There is a special wine available at the Cactus Club Café's Coal Harbour location in Vancouver that you won't find on the printed list. Sebastien Le Goff, the British Columbia-based chain's service director and sommelier, keeps a few cases hidden away mainly for five or six regulars who like to order a bottle or two when they visit. It's called Domaines Ott and it comes in a distinctive bowling-pin-shaped bottle.
Priced at $100, it's hardly over the top compared with the hoity-toity Napa cabernets and white Burgundies typically revered by fine-dining bigwigs. There's one difference, though. The wine is neither red nor white; it's pale pink, the approximate hue of candy floss.
"When they go to France, that's their rosé of choice," Le Goff says. "When they go to L.A., that's their rosé of choice. And they really like the shape of the bottle, the taste of the wine. They associate it with luxury."
Owned by Champagne house Louis Roederer (of $300 Cristal fame), Ott, which sells for about $50 retail when available in Canada, is one of a growing list of exalted dry European rosés shining a halo on a category that has finally buried its saccharine Mateus past. A few examples: Château Miraval, a fine $25 effort from the Provençal estate of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie; Taille Princesse, a $40 bubbly from actor Gérard Depardieu's Loire Valley property; and Château Minuty Rosé et Or ($60) and Garrus from Château d'Esclans (at a whopping $100), both also from Provence, the dry-rosé capital of the world.
Once the signature colour of low-brow imbibing, rosé is the colour of money, tapping into a global thirst for Mediterranean savoir boire. Volume sales in Canada almost doubled from 2004 to 2013, advancing to 1.7-million nine-litre cases, up from 927,330, according to the Association of Canadian Distillers, which compiles wine as well as spirits statistics. The bulk was consumed in the months between April and September – rosé's time to shine.
Globally, the pink tide advanced 17 per cent in the eight-year-period ending 2010, to 22.4 million hectolitres, according to figures compiled by French firm Agrex Consulting for the Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins de Provence (the Provençal wine-trade lobby) and FranceAgriMer, the national association of agricultural- and marine-products producers.
Even in France, where for decades total wine consumption has been sagging like an undercooked soufflé, rosé is the big bright spot, accounting for an astonishing 27.3 per cent of the market in 2011 versus 10.8 per cent in 1990, according to the CIVP. That far exceeded white-wine's level of less than 17 per cent and is almost half red wine's share of 56 per cent. La vie en rosé indeed.
Generally slightly lighter in strength than red, yet seemingly more substantial than white, pink wine strikes a socially acceptable balance in alcohol-apprehensive modern France. It spans the colour spectrum from a faintly discernible coppery stain to electric cherry red. And while colour is no indicator of quality, more saturated hues are more strongly associated with sweetness and confected, candy-store flavours while lighter, salmon-like stains are more likely to be bone-dry, as in the delicate, iconic Provençal style.
Ask 20 wine-industry experts how rosé managed to make its enviable splash outside France and you might prompt 40 theories. To me Le Goff's sound as plausible as any. More and more travellers to the Mediterranean have come home with enduring impressions of suave sipping sophistication, he says, and glasses of shimmering pink wine by the azure sea may be the most visually arresting and memorable.
Joshua Corea, co-owner of Archive wine bar on Toronto's trendy Dundas West strip, who's gearing up to feature five or six rosés by the glass for summer, attributes much of the wine's popularity to drinkers in their 20s and 30s. For millennials the rosé category is fresh and new, unencumbered by negative connotations of sweet Mateus or white zinfandel, he says. "There's not a lot of preconceptions there. They haven't decided that the only thing for them to drink is Burgundy. And they probably also don't have the pocketbook to support a Burgundy addiction."
Essentially a white wine with colour, rosé is almost always made entirely from red grapes. The skins are generally separated from otherwise clear juice after hours of contact in the fermenting vat versus days or weeks in the case of red wine. The result is a curious hybrid, clamouring to be served crisp-cold, like white, yet with fruit generally more evocative of red berries than classic white-wine notes of citrus, pear, apple or stone fruit.
The best rosés are nonpareil summer tonics, generally best enjoyed in the year following the harvest date on the label. My mind often envisions a strawberry patch in a herb garden – with a dusting of chalk for textural complexity. Though sublime on their own, they move seamlessly from drinks-only patio duty to a meal involving, say, niçoise salad, ratatouille, B.C. spot prawns, poached or grilled wild salmon or even a veal chop with mushrooms.
