Rosé – book review


8 November 2018 Today's Throwback Thursday offering is the first of Tam's end-of-year book reviews, first published on Purple Pages last month. 

22 October 2018 Responding to your requests to publish book reviews before the end of the year, we begin Tam's series of assessments of this year's crop of wine books. 

Understanding the Pink Wine Revolution 
Elizabeth Gabay MW 
Published by Infinite Ideas 
ISBN 9781908984135 

This is no pocketbook on pinks. Elizabeth Gabay has been working in the wine trade for over 30 years, she became a Master of Wine in 1998, and moved to France in 2002. She lives in Provence as well as being the president of the International Rosé Championship. She teaches, lectures, judges, writes and consults about wine all over the world. She’s been drinking pink, tasting pink, judging pink and talking about pink for well over two decades, and for the purposes of writing this book immersed herself for over a year in rosés from around the world, tasting over 1,500 wines in the process.

Her introduction, entitled ‘The ugly duckling’, grapples with the Catch-22 that as production and popularity of rosé wine is rising exponentially, the wines that are being produced and popularised are increasingly homogeneous and correspondingly vacuous. This vast lake of ‘swimming-pool rosés’ obscures the real rosés, which are springing up in the most unexpected places. Gabay describes a ‘Jekyll and Hyde scenario’ of serious rosé on one hand and commercial rosé on the other, saying that ‘it is the former style I will be concentrating on in this book’.

As one might expect, the book starts with a chapter on the history of rosé. It’s a wine with impressive lineage, touched on by Katherine Cole in her book  Rosé All Day but which Gabay tackles in more, although perhaps not great, depth. This is a very contemporary book, and it’s perhaps one of the few areas in which it is a little thin. There is more to the history of rosé than the skim it gets in the book. And while its past doesn’t make rosé credit-worthy today, it adds to the weight of the argument she puts forth: that rosé is a wine for oenophiles.

Chapter 2, on viticulture and vinification, begins with the comment that ‘rosé appears to be more market-led than producer-led’ and goes on to describe the ‘simplistic view’ of rosés that assumes these are light, fruity, easy-drinking wines made with minimal skin contact, free-run juice and cheap grapes. It was heartening to read her honest confession on the first page of this chapter: ‘My original intention was to give an outline of making rosé, highlighting the range of rosé styles in terms of technique alone, leading to an understanding of how the techniques used can help to identify the many variations.’ She goes on to say ruefully that, instead, this chapter turned into a can of worms.

Rosé winemaking is undergoing a huge revolution, with the inevitable clashes between tradition and innovation, techniques, styles, philosophies and expectations. Ancient varieties are being revived, international varieties are blended with indigenous, viticultural standards are changing. Where once, in so many places, rosé was a by-product of red wine and a way to use young-vine grapes, underripe grapes, or grapes from inferior vineyards, people are now planting vineyards expressly for rosé. The chapter describes in detail the myriad choices available to rosé producers from site location and harvest dates to yeast and temperature control, and one begins to get a sense that making a good rosé is no easier than making a good red or white. I also realised, with growing dismay, that to make a terroir-true rosé requires nerves of steel and a great deal of dedication. Rosé, as we mostly know it, relies heavily on selected yeasts for flavour and mouthfeel, and on filtration for (lack of) colour.

The subject of colour was one which seemed to get surprisingly short shrift in the book. Gabay skims through descriptors for colour, popularity and fashions for different shades, and how even tasters, professional and non-professional alike, are influenced by the colour of the wine in front of them. I’d have loved more technical detail on how winemakers control or influence colour, how grape varieties influence colour, and what we can learn to expect from rosés across the spectrum. 

I was glad, however, that she devoted a good page and a half to lightstrike. Here she raises the red flag for pink wine: that clear glass blocks less than 10% of lightstrike wavelengths, while green glass blocks over 50%. ‘Light can damage wine irreversibly in as little as one hour’, she writes. Days, even weeks, spent under bright lights in warehouses, processing plants, supermarkets and homes all increase the chance of damage. Depressingly, one of the solutions to light strike is, inevitably, selected yeast.

From here Gabay moves on to her far-reaching exploration of rosé around the world. She starts with the old, historical rosé regions of Bordeaux (clairet), Tavel, Rosé des Riceys, Cigales, the rosés of Anjou and – new to me – the Schiller/siller/Schilcher of Germany, Hungary and Austria. Her historic rosés also include the gris wines of Champagne, Lorraine, Switzerland and southern France. This is a fascinating peephole into a still-present past, and describes the kind of rare, wonderful, quirky wines that make you want to set off on a pilgrimage to their roots. But it’s when Gabay gets onto home ground, Provence, that she really hits her stride.

