I was out for dinner with friends in Melbourne, sharing plates and drinking wines by the glass, when the conversation turned to wine. “I’m always a little disappointed when someone brings a bottle of rosé around for dinner,” one friend declared. It was surprising coming from him – a man with a burgeoning underground cellar, adventurous dining habits and corporate-fuelled wine tastes. “I’m mainly disappointed at myself for not knowing more about it. I just don’t know what to think about rosé.” Then his wife chimed in: “It’s sort of a Sydney drink, isn’t it? Every time I go to Sydney, everyone is drinking rosé.”
And perhaps there it was, the current state of rosé in Australia – popular in some pockets, slightly unknown, a little confusing, possibly on the rise and carrying undefinable baggage. So what is rosé today? Rosé, the pink wine made from red grapes, hails from Provence in the south of France. Culturally and climatically, rosé is a seamless fit in that region and is the uncontested benchmark of the light, dry and textural style. From Provence, the wine style has naturally evolved across the continent to Spain, which produces excellent examples, and also to Italy.
Rose’s expansion reached Australia in the 1980s. At one stage, we were making so many of them that they took up three classes at national wine shows. This `80s sweep was driven by a sweeter palate and the wildly popular Portuguese rosés, Mateus and Lancers. The sweet Mateus, which is still around, has a lot to answer for but Australian drinkers soon opted for drier red and white wines, and rose’s popularity evaporated. It was the rise and sudden fall of rosé. But in 2003, rosé sales in Europe started to climb.
Many attributed this rise to the devastating heatwave that tore through parts of Europe for weeks, smashing temperature records in its wake. People died, livestock perished, crops failed, glaciers melted, forests burned but rosé hit its stride. The simple fact is that rosé is a great drink in warm-to-hot weather. And as with most good trends that hail from the other side of the world, Australia has followed suit.
YOU CAN’T KEEP A GOOD ROSE DOWN
It may have taken a few years to reach our shores, but the “pink wave” is finally coming, as Dan Murphy’s fine wine manager Peter Nixon confirms. “From under $15 right up to $50, regardless of origin, we are seeing growth of Rosé,” he says.
Retailer and wine judge Phillip Rich from Melbourne’s Prince Wine Store has seen a similar trend. “From a non-existent base a years ago, Rosé is now a moderate category. Ten years ago, no one would drink rosé by the glass but now you’d be surprised to go to any half-decent restaurant and not see Rosé by the glass. In our stores, we might have three, maybe four Marlborough sauvignon blancs, but come summer we’ll have over a dozen Rosé.”
Winemakers are also seeing rosé rise. De Bortoli winemaker Steve Webber first started making in 2005 after he and wife Leanne fell in love with. The wine style while holidaying in Provence. Ste reports a quadrupling in sales of rosé between the last two summers. Adam Foster of boutique label Foster e Rocco in Victoria’s Heathcote region made a rosé as an afterthought to his range in 2008 and now can’t keep up. “We started making rosé as a bit of a quirk,” he says. “We made 120 dozen from the first vintage. Now it’s our biggest wine and we sell out every year.” He made 910 cases of rose in 2011 and is certain he’ll sell out.
IT’S NOT ALL ROSES
Every year a wine article somewhere trumpets the rise and rise of rosé. But the truth is there have been a number of false starts. There are possibly more exciting rosés available in Australia than ever before but as with many other wine varietals and styles, quality varies wildly. With rosé, it pays to be choosy, as Phillip Rich notes. “In the last three to five years, we have seen a lot of Australian winemakers taking dry rosé seriously, and each year we see another one to two good rosés from new producers. But there is still a lot of crap out there,” he says. “Every man and his dog can make one and they are not all good.” Of the 80 rosés Phillip judged for the 2011 Royal Melbourne W me none were awarded a gold medal. Nixon agrees. “It’s a bit like the pinot noir trend when it came,” he says. “We saw a lot of tighter wines made from young vines in the rush to meet the trend. Now we’re seeing quality Australian versions. Rosé is the same. There has been a rush to make it and we have seen some wines that are too sweet, but we’re now seeing purpose-built rosés that are more savoury and have lower sugar levels.”
The spectrum of rosé styles is extremely broad, from bone-dry, slightly sweet and very sweet. The colour range is even broader, ranging from very pale rosé, brown onion and coral to bright iridescent pink, and this is often a point of contention. In the past, a lot of Australian rosés were sweeter and made in these vivid colours.
Many of the new wave of rosé winemakers are distancing themselves from this, anchoring their wine styles to the Provencal style of dry, pale (coloured) and textural rosés. With Rosé, colour can really matter. Steve Webber and his wife Leanne De Bortoli went a step further, and last year started the Rosé Revolution. “When people understand the Provencal style and are educated on the differences, hopefully they will respect the fact that pale rosé is quite dry,” Steve says. The duo believes this lack of predictability is one reason rosé has had a bad name in Australia, especially when compared to the high degree of predictability with Marlborough sauvignon blanc. The Rosé Revolution is all about pale, dry rosé. However, the quality rosés made in the fruity and dry style – essentially the mainstay of Australian rosé so far – are still both popular and legitimate. For Peter Nixon, the Charles Melton Rosé of Virginia, which is largely considered the benchmark of this style, sells out faster than ever. Others of note in this usually South Australian and Grenache-based style include Turkey Flat Rosé, Teusner Salsa Rosé and Wirra Wirra’s Mrs Wigley Rosé. Peter says these last three are more popular than ever, which is interesting for wines at $15 to $20. At the other end of the scale are the newer and increasingly popular wines made in the Provencal style – drier, savoury and more textural.
They include Dominique Portet Fontaine, Port Philip Salasso, Innocent Bystander, Foster e Rocco, S.C. Pannell Arido and De Bortoli La Boheme. Imported rosés are coming from France’s Provence, Teval and Bandol, along with lower-priced options from the Loire and Spain. Interestingly, people are reportedly starting to identify the style they prefer – dry and pale or fruity and bright red – and also think of regions or countries when they seek out these styles. It’s a clear sign the rose market has matured and is becoming more sophisticated.
IS ROSÉ THE NEXT BIG THING?
We’ve been here before – wild enthusiasm for rosé as we look down the barrel of a warm summer of seafood platters, coastal views and chilled glasses of wine. But this time we might really mean it.