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In France, Rosé Tries To Shed Bottom-Of-The-Barrel Image

Throughout France — not just Provence — wine producers want consumers to know that rosé can be just as sophisticated as better respected reds and whites.

Rémi Barroux

TAVEL — Sun, heat, barbecue, holidays. This is the time of year when rosé reasserts itself. Restaurant terraces are bringing out the ice buckets that will keep the soft-colored bottles cool. Supermarkets are displaying its color and offering a wide range of these wines produced in southeastern France — in Provence or in Bandol.

But that's not all. In addition to the curvy, narrow-necked bottles — the famous corseted Provence flutes — there are a growing number of rosés from other regions: Bordeaux, Anjou, Sancerre, Tavel and Languedoc. And they intend to shake off their reputation as cheap wines.

Rosé, or rather rosés, are popular. Between 2002 and 2013, the number of bottles that left French wine cellars increased by 31%. The Provence region still leads the market with 35% of national production, but the Loire region represents 18% and Rhône 12%. Then come the regions of Bordeaux (10%), Languedoc (5%) and Roussillon (4%).

They want a place in the sun, just like Bordeaux, which, with a solidly settled global reputation for its reds and whites, is now launching a pro-rosé campaign.

Higher-quality wine

"The rosé revolution is underway," says Dominique Fenouil, manager of Le Repaire de Bacchus wine stores. "It's not a trend, but a change in society." Ten years ago, it offered a dozen rosés. It now stocks 60, often reasonably priced. Fenouil says it's a sign of higher-quality wine and an evolution in consumer tastes.

Red grapes are necessary to make rosé. Some people like to say this wine starts its life as a red and finishes as a white. And to make a good rosé, freshness is the absolute priority. Techniques have adapted: Grape harvesting generally happens at night or early in the morning, vats are refrigerated, dry ice is used for certain operations to avoid oxidation. And the technological contributions of the past 20 years have improved the product.

But reputations persist. On restaurant wine lists, rosé struggles to find a place, except in southern France. It's a question of culture. Of climate, too, probably. At the Clos Napoléon, a restaurant in the wine-producing village of Fixin, the wine list includes fewer than 10 rosés, six of which hail from Provence and just two from Marsannay. That's ironic, given that Marsannay offers the only "controlled designation of origin" (AOC, in French) for rosés in the Bourgogne region. The restaurant's young sommelier explains that these wines are not praised as much as reds or whites.

That's a view shared by award-winning sommelier Philippe Faure-Brac, who created the Paris restaurant Bistrot du Sommelier. "There's a gap between mainstream wine and others, where rosé is still marginal," he says. It's a common belief that this simple wine doesn't require instructions when you buy or order a bottle. False, says Faure-Brac. "Rosé is a wine that requires precision, just like white wine, but its qualitative history is recent."

"Rosé gives headaches!"

Tavel is a village located on the right bank of River Rhône, a few kilometers from Avignon. It's not in Provence, but it's still southern France. "Tavel, world capital of rosé," posters at the village entrance announce. It was indeed the first AOC to have been produced solely as a rosé, in 1936. And it's a unique, complex wine, one of the few rosés that should be kept to mature.

"I wanted to be able to keep wines longer, so they wouldn't only serve as side wines during summer," Domaine de la Mordorée co-owner Christophe Delorme told us before he died on June 10, a few days after we met him. The organic vineyard is 55 hectares — 11 for Tavel, 23 for Lirac and four for Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The plots, some of which are more than 60 years old, are spread around various types of land: sand brings out the wine's elegance, rounded pebbles lend themselves to full body, and flagstones promote freshness. "A Tavel is a lot more complex to make than a Châteauneuf-du-Pape," Delorme said.

Séverine Lemoine, from the 50-hectares La Rocalière domain, notes that sensitivity is necessary to make this wine. It's important to master the tannic dimension of the grenaches, syrah and mourvèdre grapes that grow here. "To keep the freshness of the wine, its elegance, we must control the balance between flavor, acidity and alcohol," the young woman explains.

18 months to age

Back in Marsannay, in the Bourgogne region, 40-year-old Sylvain Pataille wanted to "make a winey, upmarket rosé, the greatest wine possible, not a by-product." He also wanted to free himself from the Marsannay rosé designation, which is somewhat rigid, by calling his wine "Fleur de Pinot." Here, pinot noir is the reigning grape variety.

His "Marsannay Fleur de Pinot" represents only 5% of his production, but he turned it into a star product. In his cellar, where humidity has darkened the walls and the barrels overlap each other, Pataille keeps a passionate watch. This rosé ages for 18 months, and the finished product is a great wine worthy of an old Chardonnay Bourguignon, with a nice energy and an intense flint flavor.

In Sancerre, competition between wine colors is tough. For instance, the Joseph Mellot domain, a family property that just celebrated its 500th birthday, offers a wide variety of variously named wines. In a region known for its whites — Sancerre, Mennetou-Salon — playing the rosé card hasn't been easy. "People mostly come to buy our whites, but then they discover our rosés and they are charmed," says its winemaker Frédéric Jacquet.

Besides the Sancerre rosé and his Pinot Noir, or the Chateaumeillant rosé, made with Gamay, Jacquet also makes a Reuilly rosé, the only AOC in this color with Pinot Gris. Presented in a frosted-looking bottle "to bring out the fresh side," this wine, with its very light shades and flowery peony and white fruit flavors, is a nice surprise.

Rosé tolerates no flaws

Along the course of the River Loire, there is the city of Angers, the chosen land of the Cabernet d'Anjou, a medium-dry rosé that has made the region's reputation. The Petite-Roche domain is preparing its "nuit des rosés" ("night of the rosés"). It's an opportunity to celebrate the three rosés of the Regnard family, the owners of the domain since 1791: the Loire rosé, a dry wine, the Anjou rosé and the Anjou cabernet, medium dries. "Great precision is required to maintain the balance between sugar, alcohol and fruit," says Antoine Poupard, the domain's director. "A rosé tolerates no flaws."

In the Loire, rosés used to be somewhat despised by those who produced red wines, says Yves Matignon, president of the "cabernet d'Anjou" and "rosé d'Anjou" designations. That's no longer the case. First, the producers improved their wines. And rosé represents 60% of regional production. "In Anjou, our rosés are very ancient," Matignon says. "We don't make them out of opportunism, like in Bordeaux, for instance."

In the leading wine region, they don't find this dig amusing. "The rosé is part of the range of Bordeaux wines. It's not a second-rate wine anymore," says Bernard Farges, head of the Bordeaux wine committee. Though rosé production has grown here, it remains negligible in this region of great reds and whites.

"Our core market remains red wine, where customers expect us, and our goal isn't to convert our customer base to rosé," Farges says.

Young people represent a growing customer base for rosé, probably drawn to its friendly image and low price. But when an American critic mentions the wonderful quality of the Garrus, the rosé believed to be the world's most expensive (around 80 euros), he criticized the price in the same breath.

It annoys Paris wine seller Bernard Eloy. "We pay 200 euros for a Puligny-Montrachet," he says. "There's no reason why we shouldn't have grand crus for rosés."

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