Rosé History: From Ancient Rome to Today’s French Trends

Looking at Philippe Plantevin’s darkly colored 2015 Cotes du Rhone Rosé – a wine that’s closer to light red than pink – got us thinking about rosé history. When did rosé start and how did it become a “thing”? Why do so many people prefer pale pink rosé to darker ones? And, as pink wine continues to grow faster than any other wine category, where does rosé go from here?

For that last question, check out this short video, “The French Do WHAT to Rosé?” about the hottest trend in France for making pink wine even cooler than it already is. But, for a bit more on rosé in general, read on!

 

Who Made The First Rosé? Probably the first person to make wine from dark-skinned grapes! Before modern growing and winemaking techniques developed, black grapes were seldom fully ripe at harvest, and so they were loaded with harsh, bitter, tannin. The longer the fermenting wine stayed in contact with the grapes’ skins and seeds, the more bitter the wine got.

Free Run Juice

“Free Run” juice comes out pink. Pressing the grapes produces darker color, among other things.

So, by ancient Greek times, wine was drained off the skins and seeds as soon as it started bubbling away. Because all of red wine’s color comes from the skins, ancient wine always started out as pink – at least before it started turning tawny/brown from contact with air (remember – no bottles and no sulfur dioxide to protect it).

 

Pink for the Rich, Dark for the Poor. Eventually, someone figured out that if you pressed the skins remaining after this “free run” juice was drained, you’d get more wine out of each harvest. This wine was darker (pressing pushed some pigment out) and much more harsh. Being all about efficiency (and making a buck), the Romans favored this darker wine – perhaps they thought tough wine made for tough soldiers?

The fad for dark wine fell with Rome, and through the centuries pale wine was viewed as the superior sort to be drunk by counts and kings while the darker press wine was for the common folk (with the harshness often masked by sweeteners and spices).

When the English began drinking wine in serious quantities in the 1600s, they favored the lightly red colored wines of Bordeaux over the darker, more tannic produce of Cahors and the Rhone valley. The ideal was vin d’une nuit or “wine of one night,” meaning the grapes spent less than 24 hours on their skins before the free run juice was drained to finish fermentation.   They called these pink/orange Bordeaux wines clairet – an old French term for a dark rosé. By the 18th century, claret was the British wine of choice.

Wait, Dark for the Rich, Pink for the Poor? As the 18th century went on, the English began to notice that while darker wines were more harsh and tannic at first, a long stay in a cool, dark castle cellar allowed them to soften and develop greater complexity. Since buying and holding wine for a decade or two was something only the wealthy could do, it quickly became a way for the rich to separate themselves from the growing merchant class who were now drinking claret by the bucketful.

Once the rich folks started drinking darker wine, the middle-class wanted it too. By the mid-19th century, “everyone” agreed that “dark wine was best,” much to the chagrin of Bordeaux and Burgundy growers, who had to start sneaking Northern Rhone Syrah into their cellars to make their naturally lighter wines dark enough for fashion.

When France’s 19th century economic boom and growing railroad network made wine affordable for all (before then most Frenchmen drank beer), acres and acres of grapes were planted across the under-developed fields of Provence and Languedoc-Roussillon to serve growing demand. The customer wanted cheap wine, though, and so growers planted high yielding grapes and let the vines groan under huge crop loads. Lots of bunches per vine means not much color per grape, so most low-end French wine ended up somewhere between dark pink and light red. Pink for the poor!

But, even the poor wanted dark red wine, so growers in the Rhone and Sud developed a trick. They’d crush their large-berried, over-cropped, fruit and let fermentation start. Then, they’d bleed off 10-30% of the juice. That left a higher ratio of color-containing skins to juice and let them make a darker and more commercially attractive wine.

What to do with the bled off, lightly pink juice? They simply fermented it dry and made it their everyday summer sipper. Not because it was good, but because it was cheap.

rose outsideRosé’s Big Comeback. Rosé’s big comeback is “driven” by the automobile. Specifically, by the development of highways from Paris to Provence and Languedoc after WWII and the subsequent flood of Parisians driving south in search of the sun.

When they got to the Riviera, French tourists were thirsty – but what to drink? Local wineries made almost no white wine – too warm for most white grapes – and the southern sun was too hot for drinking big, gutsy reds. But there was all that pink wine, and it was light, refreshing, and still cheap. Let the guzzling begin!

And, perhaps sipping that same pink wine at a Parisian café would remind you of those lovely warm days on the Riviera – or let you at least pretend you were there. Plus, more and more Parisians had refrigerators to keep the stuff nice and cool. So, what began as a trickle of pink wine in Paris and the rest of France soon became a steady flow that grew to a flood in the early 2000s. In 2008, for the first time ever, the French drank more rosé wine than white.

