This summer as any summer, Saint Tropez means beautiful people sipping pink wine with a view of the blue Mediterranean. Whether from glamorous yachts or exclusive beach clubs, the only difference is that there is a little more social distance between them. And, perhaps, something new in their glasses.
Top of the list of elegant and expensive pours for 2020 is Domaines Ott Etoile, a seductive, silky-textured, pale salmon-colored rosé from Provence that debuted a couple of months ago. The price? £120 for one sleek, curvy bottle (at retail – you can double or triple that in the beach clubs).
Etoile is just one of the new “prestige” rosé wines costing big bucks. In 2018, the Cannes Film Festival was the launch pad for the organic Muse de Miraval from Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s Provence estate, Château Miraval. It’s available only in magnums, at £250+ , and intended to be aged like a cru classé.
Pink wine, especially from Provence, has long been the essential chill-pour-and-guzzle accessory for a beach lifestyle. In recent years, a host of wineries and celebrities have rushed to cash in with their own brands, mainly via happy-go-lucky plonk for gulping rather than savouring.
But Etoile and Muse are part of an increasing trend to take rosé to the next level of chic – in price, complexity, and the ability to age. These new pretenders aim to be serious and exclusive, like pink Champagnes, which have always been seen as more exclusive – and expensive – than regular fizz.
Dom Pérignon’s rosé was originally created to help the Shah of Iran celebrate 2,500 years of the Persian Empire in 1959. The upscaling of non-bubbly rosé, by comparison, started less than 15 years ago, with the ambitious Sacha Lichine, who bought Château d’Esclans in Provence after selling Château Prieuré-Lichine in Bordeaux.
“I want to make rosé wine grand,” he once told me. “It can be just as great as a grand cru Bordeaux or Burgundy.” To that end, Lichine hired ex-Mouton-Rothschild winemaker Patrick Léon to craft four cuvées with pizzazz. For top-of-the-hierarchy Garrus, that meant mostly Grenache grapes from 90-year-old vines, the wine fermented and aged in oak to add the weight and structure to age. When Lichine released the wine in 2006 at $100 a bottle, it quickly grabbed headlines as the most expensive rosé on the planet.
An expert marketer, Lichine used Garrus to sprinkle stardust on the much cheaper, now ubiquitous Whispering Angel. When it launched in Beijing, pink-clad women tickled attendees with giant pink feathers as a singer crooned “Dream a little dream of me”.
It wasn’t long before other Provence wineries began jumping on the ultra-premium rosé bandwagon, and as the category gained prestige, luxury group LVMH swooped in last year to acquire a majority share of d’Esclans.
Rugby-player-turned-winemaker Gérard Bertrand points out there’s more of a regal history to rosé than many realise. He discovered Cabrieres in the Languedoc, a site cultivated by Templars in the 13th century. “It supplied the favored rosé wines for the Sun King, Louis XIV,” Bertrand says. It’s also the source of his Clos du Temple, a biodynamic wine that debuted in the UK last year at Harrods for £180. “Rosé,” he insists, “can be as sophisticated as the finest whites and reds, and show the superiority of terroir to create great aging potential.”
Can it? Or are these wines just delusions of grandeur? Some certainly have wildly pretentious packaging. Clos du Temple, for example, comes in a fancy heavy box printed with its story and symbols of the Templars, along with claims of “transcendence”. But these are aiming to be another sort of rosé altogether, and in structure, sometimes more closely resemble a great, layered white than pink wine.
Are they worth the splurge? Not if you’re simply after something delicious, fresh, pink and quaffable. Big-deal rosés are made in tiny quantities, so part of what you’re paying for is rarity. And complexity doesn’t come cheap. Grapes from old vines grown on ideal terroir give wines more personality and a more intense spectrum of aromas and flavours – but to make a prestige rosé you also need to invest in costly, precise viticulture and meticulous winemaking, says Jean-Francois Ott.
Domaines Ott, which has been perfecting its rosé game since 1896, blends the best of the best from its three estates to showcase the personality of the different vineyards in Etoile. Ott’s team lavishes 600 hours of vineyard work per hectare per year, Ott says – similar to a Bordeaux cru classé.
For Muse, Miraval constructed an entirely new cellar under the studio where Pink Floyd recorded rock opera The Wall. Partner/winemaker Marc Perrin says they installed concrete egg-shaped fermenting tanks, a new trend to gain complexity while retaining fruit and freshness. In Oregon, at Antica Terra, Maggie Harrison ferments Pinot Noir until, she says, the aromas just “say rosé” to her – then she whips it off into barrels.
There’s no question complex rosés with structure can develop complexity with age. Avid collectors have long hunted down older vintages of darker-hued Valentini Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo, made by the reclusive, mysterious Francesco Valentini in the Abruzzo region of Italy, and López de Heredia Viña Tondonia Rioja Rosado, a copper-hued Tempranillo-based wine aged in traditional big oak barrels and released only after nearly a decade in bottle.
There are a couple of dozen vin-de-garde rosés in the $50 to $100 range that wow me, such as Château Le Puy Rose-Marie, Clos Cibonne, Château Simone and Château Minuty 281. But the $100+ rosés below demonstrate not only that, just like red wines, expensive pink wine comes in more than one style, but also that it can be great. Are they worth the price? Well, if you have to ask…