The irresistible reinvention of rosé champagne

There’s a new air of glamour surrounding rosé champagnes, as growers pioneer a more esoteric, terroir-based style and grand marques’ older bottlings reach a complex and memorable maturity. Alice Lascelles reports

There are a lot of oenophiles out there with a dirty secret: they really like rosé champagne. This became apparent to me while I was researching a piece for this magazine last year, when a surprising number of winemakers, sommeliers and collectors I spoke to confessed – usually after a glass or two – that some of their most memorable champagnes had been rosés: Dom Ruinart, Dom Pérignon, Charles Heidsieck, Cristal, but many grower rosés too. 

Everyone is familiar with the clichés around rosé champagne – that it’s frivolous and sweet, only fit for spraying around yachts in St Tropez and serving on Valentine’s Day. But the prejudice runs much deeper than that, says master of wine Richard Bampfield, right back to the days when rosé champagne was more commonly known as taché or “stained”: “In the court of Louis XIV most vineyards in Champagne were planted with black grapes, so if you made it the normal way the grapes got shaken up en route to the press, resulting in rosé rather than the white champagne the court wanted. It was essentially a sign of poor workmanship.”

This disdain for rosé prevailed up until remarkably recently, he says. “Ten or 15 years ago the best wines still didn’t go into most houses’ rosés; they were often just an afterthought – but now more houses are growing clones of Pinot Noir on the best sites, specifically to make rosé.”

It would be impossible to talk about rosé’s rehabilitation without acknowledging the work of market leaders Laurent-Perrier and Billecart-Salmon, two houses that have done much in recent years to give this sinned-against style a new air of glamour (not to mention a premium price point). More recently, though, it’s the grower champagnes that have helped to push rosé in a more “serious” direction, says Corney & Barrow’s fine wine buyer Guy Seddon.

“It is interesting to see that a lot of the new rosés appearing are around half as sweet as the market leader. There is definitely a move towards a more Burgundian/vinous style that’s drier and more terroir-based,” he says, citing the Anthologie rosé (£46.25) from newcomer Champagne JM Labruyère – which is owned by the same family as Burgundy’s Domaine Jacques Prieur – as a good example of a new-wave rosé that’s expressive of its location.

The Crayères, Ruinart’s champagne cellars – it and other grandes marques’ rosé champagnes have the edge for cellaring
The Crayères, Ruinart’s champagne cellars – it and other grandes marques’ rosé champagnes have the edge for cellaring

A deep colour and a tannic fruitiness closer to a light red wine is a hallmark of many of these newer rosés, which often bear the legend “rosé de saignée” in reference to the fact that they’re made by macerating the grape must with the black grape skins, rather than by blending red and white wine (like most rosé champagnes). Whether the saignée method actually makes a better rosé than blending is a moot point (there are plenty prepared to argue it makes no difference) – but it generally indicates a wine with a more full-blooded, vinous character, and as such it has become something of a badge of honour among growers.

A favourite rosé de saignée of mine is Larmandier- Bernier’s 100 per cent Pinot Noir (€46). Don’t let the frosted bottle put you off – this brut is cerebral stuff. High-definition red fruit meets clove, fig leaf, black cherry and smoky/toasty rose in a wine so multifaceted and intriguing it’s impossible to have just one glass. At indie wine specialist The Sampler they’re big fans of Olivier Horiot Sève rosé (€48), a saignée the colour of Kir Royale, with a mouth-watering sweet-and- savoury character akin to pickled Japanese plum.

Not every grower rosé is a big hitter though. For blanc de blancs drinkers, 67 Pall Mall sommelier Caroline Fridolfsson will often recommend the rosé (£71.95) by Ambonnay’s Egly-Ouriet, a grand cru non-vintage “with very light acidity, very little oak, which makes it so, so delicate – great with oysters and fish.”

Another fine place for exploring the gamut of grower rosés is Bubbledogs, the tiny champagne-and-hotdogs diner in Fitzrovia. Co-founder sommelier Sandia Chang is a big fan of pink fizz, and her list of more than 60 grower champagnes features at least eight rosés in addition to the house cuvée (£60), a joyously sherbetty brut created specially for them by Sillery growers Collin-Guillaume.

Alongside 100 per cent Pinot Noir rosés from the likes of Cédric Bouchard and Eric Rodez (a former cellar master of Krug), Bubbledogs lists at least a couple of rosés that are, more unusually, 100 per cent Pinot Meunier. One of these is the Rosé de Saignée (£35.50) by Pierry grower Jean-Marc Sélèque. “Pinot Meunier is a much spicier grape than its peer Pinot Noir, which tends to provide more red fruit,” says Chang. “Especially in a rosé that is skin-macerated [like this one], you are able to experience the liquorice, fennel seed and roasted rye. The fruit characters are also there, but just more subtle.”