With growing demand came competition on quality across Provence and growth in rosé production in other regions of France and across all of Europe. Today you’ll find pink wine being made in every corner of the European wine world, and even top Bordeaux and Barolo estates are starting to get into the game in an effort to catch the pale pink wave.

sutter home

Remember these?

Coca Cola Wine in the USA. To tell the story of pink wine in the USA, we have to take a detour to 1940s Portugal. The story is a bit muddy, but essentially two Portuguese producers – Mateus and Lancers – realized at about the same time that once WWII ended, folks in the New World would be ready to drink wine. But, lacking a broad wine heritage, North and South Americans were unlikely to enjoy the dry, high acid wines common in Europe. The solution? Coca Cola was pretty popular everywhere, so…

Enter lightly fizzy, sweet, pink wine. Mateus targeted mainly Brazil and Latin America while Lancers focused intently on the USA from 1947 on. The wines’ blend of sweetness, fizz, and just a touch of citric bite were easy to understand in a nation weaned on Coca Cola. And clever packaging and national advertising very quickly made Lancers and Mateus the USA’s bestselling wines (not just rosé) period.

White Wine Boom Makes Pink Wine Soar. As the 1960s and 1970s went on, Americans’ palates expanded a bit and turned their attention to dry wines, increasingly from California, and the Lancers/Mateus phase began to wane. Then, in the early 1970s, Americans suddenly embraced white wine as their cocktail, poolside, and fern bar beverage of choice – and, bizarrely, that brought off-dry rosé back with a bang.

The problem was that California vineyards were planted mainly to red wine grapes – the choice of the Italian and Eastern European immigrants who started the Golden State’s wine business. As demand for red wine plummeted, growers struggled to sell all of their red wine grapes. Gradually, vineyard owners began to pull up their gnarly old Zinfandel vines – the staple of California’s popularly priced reds – replanting with Chardonnay.

Replanting was expensive and took time, though, and some growers asked themselves, “Isn’t there a way we can make white wine from our red grapes? After all, they make white Champagne from black grapes!” The owners of Sutter Home in Sonoma decided to give it a try with a Zinfandel vineyard. They called it “White Zinfandel,” but Zin’s ample pigment meant that even the barest crushing put some color in the wine. Plus, Zinfandel develops a lot of sugar during ripening, and turning that all into alcohol left the wine feeling big, bloated, and not yummy.

In 1974, a little accidental magic saved the day. A Sutter Home White Zinfandel fermentation “stuck” – the yeast died off before all the sugar was converted to alcohol. Winemaker Bob Trinchero tasted it and realized that the lower alcohol, somewhat sweeter, wine was actually more balanced than the dry version.   So, he bottled it, shipped it off to market, and started American’s white Zinfandel boom.

Like Mateus and Lancers before it, White Zinfandel was many Americans introduction to the world of wine. But, just like the rich of England decided that dark wine was “better” than pink, Americans soon decided that dry was better than sweet – and by the 1990s the “blush” was off White Zinfandel.

From Bust to Boom in (Pale) Pink. When I got into the wine business a decade ago, we carried 3-4 rosé wines each summer and sold 30 cases in a good year. Last year, we sold comfortably more than 10 times that amount and offered more than 20 different selections. That’s right in line with the rest of the country – rosé sales were up 30% last year, the 5th or 6th year of double-digit growth, and are booming again this year.

Driving this amazing growth are the pale pink rosé wines of Provence, so much so that selling darker colored wines from Tavel, Bandol, Spain or Italy is still a bit of a challenge. Why the supremacy of pale? Simple – Mateus, Lancers and White Zinfandel were all darker red, so many Americans (consciously or not) assume “dark = sweet” and “light = dry.”

Of course, that’s not really true. We’ve rejected several light pink rosé wines because they had a distracting level of sweetness and can show you darker ones that are bone dry. What darker color does usually mean is more body and texture, and most darker colored rosés stand up to hearty food better than their more lightly-colored relatives. But that doesn’t mean they will be heavy or even that they’re not fun to drink on their own.

Plantevin Rose and Glass (1)To end where we started, Philippe Plantevin’s 2015 Cotes du Rhone Rosé is a great example of where rosé started – as a light, fresh, smooth wine from red grapes – and where it’s going – as a wine you’ll want to drink with food and in any kind of weather. It’s open all week this week (through July 23), so come by and give it a try!

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