How rosé Champagnes got hot.

How rosé Champagnes got hot.

How rosé Champagnes got hot.

Wine, beer, and other potent potables.
Dec. 22 2006 3:38 PM

In the Pink

How rosé Champagnes got hot.

Not so long ago, rosé Champagnes were bastard bubblies, largely shunned by the wine-buying public and dimly regarded even by many of the people who made them. Now, suddenly, rosés are the most fashionable sparkling wines, and among the trendiest wines period. They are ubiquitous in nightclubs and obligatory at weddings. Sommeliers are pushing them with unprecedented zeal, and many wine retailers have made them showcase items this holiday season—if they can get their hands on them. Soaring demand has created supply shortfalls for a number of sought-after rosés.

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In contrast to the recent pinot noir boom, which can be traced to the movie Sideways, the rosé craze lacks an easily identifiable cause. It has been suggested that aesthetics are a factor—rosés are such pretty wines, and the color is synonymous with celebration and romance. But rosés were no less evocative and pleasing to the eye 20 years ago. People in the Champagne business generally assume that the rosé phenomenon took root on the nightclub scene. But there isn't much supporting evidence. It doesn't appear that any one rosé has become the darling of club crawlers. Nor have those ultimate tastemakers, rap stars, embraced rosés.

A more interesting possibility, and one that suggests the rosé trend is no mere fad, is that pink wines in general have been de-stigmatized. Fifteen years ago, pink wine was synonymous, in the minds of many Americans, with Mateus Rosé, white zinfandel, and other blushing atrocities. Likewise, pink Champagne conjured thoughts of Cold Duck, the hideous concoction that was once this country's most popular sparkling wine. But through the efforts of several superb importers, such as Kermit Lynch, Robert Chadderdon, and Jorge Ordoñez, Americans have discovered that not all pink wines taste like cotton candy and that France and Spain are awash in bone-dry, thoroughly winsome rosés. Not only have these wines become acceptable; they have become, during the summer months at least, de rigueur. And this change in attitude has plainly benefited pink Champagnes.

Whatever lies behind this sudden enthusiasm for roses, the leading Champagne houses are scrambling to cash in. In 1995, less than 2 percent of the Champagnes imported into the United States were rosés; in 2005, that figure jumped to 6.4 percent, and this wasn't nearly enough to satisfy the demand. Earlier this year, Veuve Clicquot decided to launch a nonvintage rosé. (Nonvintage Champagnes are blends comprised of wines from several vintages and are the most basic bottlings produced by Champagne houses.) Given that Veuve is credited with having invented rosé Champagne back in 1777, it is astonishing that the company waited this long to introduce a nonvintage version—and doubly so that it took a rosé fetish in the United States to convince Veuve to do so. Even venerable Krug, one of Veuve's stablemates in the LVMH portfolio, recently unveiled a half-bottle version of its prized rosé.

The new demand for rosés will undoubtedly result in even higher prices for a category of Champagnes that already commands a hefty premium over other bubblies. Producers charge more for rosés because they are harder to make than other Champagnes, are made in smaller quantities, and usually need more time in the cellar. Rosé Champagnes are fashioned in one of two ways: either by macerating the juice with the skin of the pinot noir and/or pinot meunier grapes—the saignée method, as it is known—or by adding still red wine to the base wine. Although the former is the more traditional approach and is said, by the few who still use it, to yield better, longer-lasting wines, most Champagne aficionados will tell you that it is impossible in blind tastings to distinguish the two types of rosé. At any rate, rosés require more work than regular Champagnes, and because the red wine elements need lots of time to fully integrate, rosés tend to be held back from the market longer. The 1996 Dom Pérignon rosé, for instance, was aged at the winery for 10 years, versus seven for the regular 1996 Dom, and has just been released at a suggested retail price of $400 per bottle, which is more than double what the regular 1996 currently fetches.

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Are rosés worth the extra dough? In general, no—in many cases, you're just paying for prettier bubbles. That said, the better rosés are interesting, often endearingly quirky wines. They tend to combine textbook Champagne aromas and flavors—citrus and white fruits, honey, toast, nuts—with the berry, dark floral, and earthy notes more typical of red Burgundies than sparkling wines. What's quirky about rosés is the multiplicity of styles. Take, for example, the Krug rosé, a blend of multiple vintages. If you didn't know that it was a rosé, you might never guess it; there is hardly a trace of pink in the color, and the red-wine aspects are barely discernible (that said, it is a reassuringly ethereal Champagne—reassuring because there have been suggestions of late that the quality at Krug has slipped). By contrast, Veuve Clicquot's 1998 La Grande Dame rosé comes in a fiery blood-orange color and brims with red fruits, earth, spices, and minerals; it is essentially a red wine with bubbles.

If a rosé is on your holiday to-drink list and cost is no consideration, the Krug is your best bet. The Grande Dame, the 1996 Dom Pérignon, and the 2000 Taittinger Comtes de Champagne rosés are also excellent. The nonvintage category has no shortage of underwhelming, overpriced wines. There are, however, several nonvintage rosés—Perrier Jouët, Moët & Chandon, Nicolas Feuillatte—that offer good price-to-quality ratios. Then there is Billecart-Salmon, which is arguably the best-value nonvintage rosé on the market. Billecart is a small house that has long been recognized for the quality of its rosés. Its nonvintage sells for $72 but is a rosé that can go toe-to-toe with the likes of Krug, Taittinger, and Dom Pérignon. There are also some noteworthy grower-produced rosés. (Grower Champagnes are wines made by small farmers in the Champagne region who, bucking convention, choose to craft their own wines rather than sell their grapes to the major Champagne houses.) Typical of farmer fizzes, the grower rosés are utterly sui generis—in a few cases almost freakishly so.

Rather than using a rosé Champagne simply as an aperitif or for toasting purposes, you might consider drinking one with your holiday meal. The Champenois are always banging on about how their wines should be drunk with food. Rosés, at least, fare quite well at the table; the red-wine component gives them a heft most other Champagnes lack and makes it easy to pair them with poultry, game, and even meat. Instead of relegating the rosé to a supporting role, let it be the evening's sole bottle. The Champenois will thank you; come the morning, so might your head.

Click here for tasting notes on rosé Champagnes.