Global demand has prompted a scramble among producers over the past decade or so, with mixed results. Countless non-European wineries in particular have stepped into the fray with overpriced fruit punches designed mainly – it would seem – for the Florida trailer-park market, a demographic that I think is better served by $5 white zinfandel, a cheap-and-cheerful California wine created in the 1970s.
When it comes to fine rosé, sugar almost always presents a dubious proposition. Most red grapes that yield compelling rosé – grenache, cinsault, syrah, cabernet franc prominent among them – are low in acidity. Leave more than a trace of residual sugar in the fermenting vat and you get an off-kilter liquid with insufficient zip to offset the sweetness. (Rosé d'Anjou from the northern Loire Valley, based predominantly on the high-acid grolleau grape, is a notable exception.)
That's why most of my go-to rosés hail from southern France, where dry is virtually a religion. I'm a big fan of Tavel, a robust, cellar-worthy and sometimes deeply coloured style from the eponymous district of the southern Rhône Valley, as well as of the well-priced pinks from the vast Languedoc-Roussillon region. And as with many rosé freaks, my greatest passion is for Provence, a large region where 87 per cent of the wine output is pink.
"They commit to it," says Barbara Philip, a Master of Wine and portfolio manager for European wines at the British Columbia Liquor Distribution Branch, which will release 14 new Provençal rosés as part of a June promotion at BC Liquor Stores. "They study the techniques, they farm for it. It's not an afterthought. It's their signature."
As easy-drinking as rosé can be, Philip says that making a good one isn't easy. "To a greater or lesser extent, everybody who makes a dry rosé is trying to capture that very finessed, barely there, exquisite style of a good Provençal rosé."
The new pinks
Tavel Rosé 2013
SCORE: 91; France
Mid-cherry-pink, full-bodied and round, with a polished texture. It's dry but you might be fooled by the suggestively sweet flavours of cherry, raspberry and watermelon. A cellar-worthy Tavel that's far too easy to drink now. Various prices in Alberta, $19.95 in Ontario, to be released May 10.
Château La Tour de l'Évêque Rosé 2013
SCORE: 89; France
Classic Provençal colour of light salmon and classic Provençal finesse. Light, bone-dry and subtle, with a smooth, supple texture, whispers of strawberry, peach, herbs and earth; $18.95 in Ontario, to be released May 10.
Château Val Joanis Syrah Tradition Rosé 2013
SCORE: 90; France
Silky yet fetchingly crisp and light, this is complex and elegant, with notes of strawberry, rhubarb and apple. Big value from the Rhône; $15.95 in Ontario, to be released May 10.
Baillie-Grohmann Blanc de Noirs Rosé 2013
SCORE: 88; British Columbia
So deep in colour it could almost pass for red Beaujolais, this is substantial fare. Rich and tilting into off-dry territory, it bursts with cherry candy and raspberry carried on a silky texture. Despite the sweetness, it strikes good balance thanks to zippy acidity. Available direct, bailliegrohman.com; $19.
Château des Charmes Rosé Cuvée d'Andrée 2013
SCORE: 88; Ontario
Consistently good Niagara rosé. Mid-cherry pink in colour and medium-bodied. Raspberry, cranberry and subtle spice, with a touch of sweetness answered by crisp acidity and a subtly dusty-dry texture. Available direct, fromtheboscfamily.com; $14.95.
Muga Rosé 2013
SCORE: 88; Spain
Light Provençal-style salmon colour. Dry, crisp and lean, with a sweet strawberry-apple start and tart finish. It's a bargain at $12.95. Available in Ontario, to be released May 10.
Malivoire Ladybug Rosé
SCORE: 88; Ontario
A Niagara standout year to year. This 2013 vintage is salmon-cherry in colour, silky and round. Good yin-yang, sweet-tangy profile, with smooth raspberry and watermelon fruit. I love the seamless texture; $15.95 in Ontario. Various prices in Alberta, $19.50 in Newfoundland.
Fuzion Shiraz Rosé 2013
SCORE: 86; Argentina
Cherry-pink in colour with an attractive tinge of orange. Strawberry punch with a chewy texture and pleasantly bitter edge. Simple, yes, but it's a solid value; $7.95 in Ontario, $8.99 in Manitoba, $9.99 in New Brunswick, $11.95 in Prince Edward Island.