For the last half-decade at his biodynamic Provence estate Fondugues-Pradugues in Ramatuelle, Stephen Roberts has made a quixotic effort to produce something almost no one is asking for. He tries to make a pale rosé, but without using any of the enological techniques that have in recent years come to define pale rosé. In 2020, he finally succeeded — or so he thought.
“I had this lady who ordered ten cases for a motor yacht,” says Roberts. “She didn’t give a s— what it tasted like. She sent it all back because the wine was too dark.”
For his part, Roberts doesn’t see what the fuss is about.
“It’s not a funky opaque wine, you know what I mean? We’re still getting a very Provence-style rosé,” he says, mystified. “If you didn’t shake the bottle, you’d think it was a normal rosé.”
But what is a “normal” rosé, after all?
From light red to pale pink
Historically, a rosé was a very light red wine, produced in one of three ways. One is to briefly macerate red grapes; that is, put grapes into a vat and let them sit there for a few hours or days before pressing. Another involves bleeding off juice from a tank of macerating red grapes, the saignée method. Rosé is also made by direct-pressing red grapes, without any maceration at all. The enologist J. Dugast, in his 1910 book “Winemaking in Hot Countries: Tunisia and Algeria,” advocated this latter method, opining that winemakers were not producing rosés of sufficient appeal at a time when white wines were far more fashionable.
“It seems preferable to me to energetically crush the harvest and to ferment the must alone,” he wrote, at a time when fining, filtration, and temperature control technologies were rudimentary. “Wines obtained in such a way will have a lighter tint and will grow closer to white wines.”
Technological advances in the 20th century birthed entirely new styles of rosé. Sterile membrane filtration became widespread in the beverage industry in the decades following World War II, to remove any dormant yeast and bacteria in a wine, an advance that in turn permitted the mass commercialization of sweet rosés. (If you bottle young, unstable wines with too much residual sugar, without sterile filtration, the bottles risk exploding from the pressure of carbon dioxide released by continuing yeast and bacterial activity). Sterile membrane filtration thus underpinned the invention and popularization of numerous off-dry pink wine styles, from Bugey-Cerdon to Cabernet d’Anjou to the infamous white Zinfandels of the 1970s and 1980s. These wines were what the author Renata Adler had in mind, when in her 1983 novel “Pitch Dark,” she wrote of a summer concert series, “It was as truly awful as a vin rosé.”
Indeed, today’s demand for pale, dry rosés can be considered a long cultural hangover from the heyday of heavy, sweet rosés. It matters little that residual sugar in wine has nothing to do with color. Today, pale rosés are flying high thanks to a concatenation of societal influences ranging from celebrity wine launches — Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s wine from Château Miraval being the blockbuster example — to rosé’s perennial role as a vacation-signifier for lifestyle influencers on Instagram. Global sales of rosé ballooned by 40% between 2002 and 2018, reaching 2.2 billion euros ($2.68 billion). Meanwhile, from 2006 to 2018, color intensity declined by more than half, according to studies from Provence’s Centre du Rosé.
“It cannot get any paler,” says rosé specialist Elizabeth Gabay, MW, who spent the last year tasting thousands of rosés while researching a book on the rosés of southern France. She cites the modern era of pale rosé hegemony as beginning at Château la Tour de l’Evêque in 1985, with Régine Sumeire’s Pétale de Rose. Sumeire and those who followed her in Provence were able to differentiate themselves in a market of mostly saignée-style rosés by becoming paler.
“And as others became paler, Provence had to become even paler, to show that they were better,” says Gabay. “Today we don’t have the faults we find in other regions. But there is some monotony.”
Today, pale rosés are flying high thanks to a concatenation of societal influences ranging from celebrity wine launches to rosé’s perennial role as a vacation-signifier for lifestyle influencers on Instagram.
Jean-Christophe Comor, one of a few vignerons in Provence to produce low-sulfite rosés fermented on native yeast, calls the trend “absurd, because we don’t all have the same terroir, but everyone does the same techniques to get that color.”
How it’s done
The enological mastery required to produce pale rosés has become a point of pride for the region. In a speech at a party hosted by the Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins de Provence in 2018, on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the Côteaux Varois en Provence appellation, Gilles Masson, director of the Centre du Rosé, a subsidiary of the Institute Français de la Vigne et du Vin, hailed expertise behind the creation of this “Provençal rosé ideotype,” calling it “a type of wine that has never before existed in history.”
According to Matthias Bougreau, a project manager for rosé enological research at the Centre du Rosé, the most sought-after color range of today’s rosé producers are “sand” and “lychee.” Not coincidentally, these are the official descriptors the Centre du Rosé uses for the very palest rosés.
