The Culture of Pink Wines

A recent online comment from the UK trade magazine, The Drinks Business, attracted my attention. The article explored the idea of ageing pink wines, and noted the cultural resistance that exists to the idea.  Generally, rosé wines are quite popular with all segments of wine consumers.  Even a French connoisseur is happy to have a chilled bottle of Provence pink with a summer lunch.  Only in America do many of the more highly involved (in this case ‘stuffy’) drinkers dismiss pink wines – but then their experience is shaped by the ubiquitous, cheaper, white zinfandel made in a diffuse style with the sugar hiding the lack of flavour.

So, rosés are generally accepted – yet no one ages them.  When I was a wine student the accepted wisdom, rarely voiced as it was so self-evidently correct, was that the wines can’t age well.  Yet we age some white wines (and good rieslings or chenin blancs can age longer than many red wines).  So why not rosés as well?  They can have acidity, even a bit of tannin for protection against oxygen, and often complex flavours.  There seems to be a generalised cultural resistance to the idea.

On the other hand, there was a sense in the press article that the push to promote aged pink wines was just self-serving.  Keith Isaac MW, from Castlenau Wine Agencies was quoted:

People are only offering aged rosés as they have stock that is getting older due to the pandemic, and they wish it wasn’t.

Certainly, older rosés change colour – and they may be less fresh and vibrant.  The cultural association of pink wines with summer and (especially in France) the holidays, may lead to a need to have a light wine which can be chilled and seems so youthful; we all become younger and less serious on our holidays.  Nevertheless, should we give in to this over-simple cultural assumption?  It took me back to an article I wrote a long time ago for the Australian Gourmet Traveller Wine Magazine on pink wines, some of which I’d like to reprint here.  I described it as a frivolous style…

…so it can’t be high quality and it can’t age, can it?  A simple wine, designed for drinking young, without much thought.  That’s what I used to think too – until a visit to Champagne in 1998.  Whilst we were there, we were taken down to les Riceys – a small town with ancient houses above winding streets, and a tiny Appellation Contrôlée for the production of still, pink wine, made from pinot noir.  We started with a tour of the cellars of Christophe Defrance’s 17th century house, and on the way he pointed out his prized bottles of the local 1990 rosé, maturing ready for the millennium celebrations.  I ventured a surprised, ‘but rosé doesn’t really age well, does it?’, and he shrugged and smiled.

Later, in the winery, we got a chance to try his wines.  The 1996 rosé was all you could hope it would be; dry, perfumed, crisp, though with a deceptively full body, sweet strawberry fruit, and long.  The 1990 proved my scepticism misplaced; attractive copper-pink, with quince aromas, fresh and classic pinot noir characters on the palate, a soft strawberry fruit and great length.  The 1982 was likewise still fresh, developed on the nose, a bit simple, but with intense red fruits.  Its perfume filled the whole room.  The 1976 was astonishing; a quince and cedar bouquet, still delicate with complex, smoky-sour quince, and again long.  As for the 1964, it seemed so youthful that I thought it was from the early 1980s.  It was a touch phenolic but, as Christophe remarked, they were more rustic then, and the wine still showed good balance.

These were fascinating wines.  If not great, they were very good and extremely enjoyable.  And they aged, and gained some complexity.  Christophe is committed to his work, but is one of just three producers of the wine remaining (the 1976 and 1982 wines were made by his father, the 1964 by his grandfather).  No doubt it will all have died out in forty years’ time under the great onslaught of chardonnay – but I’m glad I’ve had a chance to see it, and to have some of my assumptions about pink wines smashed.  Generalisations are a dangerous thing in the wine business.

Perhaps, also, we could challenge an even stronger cultural assumption: that these wines are only for summer – and not for winter.  Why not sit around the fire with a cool but complex pink Rioja, or Tavel?  Certainly these styles could make a great partner for Turkey.

And to finish, a brief plug for the real expert on pink wines, Liz Gabay MW who has written the classic and encyclopedic study of the style.  Everything you could want to know about them is contained in Rosé: Understanding the Pink Wine Revolution (published by Infinite Ideas).  And if you turn to p. 45 you’ll see that she too has experienced good, older Rosé des Riceys.