Rosé, like Champagne, is a wine that signifies more than just a drink. Champagne is shorthand for victory, celebration, excess even. Rosé shares some of Champagne's sense of occasion – it's a wine that has strong associations with the sun, the coming of summer, frivolity, holidays and some of the glamour of the Côte d'Azur.
When I hear the pop of a Champagne cork, I immediately wonder what the occasion is that's being celebrated. Similarly, when I see someone enjoying a glass of rosé, especially if the sun is out, I feel that I would like to share some of that carefree, holiday spirit.
Nowadays, with the ubiquity of pink wines, you can pick up a bottle of rosé made almost anywhere in the world, but Provence in the south of France can claim to have the longest tradition of making it. Grapes were probably brought here by the ancient Greeks to the colony they founded in Marseille in around 600BC. While we have no real way of knowing what style of wines they made, the Provençals are nevertheless keen to promote the idea that these first wines were also pink – so Provence has a claim to be the ancient birthplace of rosé.
Winemakers there are specialists in the art of making rosé – and they get lots of practice at it too, as 88% of wine production from southern Provence is rosé. Red wines account for just 9% and whites a measly 3%.
Provence is the only wine region in the world that specialises in the production of rosé and, despite its frivolous image, winemakers there take it very seriously. That typical pale negligée pink of a Provence rosé is a result of giving the red skinned grapes (usually predominantly Grenache, Syrah and Cinsault) a short period (as little as 45 minutes in some cases) of maceration after crushing. During that time the skins transfer some of their colour and flavours to the juice of the grapes. After maceration the grapes are pressed and the resulting pink juice is fermented into wine.
Of the legions of more deeply-coloured pink wines that adorn our supermarket and wine merchant shelves many are made by a different method, known as saignée, or bleeding. Here red grapes are lightly crushed to rupture the skins and put into a vat. The free run juice is run off from the bottom of the tank and then fermented. The really clever thing about this method is that the winemaker can get a bonus wine, a BOGOF, in the process. After running off the juice and fermenting it he will have a more or less deep-coloured pink wine. But he will also have the option to make a red wine made from the juice and grapes that remain after the saignée. This red wine – and this is the really clever part – will have been given additional concentration and fruit intensity due to the separation of the lighter coloured juice first.
While I can't fault the clever marketing that allows winemakers to produce two wines from a single batch of grapes, it's important to realise that rosés made this way will always be a different beast from their paler pink Provençal cousins. In Provence, the grapes that make rose have been selected, grown and made into wine with the single intention of making a pink wine. The gentle maceration period is also thought to produce a more subtle range of aromas and flavours than the saignée method.
Recommended Provence roses
Famille Négrel, Côtes de Provence Sainte Victoire 2010 - £9.99 from Majestic
Still relatively pale for a rosé, but with more richness and sappy fruit than lighter Provence styles, this is one to crack open with a meal. Salad niçoise would be a joy with this.
Château de Berne, Côtes de Provence Grande Récolte 2011, £9.99 from Majestic
On its own this wine impresses with its pure linearity. But with food the palate opens up and is able to cope with a wide range of foods. It even managed the seemingly impossible task of standing up to steak. A great all rounder rosé.
Château de Galoupet, Côtes de Provence Cru Classé 2010, £13.08 (for a 50cl bottle) from London Wine Shippers
This wine is a great illustration of the canny knack that Provence rosés have of being pale and delicate, yet having plenty of lingering flavour. I'd recommend this one for crab, or any other full-flavoured seafood.
Aix, Côteaux d'Aix en Provence 2011 - £19.99 for a magnum at Majestic
Clearly marketing is a strong suit with Eric Kurver, the Dutch owner of this domaine. His stated ambition on taking up winemaking five years ago was “to make the best rosé in the world” - I wonder how many people take up wine with the aim of producing a so-so wine? The masterstroke of bottling this in 1.5 litre magnums, with a bold label makes this a statement wine to bring out for summer celebrations. Luckily, the wine lives up to its own hype (leaving aside the best in the world moniker): fully dry, structured, and refreshing with plenty of lively grapefruit acidity.
Domaine OTT, Clos Mireille Coeur de Grain 2010, £27.95 from Roberson Wine
No discussion of Provence rosés is complete without the daddy of ambitious (with price tag to match) wines – Domaine OTT. This is a minimalist wine: pale, with a delicate, floral nose and a palate that is soft, savoury, peppery and persistent. Fine, refreshing stuff.