to hold it back for three years is followed by most other producers, notably Pascal Morel, who was part of the renaissance – perhaps better to say the lifeline – of the style in the 1960s and 1970s and is today president of the quality control board (ODG) for the AOC.
As you would expect, the result is deeper in colour and flavour than most rosés, and still clearly Pinot, with an elegant, grilled yet soft and savoury edge. You get more than a hint of a red wine – the soul, as I was told by the locals – but the body is soft, supple, delicate.
It is a rosé that is defiantly different, pleasurably unfashionable in a world of barely-there salmon pinks.
Wine to Try
Olivier Horiot zen Valingrain Rose des Riceys 2012
Still displaying that slight fino sherry character on the nose that I remember from all those years ago, this is a gourmet rosé, with grilled redcurrants on the attack that open up to show off surprisingly fleshy raspberry and dark cherry flavours with undercurrents of spice. Take your time with a glass of this, and don’t be put off by the rather sombre orange-red colour, truly something to savour. Bottled unfiltered and unfined with minimum sulphur. 12%abv.