In praise of rosé wine on the darker side

Pale-pink Provençal rosé might be flying off the shelves, but Nina Caplan fondly reflects on travels to Tavel and Lirac, and wine discoveries beyond, where a darker style of rosé reigns supreme

Words by Nina Caplan

domaine de la mordoree

I never met Alexis Lichine, who died in 1989, before I was legally able to drink, and despite his reported ‘imperious mien and volatile temper’, I wish I had. Born in 1913 in Moscow, a White Russian émigré who flitted, as an adult, between New York and the Margaux chateau he somehow persuaded the Bordelais to let him rename Prieuré-Lichine, he revolutionised the Bordeaux wine trade. In America, he taught budding wine lovers, newly freed from Prohibition, how to drink Bordeaux; back in France, he showed his unclubbable fellow chateau-owners how to sell it. A man of rare palate, he would nevertheless stoop to beer or even a cocktail if no wine was available, but he refused to drink water, claiming to believe that it would make frogs grow in his stomach. He may have been irascible, but he clearly had charm: the quote on his mien and temper is from Frank J Prial of the New York Times, and it is a description, not an insult – Prial counted him a friend.

dark pink rose
Domanine de la Mordorée's darker style of rosé is a far cry from the pale-pink hue of Sacha Lichine's famous Whispering Angel
(photo: William Craig Moyes)

I have, however, met his son, who is a wine revolutionary in his own right. Sacha Lichine bought Chateau d’Esclans in Provence in 2006 because he wanted to make a world-class rosé – and sell it to the Americans, he is his father’s son. I visited in 2008, and it is perhaps appropriate that my strongest memory is of the glittering pool, since pink wine and turquoise water are now – thanks largely to Sacha and his alluring, grapefruit-scented bestseller Whispering Angel – the palette of summer. Lichine has changed the way the public thinks of rosé (and pays for it: at €90, his Garrus was until recently the world’s most expensive pink wine) and made a fortune doing so – but as anyone from his background has cause to know, revolutions have unintended consequences. It’s great that rosé is no longer a misogynist’s idea of a drink for girls – but here comes another idea, nearly as idiotic: that the paler the pink, the better the drink.

In Tavel, the only permitted colour of wine is pink and none of those pinks are pale – they are ruby, or cerise, or serious sunburn

I remember visiting Tavel, near the Rhône, shortly before the pandemic. I was on a cruise – don’t sneer, river cruises are lovely, no five-star hotel location can better a boat parked just outside Avignon’s medieval city walls or a snail’s throw from the best of the Lyon bistros, known as bouchons lyonnais – and had hopped off to visit this village of grey-white stone, surrounded by vineyards. In Tavel, the only permitted colour of wine is pink and none of those pinks are pale. They are ruby, or cerise, or serious sunburn, as dry as wit despite their bonbon hue, and with a wonderful, lightly bitter finish. So textured are they, so unabashedly flavourful, that they have the power to stand up to tomato, artichoke or red meat – hell, they could probably have seen off the sans-culottes, and maybe they did, because this is a wine style that predates the Revolution. (Louis XIV, the Sun King, was a fan.)

ambre delorme-domaine-de-la-mordorée
Ambre Delorme's 'wild, fragrant, herbaceous and moreish' wines are named after synonyms for the woodcock
(photo: William Craig Moyes)

There are so many pink wines I enjoy drinking, but Tavel was my first love, at least in part because the mid-century New Yorker writer AJ Liebling admired it so much: through him, I learned that character and charisma are as important in the glass as they are on the page, or at the dinner table. The more obsessed the world becomes with pallid Provençal cuvées – often stripped of any slight tint they might naturally possess via refrigeration and other such unecological means – the more I seek out carmine wines, sultry and hedonistic, each with its own personality and means of self-expression.

Ambre Delorme has those, despite her youth. My first stop that day was at Domaine de la Mordorée, which she has run with her mother since her father Christophe’s untimely death when she was just 23. Her wines – all given synonyms for the woodcock – are wild, fragrant, herbaceous and moreish. I also stopped in to taste with her neighbour, Marine Roussel, who makes her Domaine du Joncier wines in nearby Lirac, a place I also visited to see Domaine Maby, whose Lirac reds I already knew thanks to their UK importer, Yapp Brothers, but whose complex, spicy Tavel rosé is, if anything, even better.

domaine du joncier winemakers
Marine Roussel and Bert Vanden Abeele of Domaine du Joncier in Lirac
(Photo: William Craig Moyes)

Liebling considered Tavel the only rosé worth drinking; he was wrong about that, in my view. So many of my memories are tinted deep pink from other sunsets: on a cabin-deck with my husband near France’s Mediterranean coast, the air as raspberry-coloured as Maxime Magnon’s Métisse rosé from Corbières; at home, accompanied by a deep coral Mas Jullien, 2018 vintage, majority Cinsault and Mourvèdre, bought in Paris for more than I could afford and for once, actually laid down: like Liebling, I am almost never guilty of the bourgeois virtue of deferred gratification, as his biographer tactfully put it. During lockdown, I was sent samples by Masi, who are famous for their powerful red Amarones – but the wine that startled me, that perfectly complemented a barbecue of sausages and marinated courgettes on a warm Burgundian evening, was the Rosa dei Masi, made from Refosco and given extra substance by the inclusion of grapes that, like the Amarones, have been sun-dried via the appassimento process: an early evaporation that we were happy to complete.

I could go on – the sultry apricot loveliness of Domaine de la Source, from the tiny appellation of Bellet in Provence; the creamy allure of Lalomba Finca Lalinde’s barrel-aged rosado, 90% garnacha, 10% viura, the vines planted nearly a half-century ago; the elegance of Luke Lambert’s Crudo, made from Syrah in Australia’s Yarra Valley, its raspberry-leaf bouquet spiced by my glee in getting hold of a wine that, while inexpensive, sells out almost as soon as it is made…

Why would I rob myself of this array of flavours? I want a colourful, exciting life

Why would I rob myself of this array of colours and flavours? It would be the gustatory equivalent of choosing to live in a cubicle. I want a colourful, exciting life – perhaps not to the extent of men like Alexis Lichine or Liebling, both of whom experienced World War II at first hand, although I admire unreservedly their ability to source good wines even under those circumstances. Liebling’s first move on arriving in France in 1939 was to partake of a ‘wartime lunch’ consisting of just oysters, quail, Pouilly-Fuissé and Grands-Echezeaux – the qualifier is his. Lichine, landing at Saint-Raphäel two days after D-Day, lost no time in sneaking behind enemy lines to source a few bottles of rosé. It would probably have been pale, from that area, but naturally so, and I bet it tasted delicious.

Nina Caplan
By Nina Caplan

Nina Caplan is the Lifestyle and Travel columnist for Club Oenologique online and wine columnist for The New Statesman and The Times’s Luxx magazine. Her award-winning book, The Wandering Vine: Wine, The Romans and Me, came out in 2018.