Rosé – vin de merde?

(by peter)


It’s a funny old thing.

Some people love it. Some loathe it. Among the latter are reactionaries, troglodytes and people who live to be opinionated and controversial – we all know the type – all of whom love to hate it. After all, rosé is an easy target, with its outlandish hue and fame as a wine of neophytes, quiche-eaters and housewives.

In the middle, it seems, are the vast majority of us who find it a very pleasant and versatile form of wine, obligingly available in myriad different styles, and to which we are neither fiercely devoted nor violently opposed.

Rosé has been one of the few success stories in what has been a relatively flat UK wine market of late. The evidence suggests that a significant part of this growth has been driven by off-dry blush styles (eg White Zinfandel) and there’s nothing wrong with that. The better examples of these wines are pleasantly fruity wines that are cleverly crafted and intelligently targeted. What’s more, their sugary succulence makes them versatile food partners, especially with spicy dishes (witness the three stars for Blossom Hill White Zinfandel in our What Food What Wine competition – paired with chicken tikka massala).

Our colleague Andrew Jefford offered the pink debate up for public scrutiny recently on his Decanter blog.

He gamely argued that rosé can constitute fine wine and that – to paraphrase glibly – rosé’s beauty and allure lies in its very drinkability, subtlety and even lack of complexity. But on putting this thesis to the vote, he was narrowly defeated and graciously admitted defeat.

I’m afraid I tend to agree with the naysayers. Jefford’s argument, as characteristically insightful and provocative as it is, doesn’t stand scrutiny. The more simple and subtle a wine the more prized it should be? The logic sounds perilously close to that of the emperor’s new clothes.

Rosé, in my view, is never as fine, complex or elegant as the finest reds and whites. This may be a case of chicken and egg – if Château Lafite devoted its entire grand vin production to rosé in the 2011 vintage, I’d be happy to revise my view if the wine proved great enough. But Lafite’s business, along with many other fine wine producers (with great terroirs) isn’t in pink, so to speak, so for the moment it’s reasonable to reserve judgement.

As Susie – a noted fizz fan – always interjects pointedly, the one possible exception to this rule is the best pink fizz, most notably champagne. But even then I’d struggle to include a rosé on my desert island wine list. (If you could or would, please feel free to provide details in a comment, as below.)

Moreover, perhaps the question of whether rosé is, or could ever be considered ‘fine’ wine is to miss the point. Despite my firm conviction that rosé isn’t fine wine, I would still argue that it is a wonderful, delicious, joyful and versatile wine style that has just as much right to be in our glass and on our dining tables as any other.

Anyone who watches Saturday Kitchen knows that I’m a big fan of the pink stuff. Both Susie and I find that it’s often the best (in some rare cases, the least bad) option with those ‘fusion’ dishes which contain contrasting, complex and spicy flavours.

The fact that host James Martin and many of the chefs don’t share our love of rosé, I confess, doesn’t give us too many sleepless nights. This is not arrogance – whenever sound reasoning is given for an objection to a wine match, we welcome it because it helps to give viewers an informed balance of opinion.

Sadly, however, this is rarely the case. Chefs often seem, inexcusably in my view, to lack the will or confidence to engage with wine flavours as they do food flavours. James Martin’s stock take on rosé (ie ‘it’s a wine for girls’) is as risible as it sounds, and tends to encourage blokey one-upmanship in the studio. Regardless, we continue to recommend the wines we believe are the best for the dish in question, whatever their colour or inevitable reception in studio.

Saturday Kitchen apart, however, Susie and I have been drinking and discussing the pink stuff more than usual lately – for two principal reasons.

The first is What Food What Wine.

Our new food-and-wine competition saw over 250 wines, served blind, tasted and rated with 10 classic British dishes. A great value rosé – Aldi’s Toro Loco Spanish rosé 2010 (£3.99) – won the trophy for Best Wine Under £10 with chicken tikka massala. At the other end of the price spectrum, Château Léoube rosé Côtes de Provence 2009 (£19.99) was one of my favourites (ultimately garnering 4 stars) as a beautifully understated match in the Mushroom Risotto category.

These wines, as well as many other rosés, further proved the point that pink wines can make excellent and very versatile food matches at all levels.

The second reason is the fact that we’ve been on holiday in the south-east of France, not too far from Provence, a region famous for its rosé production.

We’re big fans of drinking local whenever we can so we’ve been sampling the local pink wine extensively. Though they’re not Provençal rosés, two wines in particular are worthy of mention.

The first is Domaine des Hautes Collines de la Côte d’Azur, Cuvée du Pressoir Romain 2009, the most local wine we could find, from the vicinity of St Jeannet.

At €14.80, it’s hardly cheap (typically of this area) and frankly does little to justify its price tag. It sports a funky arty label, appeals to the tourists and talks a good game (it was aged for four months in glass demi-johns, then eight months in oak vats). But beyond this it is somewhat raw, spirity and lacking in fruit suppleness. It fares better with food, and does grow on you a bit, but ultimately fails to convince. An interesting oddity at best – an overpriced tourist trinket at worst.

Much better, paradoxically given the name, is Le Vin de Merde (Vin des Philosophes).

For a bottle that could equally have been another example of a tacky tourist trinket, this supple, succulent and refreshing pink proved a very pleasant surprise.

The label itself provides little other than light comedic value. (Example: ‘Because everything comes from dust and returns to dust, this elegant combination of wine varieties, matured in a noble compost, will return (with your goodwill) to its primary humus.’)

A quick inspection of the website, however, reveals that this is a blend of 60% Syrah and 40% Grenache from the highly regarded Aniane locality in the Terrasses du Larzac area of the Languedoc.

The project is run by Jean Marc Speziale. The basic concept is that, although many wine growers in the area have been working hard to improve quality in recent years, most people still view the local wine as ‘crap’. This project was conceived to support such growers with an innovative modern brand.

I picked it up off the shelf partly out of curiosity, partly because of the colour (a deepish rose-ruby, which boded well for flavour concentration amidst a sea of pale onion hues). And it turned out to be a thoroughly toothsome rosé, full of juicy red fruity and herb-tinged flavours, and a refreshing, elegant finish.

All in all, a delicious way to support the local economy. Even if it did prove problematic when my parents couldn’t quite remember the name when they went to buy some more, and were too embarrassed to ask for a ‘vin de merde’…

So there we have it. Rosé really can be a vin de merde… It can also be a delicious and delightful way to drink your wine.

Or even both at the same time.