Dry pink wines have been a fad, a craze, a global trend and now they’ve settled into what everyone drinks in summer, and not just at the beach.
My favourites come from France’s Provence, where drinking pink has a 2,000-year history.
With silky textures, vivid aromas of strawberry and fragrant white flowers, and tangy chalky-spicy flavours, most are meant to be drunk young and cost less than US$20.
Yet after sampling 15 primo examples at a recent lunch at New York’s Michelin three-star Eleven Madison Park, I realise Provencal roses can be even more seductive and serious than I thought.
Their allure starts before you even take a sip.
Resting in ice buckets on the bar, clear glass bottles show off wine colours that range from shades of pale blush to light copper-pink to deep salmon to almost rosy.
Sadly, with wine, “serious” usually means expensive.
The complex roses I favour among the aperitifs are not cheap. Pale, mint-scented 2011 Domaine Saint Andre de Figuiere Confidentielle costs US$34. Its sleek bottle shape reminds me of pricey Krug champagne, which is the point.
The US$27 price tag for 2011 Chateau Miraval Pink Floyd pays for bling as well as the taste of wild strawberries; the wine comes from the 1,000-acre estate owned by Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie in Provence.
The most impressive wine of the day is the tantalising, delicate 2010 Caves d’Esclans Les Clans, with a price (US$70) to match owner Sacha Lichine’s ambitions.
After selling Bordeaux Chateau Prieure-Lichine, he put his money into a Provence estate, aiming to convince the world that pink wine can be just as great as Bordeaux or Burgundy.
Lichine hired Patrick Leon, the retired managing director of Chateau Mouton Rothschild, and now offers four roses, including two single-vineyard cuvees: big, structured Garrus (US$100) and Les Clans. The 2011 Les Clans, aged in new and older barrels, manages to balance both delicacy and richness.
Rose’s subtle, savoury nuances are surprisingly food friendly.
The zesty Chateau de Pampelonne from Saint Tropez (US$20) pairs much better than a white with rich Balik salmon and pale cucumber laced with salty trout roe and bagel crumbs.
Round, herb-and-mineral-flavoured 2011 Chateau Paradis (US$25), a grenache, syrah, and cabernet blend from organic vineyards, is a superior partner to a dish of rich halibut garnished with earthy chanterelle mushrooms than either a white or red.
I’ve found Provencal roses go well with Indian curries, sushi, spicy Szechuan, tacos, tomato salad, barbecue, and grilled tuna.
But they don’t go with sweet desserts. The fascinating, pale orange 2010 Clos Cibonne Cuvee Tradition (US$25), made from ancient grape tibouren, is terrific by itself — and a disaster with intense chocolate caramel tart and salted caramel ice cream.
Over lunch, Francois Millo, the director of the CIVP/Provence Wine Council, reveals some startling figures. Almost 90 percent of the region’s wines are pink. After eight years of growth, exports to the U.S. were up 62 percent in 2011 over 2010. In France, where wine consumption is dropping, rose outsells white wine — nine out of 10 drinkers buy pink.
“What makes Provence roses unique,” Millo says, pointing to the Mediterranean coastline on a map, “is the region’s terroir.” He ticks off the sun, influence of the sea, dry mistral wind, marked differences of day and night temperatures, and then shares his theory about rose’s appeal.
“It isn’t formal,” Millo says. “We’ve enclosed red wine in a series of rules. Rose has kept its freedom.”
The region still produces plenty of pink plonk, but new ideas, such as night harvesting to guard fruit, delicacy and acidity, have pushed quality of the best higher than ever.
While cheap, industrial roses mix red and white wine to get to pink, that is not permitted in Provence. Juice from red grapes like cinsault, grenache, syrah, mourvedre, cabernet sauvignon and the rare tibouren macerate briefly with the skins to pick up colour and tannin.
Rose’s growing fan base has spread to Russia and Brazil, but not yet to China.
Lichine, who moved to Asia in 2010, is trying to change that. During last year’s Hong Kong International Wine & Spirits Fair, he was schmoozing a Chinese distributor when I stopped by the Caves d’Esclans booth.
“Rose is not popular yet, but has great potential,” said Jacky Zhao, general manager of Beijing’s Zhong-Hai Sheng Yang Trade Co Ltd.
In May, Lichine launched his inexpensive Whispering Angel cuvee (US$20) at Beijing’s Maison Boulud restaurant. Pink-clad women tickled attendees with giant pink feathers as a singer crooned “Dream a little dream of me.”
Meanwhile, I’m dreaming of a terrace by the blue Mediterranean and another rose to transport me there.
One of my favourites, Domaine Tempier, wasn’t at the lunch. Luckily, Michael Madrigale, head sommelier at New York’s Bar Boulud, will be pouring glasses of the 2011 from a magnum on Tuesday night. How can I resist?