Rosé Champagne: Think Pink All Year

Posted by | Posted in Wine Education | Posted on 02-28-2012

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Valentine’s Day was two weeks ago. Did you open a bottle of sparking rosé with your sweetheart, per the clichéd guidance spouted by seemingly every publication in the country (and beyond)?

Even respected wine writers can’t resist the urge to advise consumers to go pink in February. It’s great if you took their advice for the holiday — as long as you didn’t pair it with chocolate (haven’t we been over this before?). But I’m here to tell you, sparkling rosé – especially Champagne – is a serious wine for any occasion, and it deserves a place in your cellar and on your table more often than you may think.

I recently tried a relatively new rosé Champagne, made in a non-traditional style, and it blew my mind. More on that below, but first, some background.

Rosé Champagne is not cheap; it will cost you around $40 to get in the game, around $80 to play for real, and into the hundreds to roll with the best vintage têtes de cuvée. The reason for the higher tariff is that it is labor intensive, and therefore scarce (ok, and also maybe the market-driven notion that pink bubbly is reserved for special occasions). On average, rosé makes up only 8-10 percent of a given Champagne house’s production. Even at Billecart-Salmon, most famous for its fabulous rosé, less than a third of its 2 million bottles per year are pink.

Rosés were rarely seen, let alone taken seriously, in Champagne until the late 20th century, and only really began gaining steam as an earnest winemaking endeavor, as opposed to an afterthought, in the last decade or so. Before, they were often fruity and easy drinking, with lots of sugar (playing into the Valentine’s stereotype). Now, rosé Champagnes are increasingly serious, complex wines with low dosage that allows the wines’ true character and terroir to emerge.

To make a good rosé Champagne, you first have to make a good rosé wine. That’s because all Champagne is made the same way: by taking already-fermented wine and forcing a second fermentation to occur in the bottle by adding sugar and yeast. Therefore, the difference lies in the method used to make, and the resulting quality of, the base rosé wine. It is for this reason that San Francisco Chronicle wine editor Jon Bonné calls rosé “the best barometer of a Champagne maker’s talent.”

There are basically two ways to make a rosé wine. The goal, as with every wine, should be to achieve balance – in this case, the fine tannins, structure and complex aromas of a red wine with the crisp freshness and lift of a white sparkler.

The first method of making a rosé, by simply blending red and white wines, often misses the mark in my opinion. Too often a blended rosé tastes indistinguishable from white Champagne, especially when the entire wine is made from the Pinot Noir grape. Unfortunately, this is the most common method of producing rosé Champagne, especially among the big houses like Veuve Clicquot. Many producers just add red wine to their regular non-vintage brut cuvée. Better ones actually create original base blends for their rosé.

The other method of making rosé relies on the use of black-skinned grapes (in Champagne, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier). After crushing the grapes, the skins are left in contact with the juice for a few days (a process called maceration), enough to impart some color and tannin, but not long enough to create an intensely concentrated red wine. The winemaker either removes the skins after pressing the must, in which case the remaining wine is the rosé and is allowed to continue fermentation, or bleeds off some of the pink juice during maceration and ferments it separately as the rosé wine, a technique known as saignée. This method of producing rosé Champagne carries the highest risk, but also can provide the highest reward.

One of the most interesting rosés in Champagne is Larmandier-Bernier’s Rosé de Saignée, 100% old vine Pinot Noir from a premier cru vineyard in Vertus, bled off after two days of maceration. It looks, and tastes, more like a light red wine than a traditional Champagne. In many ways, it’s a red Burgundy with bubbles. Fellow Terroirist Matt Latuchie noted its strawberry and mineral tones and found it to have weight, but enough acidity to keep things in balance. Because of that depth, you can drink it with anything with which you’d pair a cool-climate Pinot.

To me, the most exciting Champagne producers are those who aren’t afraid to buck tradition.

Perhaps my favorite is Pierre Péters, a grower for almost 100 years in the legendary village of Le Mesnil sur Oger. Until very recently, Péters exclusively produced blanc de blancs Champagnes from 100% grand cru Chardonnay. The new exception is Rosé for Albane, which is perhaps the most unusual rosé in all of Champagne, and was initially crafted as more of a novelty than anything else. Péters actually macerates and ferments Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay together to create a rosé de saignée base wine, then blends in a touch more of its grand cru Chardonnay from Le Mesnil – basically a hybrid, or even the opposite of, the traditional rosé methods.

The result is a revelation, which importer and wine writer Terry Theise calls “absurdly great Rosé” that “ignite[s] the dopey-grin reflex.” (My tasting note is below.)  The co-maceration of white and red grapes is extremely rare (to my knowledge, René Geoffroy’s Blanc de Rosé is the only other, and for twice as much money), and no one but Péters does it with Pinot Meunier (more on this grape in an upcoming column) without any Pinot Noir. Rumor has it that Péters had to trade some of its premium Chardonnay for the Meunier – it doesn’t grow any itself.

Rosé Champagne is one of the most interesting and complicated wines in the world, with many variations in production technique and resulting style. The common thread, I’ve found, is its versatility. Rosés can be both aperitif and main event. Basically, you can drink it all day – it goes just as well with bacon and eggs as it does with sushi and kushiyaki. It also bridges the gap for red wine drinkers who have yet to embrace the greatness of Champagne, offering the aroma and sophistication of Pinot with the excitement of sparkling wine. Give rosé Champagne a try in the next month, and all year round!

TASTING NOTE: N.V. Pierre Péters Champagne Brut Rosé for Albane
Beautiful bright pink color, very tiny bubbles. Enticing nose of fresh cut flowers and citrus, like pink grapefruit juice. On the palate, sweet red cherries and balanced acidity with lingering minerality into a nice clean, long finish. Enough weight to stand up to a variety of food (we’ve enjoyed it with green chile chicken enchiladas). Amazing stuff. If it were easier to find, it’d easily be my go-to rosé Champagne (beating out Billecart). About $75.

For more rosé Champagnes to try, check out Bonné’s recommendations from this past Valentine’s Day.

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