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The growers may lead the way in producing more esoteric styles of rosé, but when it comes to laying down it’s the grandes marques that still have the edge (for now, at least). One champagne expert who has long championed the virtues of mature rosé champagne is the co-author of the Christie’s World Encyclopedia of Champagne & Sparkling Wine, Essi Avellan. “Mature rosé champagnes develop beautiful winey qualities, such a velvety texture and lovely spicy and complex gamey notes, which combine brilliantly with aged champagne’s toasty or biscuity layers. They are great gastronomic companions,” she says, singling out Dom Ruinart, Dom Pérignon and Taittinger Comtes de Champagne as three rosés that really reward time in the cellar.

The utterly ravishing Dom Ruinart Rosé 2002 (£225) was chosen by Avellan as her top champagne of 2015. Less powerful but slightly more fresh is the newly released 2004 (£270), a copper-hued rosé with ripe blood orange, delicate spice and a luxuriant suedey texture.

“In Dom Ruinart, at the start we often find dried rose and pot pourri notes, Indian spices such as sandalwood, nutmeg and dried fig. It’s baroque and unexpected,” says Ruinart’s chef de caves Frédéric Panaiotis over a lunch of tuna sashimi and a bottle of the 2004. “But with time it becomes almost burgundian, with earthy, even gamey, notes of forest floor and truffle – more like a wine. The 1990 has it. The 1996, not yet.”

Both the 2002 and 2004, along with around 50 other rosés, can be found on the prodigious champagne list at Claridge’s Bar. Throughout July and August, Claridge’s will also pay tribute to rosé flag-bearer Laurent-Perrier by offering four Laurent-Perrier cuvées including the rarely seen Alexandra Rosé 2004 (£250), a wonderfully ethereal prestige cuvée that’s been produced just seven times in 30 years.

The first champagne house to sell rosé was Ruinart – it has records to prove it was shipping it as early as 1764. For others, rosé is still in its early days. At the press launch of the Dom Pérignon 2005 rosé (£259.95) last November, oenologist Vincent Chaperon admitted that the company is “still young in the evolution” of its rosé, but that it is now pursuing a house style with intent. “The rosé must push the Pinot Noir expression to the limit – that’s something that’s become more and more clear in our heads,” he said. “The 2005 has a lot of that; it’s a serious rosé. People who like burgundy will find some bridges with it.” Serious it may be, but the 2005 is pretty sexy too, with savoury notes of leather, tomato and musky blackcurrant leaf that lend a seductive, slightly spicy edge to the more vibrant damson fruit.

From left: the seductively savoury Dom Pérignon Rosé 2005, £259.95. Perrier-Jouët Belle Epoque Edition Automne 2005, £175, a full-bodied rosé that pairs well with rich food. The house cuvée, £60, of London champagne-and-hotdogs diner Bubbledogs, created by Sillery growers Collin-Guillaume. Dom Ruinart Rosé 2002, £225, chosen by master of wine Essi Avellan as her top champagne of 2015
From left: the seductively savoury Dom Pérignon Rosé 2005, £259.95. Perrier-Jouët Belle Epoque Edition Automne 2005, £175, a full-bodied rosé that pairs well with rich food. The house cuvée, £60, of London champagne-and-hotdogs diner Bubbledogs, created by Sillery growers Collin-Guillaume. Dom Ruinart Rosé 2002, £225, chosen by master of wine Essi Avellan as her top champagne of 2015

Another house that’s upped its focus on rosé lately is Piper-Heidsieck, which launched its first prestige cuvée rosé, Piper-Heidsieck Rare Rosé Millésime 2007 (£325), late last year. Not to be outdone, Perrier-Jouët also unveiled a new expression of its prestige cuvée Belle Epoque: Belle Epoque Automne 2005 (£175). Blended to evoke the burnished colours of autumn, this full-bodied rosé (its dosage is a generous 10g per litre) really comes into its own when paired with rich dishes including salmon, Wagyu beef and chocolate desserts.

The food-matching potential of a good rosé is not to be underestimated, says Avellan. “People tend to regard rosé as girly or a wedding wine, but if you think about it, rosé is actually the most ‘masculine’ and gastronomic of champagne styles due to its red wine component.”

Krug Rosé will make this point later this summer, by squaring up to the decidedly macho cuisine of Francis Mallmann, the maverick Argentinian chef behind the current vogue for barbecuing meat over open flames. On July 29, the two will co-host Krug Festival – Into The Wild, a one-day, super-luxe event with food, live music and rosé fizz for 300 guests at a secret location in England. Expect a lavish menu and a crowd that’s suitably A-list (tickets are £395 each or £750 for a pair, including return travel to London and all food and drink).

According to the Champagne Bureau UK, rosé still accounts for a tiny proportion of the country’s champagne market – in 2016, just over 10 per cent of all exports to the UK were of the pink variety, with vintage rosé a fraction of that. But as the quality and variety grow, it’s a style that’s increasingly being afforded a new kind of respect by fine-wine lovers and vignerons of all persuasions.

“Rosé champagne used to be the kinky wine, the kind of thing a man might just drink with his mistress or in the summer,” smiles Panaiotis. “But these days one of the real indicators of a more mature, more knowledgeable wine market is when you see rosé champagne being drunk all year round.”

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