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Jefford on Monday: The Whispering Wine

The vote went against me in the end - pink wine could not, in fact, ever be considered ‘fine’.

The vote went against me in the end. Which is to say that, despite my entreaties, and having duly considered the evidence which I placed before them, the 64 finely honed palates gathered to pass judgement on this key question decided by a narrow margin that pink wine could not, in fact, ever be considered ‘fine’. I dabbed my eyes, took a deep breath, and resolved to resume battle at the next opportunity.

These are palates I respect. Our group has been intermittently meeting for wine lunches since 2000. This one took place at Cigalon, a Provençal restaurant in London’s Chancery Lane. Britain being Britain, the midsummer rain was intermittently drumming on the glass roof, yet inside, the two potted olive trees (in flower) and the flavours of fig, thyme and artichoke adeptly orchestrated by Niçois chef Maxime le Van contrived to transport us briskly south.

Three leading Côtes de Provence rosés constituted our evidence: the 2010 Rimauresque as an aperitif, followed by the 2010 Château du Galoupet with a first course of grilled, marinated sea bass (plus a 2009 Grande Réserve white from Château Sainte Marguerite for comparison) and the 2009 Château d’Esclans with main-course lamb (and a 2005 red from Château la Mascaronne for comparison).

The Rimauresque must have been relatively early picked, but that crisp edge and lower alcohol level made it ideal as an aperitif. Galoupet is a fair regional benchmark, poised and teasingly fruited, while the Esclans cuvée from Sacha Lichine and his collaborators is more frankly ambitious, with its unusual Grenache-Vermentino blend, its low yields and fruit sorting, its nitrogen pressing and its tickle of demi-muid fermentation. Allusive, concentrated and texturally engaging, it seemed to me to be an eye-teasing alternative to fine white burgundy.

Why shouldn’t rosé be a fine wine? If you plant well-adapted varieties in a potentially distinguished site; if you make sure that the main focus of the vineyard is to produce great pink wine; and if you understand the singular aesthetic of rosé, then you are following a model set by the world’s outstanding red and white wine producers.

The problem, perhaps, is that aesthetic. Nuance is all in the pink-wine world. Rosé doesn’t sit swopping stories with its skins for two weeks like many red wines do; nor can it take the weight of oak or of lees exchange of some white wines. Make it with varieties or sites which endow it with lots of acidity (like Sancerre) and it struggles to achieve balance and aromatic expression. With residual sugar (too many — don’t ask), it quickly loses its poise and focus and slumps into mawkishness.

It is, in fact, an essay in middle-ground finesse. It’s the whispering wine; it’s painting with pastels; it’s the fugitive caress rather than the firm handshake or the committed embrace. We are used to great wines talking to us in a more emphatic way than rosé ever does.

When I discussed the practicalities with my fellow lunchers, they kept telling me that the rosés were “very nice, but …” Always that ‘but’; they were searching for more. More of what? That, perhaps, didn’t really matter; but more was needed.

There are, I think, other wines which struggle for recognition in the same kind of way: many Italian white wines, for example, or Bordeaux’s dry white wines by comparison with its sweet whites or its increasingly mighty reds. We might also put red burgundies from villages like Santenay, Savigny or much of Beaune itself in the same frame: does anyone ever expressly prefer them to Gevrey, Vosne or Volnay?

I’ve often written how important it seems to me to favour disposition over accumulation when it comes to the assessment of wine flavour; in theory, most agree. In practice, though, we seem to long for a measure of imperious domination – which is why rosé may be damned forever with faint praise.

Written by Andrew Jefford

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