Bougreau explains that the key to modern pale rosé vinification is protecting juice from oxidation from harvest to bottling.
“But if we’re talking about Provence rosé, we’re talking mostly about things that are harvested by machine,” he says. “That breaks up the grapes, which will begin to oxidize and macerate already. But the demand is for very pale wines. So the more maceration there is, the more it will have to be corrected.”
Fining agents ranging from pea protein to Polyvinylpolypyrrolidone (PVPP) to potato protein are widely employed before and after fermentation for color management. The chemistry conundrum of pale rosé production lies in this aggressive fining regimen. Polyphenols contain the pigments that give wine color and tannins. They also help preserve wine from oxidation. The more they’re eliminated from a wine through cold clarification, and fining and filtration, however, the more susceptible to oxidation the wine becomes. It then requires more additives — usually sulfites, but also ascorbic acid (Vitamin C), and the hulls of yeasts cultivated and selected to be rich in the antioxidant glutathione — to resist oxidation, which if unchecked can cause undesirable color changes.
So much for the purity of that pale color. But more concerning, at least from an ecological perspective, is the amount of refrigeration required to produce pale rosés in warm regions. All winemakers make manifold use of temperature control: to clarify musts, to prevent oxidation, and to ensure certain fermentation dynamics. But temperature control is particularly critical to production of pale rosé.
According to Bougreau, there are two schools of thought on fermentation temperatures in Provençal rosé.
“We know that fermenting at 12 degrees Celsius (54 F) will give a more amylic ester profile, while at 18 degrees Celsius (60-64 F) we’ll have more thiol character,” he says, referring to aroma compounds responsible for notes of banana and grapefruit, respectively.
But production temperatures go lower still, before and after fermentation of most pale rosé.
“The use of cold is an economic and an ecological problem,” – Matthias Bougreau, project manager for rosé enological research at the Centre du Rosé.
A cold approach
Among the first changes winemaker Nicolas Audebert, who leads production for Chanel’s portfolio of wine estates, brought to organic Provence estate Domaine de l’Île following its purchase by the group in 2019, was to install greater capacity for refrigeration. He lowers the temperature of his manual harvest in the press using dry ice, and immediately after pressing, he brings the temperature down to 39 F, which greatly clarifies the must. The temperature stays low, not going over 53 F during alcoholic fermentation, a regimen that requires using yeasts selected for their ability to ferment at low temperatures.
“If we keep the wine cold, the malolactic fermentation doesn’t happen,” Audebert adds. “The more you keep them cold, the more they clarify, the more you eliminate the life in them, and the risk that it brings.”
Avoiding malolactic fermentation also requires a sterile filtration before bottling. Domaine de l’Île’s rosé is kept between 39-46 F until then, a no-expenses-spared approach in the Mediterranean climate of the Île de Porquerolles. A similar regimen is used at Domaines Ott, which comprises 654 acres across three Provence estates, where the harvest is chilled to 39 F before pressing and after alcoholic fermentation.
A leader in organics
As of 2019, almost 25% of Provence’s vineyard surface is farmed organically— the second highest proportion among the regions of France. Fully 90% of the region’s total wine production that year went to making rosé. That’s a lot of energy being used in refrigeration.
“The use of cold is an economic and an ecological problem,” acknowledges Bougreau. “To suggest prefermentary temperatures of four degrees Celsius is not ideal. It’s almost unhealthy. And we can’t have a product that’s respectful of the environment if it’s kept at four degrees Celsius for six months.”
Pale rosé from warm regions requires a more extravagant use of refrigeration throughout the winemaking process than any other wine type. So the entire wine style finds itself in an ethical bind, hogtied by contradictory consumer demands for paleness and sustainability.
Will the identity of rosé itself have to change for it to be more environmentally friendly and more responsive to consumer demands for less intervention in winemaking?
“That’s the big challenge,” says Bougreau. “Can we make the same product? And if it isn’t possible, what changes in color and aesthetic sensations will the consumer accept?”
Back at Fondugues-Pradugues, Roberts recently got an earful from his agent who sells to Michelin restaurants along the Côte d’Azur, who, like the lady with the motor yacht, was furious with the orange-y color of Roberts’ hand-harvested, unsulfited, unfiltered, unfined 2020 rosé, which had seen native yeast fermentation and chilling to just 61 F.
“I stuck to my guns,” says Roberts. “The wine is so much more flavourful and has so much more of a nose. So much more of everything.”