This fantastic chapter gives compelling depth to Provençal rosé. Its history, in particular, is as surprising as it is short. For a region that has so emphatically stamped a style and benchmark of aspiration on the whole world, it is instructive to remember that for generations Provence was a backwater appellation making rustic wines. Provence rosé, as we know the style today, is not much more than 30 years old. And for that we can thank Jean-Bernard Delmas of Ch Haut-Brion, who showed Régine Sumeire of Ch La Tour de l’Évêque and Ch Barbeyrolles that he used his old hydraulic Coq press for pressing whole-bunch whites. She tried it back home, and the result was a much fresher, more fragrant, and much paler rosé than the typical deep pink of the region. Her first bottling was 1987 and by the early 1990s pétale de rose was all the rage.

It’s not just history. Gabay digs deep to understand what the ‘Provence style’ is all about, how it’s made, the regulations, the politics and the celebrities. She brushes aside the Côte d’Azur glamour, gossip and gold, and gets her fingers into the real dirt: the terroir, the varieties, oak and ageing. She reminds us that there are wineries other than d’Esclans, Ott, Miraval and Mirabeau – and that we ought to be seeking them out. She also reminds us, again, that while Provence might be an icon in the world of rosé, it should not inspire imitation. ‘As the quality of Provence rosé has improved, so producers and consumers around the world have come to identify the Provence style as being the epitome of rosé style. Gilles Masson, director of the Centre de Recherche et d'Expérimentation sur le Vin Rosé, is not happy about this and wants to encourage global variety: ‘to aim for all rosé wine in a single style would be self-destructive, and could eventually kill the market'.

In the next nine chapters, Gabay covers an astonishing breadth of geography and depth of detail. France, logically, gets more attention than most countries, although considering there must have been an inevitable limit on words, it is impressive how many countries and how many rosé styles she has managed to pack in to 314 pages. 

Apart from France, we travel to Spain, Portugal, Italy, Corsica, Malta, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, UK, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Ukraine, Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Malta, Lebanon, Israel, Turkey, Greece, USA, Canada, Uruguay, Argentina, Chile, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. 

She delves into winemaking from the cleanest, most modern styles made in controlled-temperature stainless steel with selected yeasts to the craziest, skin-contact, old-oak, wild-yeast styles that rasp with tannins. She looks at grape varieties from the pinstripe-suited Cabernets to Modrý Portugal and Rebo. She meets producers who churn out bottles by the million and producers who hand-bottle a barrel or two. She talks residual sugar, acidity, tannins, colour, regulations, traditions and bending the law. It’s a staggering opus.

I started off in the first few chapters jotting down good producers I thought she’d left out. By the time I got to the end, I was doffing my cap to a woman who’d managed to get so many in. Of course there are interesting people and interesting, even great, wines that didn’t make it into these pages. The book would have to be three times as long to fit everyone in, and Gabay would have sacrificed her teeth and another two years of her life. But as I read through, I realised that the good thing about Rosé is that it’s not a shopping list of the world’s best rosés and neither is it a list of reliable producers. Instead this is a drone flight around the pink globe, giving the reader an overview, piecing together the patterns, homing in on interesting details and pulling back here and there to reflect on what is behind and discern what is ahead.

The final chapter, ‘The business of rosé’, has the potential to be the driest chapter in the book. Instead, it’s a meaty, well thought out, meticulously designed chapter on everything from packaging and marketing to vineyard economics and rosé statistics. It’s a chapter I would pounce on if I were a WSET diploma or MW student, but in many ways the future direction of rosé lies in how the business of rosé is understood and shaped. How do we change the perception of pink wine as a fluffy girls’ drink which should either be sugared up or paled down and  bottled in water guns in order to sell it? How do we best leverage the massive rise in rosé consumption and production? Where does this excessive emphasis on outrageous packaging go? She looks at the challenges and limitations, as well as the exciting possibilities ahead, but all with a cool, journalist’s eye.

Like all Infinite Ideas books (and I’ve said this before), there is something of the textbook in its presentation. No fancy packaging here! This is a straightforward matter of imparting information; it is more scholastic than aesthetic. You could read the book from cover to cover, but it’s a book you’re much more likely to use over and over, dipping into it for information and insights on a particular region or wine. It’s extremely well edited (my bossy pen circled only once or twice). Here and there, I felt there might be too much detail on unimportant regions, and too little detail on regions that I personally deem more relevant. This is probably more a reflection of my preferences than Gabay’s focus. Regarding my original complaint about gaps in history and production, I must also say here in her defence that a number of them are covered, one way or another, in the chapters that follow on specific regions, wines and producers. I do, however, have one query: surely Charine Tan is not the winemaker for Bruno Trapan’s sparkling rosé Che Non Che?

A few days after writing a rosé rant and two-thirds of the way through my rosé marathon, I picked up Elizabeth Gabay’s book. ‘Rosés’, she writes on the first page, ‘are often considered simple, fresh and undemanding, appealing to young first-time drinkers otherwise intimidated by the complex world of reds and whites … When combined with successful marketing, illustrating the beauties of a pink wine, often by the sea or pool, with a leisurely lifestyle of glamour and fun – the role of rosé might appear immutable.’ 

The great success of rosé and the greatest challenge faced by rosé is primarily one of image. In this rigorously researched study, Gabay takes that image apart, examines the wine underneath, and gives back something altogether more consequential.