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The Darker Side of Rosé Wine

For flavor and food-friendliness, try the darker shades of rosé

Emily Monaco By June 21, 2021
four bottles of rosé surrounded by fruit
Photo illustration by Allison Kahler.

With its grapefruit aromas and barely-there color, Provençal rosé has been the pink wine of reference for years, supplanting the sweet white Zinfandels that used to dominate the pink section, now consigned to history.

For Caroline Conner, the wine educator behind Wine Dine Caroline, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s Château Miraval Provence rosé had a major part to play. First released in 2012, the wine soon became a blockbuster, following on the heels of Whispering Angel, the brainchild of Bordeaux’s Sacha Lichine, who had bought Château d’Esclans in Provence with the goal of making more ambitious styles of rosé. 

“There is that level of ‘girl on the beach, celebrity’ vibe,” Conner says of the style, which positively drips with French Riviera connotations. “Lindsay Lohan on a yacht.” 

Whether priced at $10 or $100, Provençal rosé is nothing if not drinkable: pale, delicate, and “not very intense,” according to Conner. And in Provence, she continues, “They really do just see themselves as being the arbiters of what rosé is.”

But an increasing number of wine lovers like Caroline Marteau, owner of Parisian wine cellar and tasting space Sobre, are looking elsewhere.

Deeply-hued wines are savory, fatty, and structured, and easily drinkable.

Dark renaissance

Lighter rosés are competing, not with red or white, but with “beer and Pastis,” says Marteau of the bottles served, more often than not, as a pre-dinner apéritif. “So we’re moving away from the idea of ‘wine’ for me.”

Journey from Provence, however, and far more gastronomic rosés emerge: in other French regions, and further afield in countries from Spain to Greece, darker style rosés are much more traditional, and wine lovers have a range of bottles to choose from.

Provence’s winemakers are rosé specialists, meaning they focus almost exclusively on producing rosé  In many other regions, however, rosé is often a byproduct of red wine making. In this case, it’s made by a method known as saignée, where some of the juice is “bled” off a red to intensify it; this bled juice is then vinified as a rosé. 

But, as Conner notes, “I don’t think the byproduct-ness of it is an indicator of quality, at all.”

In fact, it’s often quite the contrary. Consider, for instance, the fruitier rosés of northern France, specifically in the Loire Valley’s Anjou. Here, in stark contrast to the Provençal technique of using large, pneumatic presses to extract the juice of local Mourvèdre and Cinsault without picking up too much color, winemakers instead juice fruitier varieties like Gamay and Pinot Noir with old-fashioned presses. This technique means more skin contact — somewhere between 12 and 48 hours — resulting in deeply-hued rosés that balance the acidity of a white with the berry notes of a red. Unfortunately, the memory of those sickly-sweet white Zin wines lingers, leading many people to believe that more brightly colored rosé will be sweet. But this is a mistake; these deeply-hued wines can be savory, fatty, and structured, and easily drinkable with, for example, spicy food or barbecue.

Domaine des Nouelles makes one such wine, with 95% Grolleau and 5% Cabernet Franc, vinified in the traditional method. With a salmon color and the barest hint of sweetness, it’s perfect to pair with cheese or curry.

Rosés from Languedoc in the south of France “have a lot more of that red fruit character,” says Conner. She recalls one recent discovery from Uchronic that boasted bright aromas. “It was dry!” she recalls. “But it had that really strawberry candy aroma, which was very lovely. It was actually a canned rosé, and I’m all here for that.”

Further afield, Conner particularly loves Pinot Noir rosé made in this fashion — from Burgundy, yes, but also from California and Oregon. The bold Pinot Noir rosé from female-owned Yamhill Valley Vineyards in Oregon, for example, has a bright, tropical aroma, and a hot pink color to match, but remains dry and savory on the palate.

Ultimately, Conner says, “If you’re at a winery where their thing is a big red and they’re also making a rosé,” she says, “that should be good.”

Regions specializing in darker rosés

There are regions around the world that specialize in darker rosés, like Greece’s Peloponnesus. Gaia Wines’ 14-18h is so named for its traditional 14 to 18 hours of skin contact, resulting in a deeply-hued, almost spicy rosé. In Abruzzo, Cataldi Madonna’s Montepulciano rosé boasts a deep pink color and phenomenal savory herb notes that, according to Cassandra Rosen, sommelier and wine consultant for FK Interactive, stand up wonderfully to bolder flavored foods – she loves this wine with a burger or steak tacos, for instance.

While rosés from Spain’s Rioja region are traditionally deeper and darker, they’re slowly lightening in color due to market pressure. Campo Viejo, for example, has released a “Provence-style variant” in an effort to compete with these familiar French bottles. But some producers, like El Coto, stay true to the ancestral style, with a Garnacha and Tempranillo blend boasting a nearly bitter edge and a gingery aroma. Amandine Pastourel, head sommelier of the Michelin-starred Dame de Pic restaurant, regularly works with the region’s Lopez de Heredia; their Gran Reserva Rosé is aged into the double digits and boasts a dry quality juxtaposed with redcurrant fruitiness, rich, aromatic notes of sherry, and a long finish.

In France, Tavel, in the Rhône Valley, is the only AOP that is exclusively rosé; the main grape used is Grenache.

“It’s a very dark rosé, but it’s bone-dry,” says Conner. “And it’s intense. It’s rich and delicious.”

Some, like the Domaine de la Mordorée, can boast “an herbiness and a savoriness too,” says Conner. “Sometimes you get some pyrazine and green peppers on Tavel.”

And unlike many Provençal rosés, these wines can be cellared. “The fruitiness develops into more funk,” Conner says. “Over time they become nuttier and really interesting.”

New directions

When it comes to rosé, winemakers around the world are looking not just to darker colors but also to more innovative styles.

Rosen cites Tussock Jumper, an American brand vinifying grapes from 11 different countries, for wholly unique yet terroir-driven offerings. The company’s Valencian Moscato, Rosen says, is “bright salmon in color, with intense flavors of sugared tangerine, red berries, and spice notes.” In Macedonia, natural winemaker Jason Ligas blends techniques and flavors of both orange and rosé in his Le Rosé, boasting a strawberry candy flavor suffused with funk that then paves the way for bitter raspberry seeds on the finish.

Many Italian rosés, meanwhile, can tend towards “spicier” notes according to Marteau. In natural wine circles in particular, the overlap between dark rosé and young red is growing ever smaller, with very light reds meant to be drunk chilled as an aperitif. These might include Frank Cornelissen’s magenta-hued, super-dry Sicilian Susucaru, with its aromas of ripe strawberry and yeast.

“The dividing line is the aromatics,” says Marteau. “As soon as you have red wine aromas, with very present fruit, that’s not a rosé anymore, for me.”

Perhaps the most tongue-in-cheek of these creative pink ventures? A premium white Zinfandel from Berkeley’s Chris Brockway that Conner says “was almost a joke. He made, like, a really great, dry white Zin,” she says. “Just because. And it’s great.”