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The Summer of Rosé Champagne
By Ed McCarthy
Jun 19, 2012
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Summer is here, and my thoughts turn to rosé wine.  I’m all for that.  What is more refreshing than sitting outdoors somewhere beautiful, such as by the ocean or on the French Riviera, sipping a glass of cold rosé wine with good company, and watching the world go by? 

But the absolutely best scenario for me is the time when that rosé wine is rosé Champagne.  That brings the sometimes vin ordinaire rosé wine up to a new level.  Of course, I do enjoy rosé Champagne any time of the year.  But there’s something magical about sipping it outdoors in the summer that makes me happy just thinking about it.

A few facts about rosé Champagne:

•    Rosé Champagne is dry, just like any other Champagne.  Almost all of it is made in the brut style (0 to 12 gr. residual sugar or RS); there are even some Extra Brut (0 to 6 gr. RS) Champagnes available.
•    Rosé Champagnes are as high in quality as other Champagnes.
•    Because making rosé Champagne is a more laborious process than making other Champagnes, rosés cost a bit more.
•    Because Pinot Noir wine is added to most rosé Champagnes and Pinot Noir makes up at least 50 percent or more of the base blend, rosé is usually fruitier than other Champagnes.
•    Rosé Champagnes are generally more full-bodied than other Champagnes; for that reason, they are often the best choice among Champagnes to accompany food, especially dinner--even with some meat courses.
•    Because of its beautiful pink color, rosé Champagne helps to create a romantic atmosphere--but you already know that.
 
Rosé Champagne comes in a huge variety of shades and hues, ranging from pale onion skin (such as Krug’s Rosé) to topaz, copper, salmon, on up to deep rose (such as Piper-Heidsieck’s Brut Sauvage).  The palest colored ones tend to be the driest.

Rosé Champagnes are “In”

One very unusual fact about rosé Champagne is that, throughout its history, it has been subject to the whims and fashions of the times.  Veuve Clicquot made the first commercial rosé Champagne back in 1777, followed quickly by its competitor, Pommery.  For the next 150 years, rosé Champagne went through periods of popularity and decline.  It was the rage in the early 1900s, for example, but definitely declined in popularity after the Great Depression on up to the late 1990s. 

At the turn of the 21st century, rosé Champagne made up only 2 to 3 percent of all Champagne sales.  But then the rosé Champagne fashion phenomenon set in once again.  Last year rosé Champagne sales were up to a whopping 8.5 percent of total Champagne sales, with most producers predicting that figure will be up to 10 percent shortly.  In the U.S. alone, rosé Champagne has increased in sales by 47 percent, and it has doubled in the U.K.  While the rest of Champagne sales have remained flat during the current economic slump, rosé Champagne has mysteriously remained recession-proof.

How does one account for the current boom in rosé Champagne?  My theory (and it’s admittedly a weak one) is that consumers have finally learned that all pink wines are not inferior, sweet, low-quality plonk.  In fact, rosé Champagne never did fit that description, but somehow, pink Champagne was regarded, or assumed to be, frivolous in some circles--the thinking being, “Anything that pretty can’t be serious.”  Well, that kind of sexist thinking is fading: pretty can also be serious.

Two ways of making rosé Champagne 

Champagne is made as Rosé by one of two different processes:

• The Traditional Method:  Producers simply add a small percentage (usually 10 to 15 percent) of still Pinot Noir wine to the cuvée before the second fermentation.  The wine usually comes from villages renowned for their Pinot Noir, such as Bouzy or Aÿ.  This is the simpler-- and by far the most common--method.

• The Skin Contact (Maceration) Method:  Here, the skins of the black grapes (Pinot Noir and/or Pinot Meunier) are pressed slightly, and left in contact with the grape juice to macerate until the desired color is obtained.  This is a more difficult process and only a few Champagne houses use it--although a few notable producers, such as Laurent-Perrier, Louis Roederer, and Taittinger, do employ it.

Rosé Champagne Today

Today almost all Champagne firms produce at least one rosé Champagne, and many make two: a standard rosé, either Vintage or non-vintage; and a prestige cuvée rosé, usually vintage-dated.  Some Champagne houses--such as Laurent-Perrier, Billecart-Salmon, and Gosset--consider rosé Champagnes a specialty of theirs.

For a long time, Laurent-Perrier, the largest family-owned Champagne house, was the biggest rosé Champagne producer in the world.  Its Cuvée Rosé Brut, 100 percent Pinot Noir, with all the grapes coming from 100 percent-rated Grand Cru vineyards and aged for four years before it is released, has had to be sold by allocation during the current rosé Champagne boom.  (Meanwhile, Moët & Chandon, the largest Champagne producer, took its place as rosé sales leader.)  Billecart-Salmon, a small, family-owned house, produces at least 20 percent of its entire production as rosé Champagnes.  Gosset’s Grand Rosé emphasizes Chardonnay (58 percent) in its blend; a popular, medium-bodied rosé, it too has been selling out during the recent rosé Champagne boom. 

Aging Rosé Champagne 

Rosé Champagnes generally do not age as long as other Champagnes because of their higher Pinot Noir/ Pinot Meunier content (which gives them have slightly lower acidity than other Champagnes).  Chardonnay, the longest-lived of the three Champagne varieties (especially long-lived  when grown in the Champagne region), contains higher acidity. 

Exceptions?  Yes, indeed.  From my personal experience, I can tell you that the following rosés, all prestige cuvées, age extremely well:  Krug Rosé (NV); Louis Roederer Cristal Rosé; and Dom Pérignon Rosé.  Krug and Cristal, in particular, can age and improve as they mature for 20 years or more.  Two other prestige cuvées that should also age very well are Philipponnat Clos des Goisses Rosé (too new a product to know for sure, but the Clos des Goisses white is very long-lived); and Dom Ruinart Rosé, made from 80 percent Grand Cru Chardonnay and 20 percent still Pinot Noir wine from Bouzy (which should have close to the same great longevity as the Dom Ruinart Blanc de Blancs).

Rosé Champagne Styles and Recommendations

I started this column talking about summer and rosé.  The point is, some styles of rosé Champagne, the lighter, elegant ones, are perfect as apéritifs during the warm summer months; some of the full-bodied ones are best at the dinner table or during the cooler seasons.  And then there are the medium-bodied styles that are versatile; they can be enjoyed all year long, for any occasion.

The lighter-styled, elegant rosé Champagnes that do well as apéritifs and make for good summer quaffing are the following (listed alphabetically):

•    Ayala NV Brut Rosé; Ayala NV Cuvée Rosé Nature (Brut Zero)
•    Billecart-Salmon NV Brut Rosé
•    Guy Charlemagne NV Brut Rosé
•    Alfred Gratien Cuvée Paradis NV Brut Rosé
•    Henriot NV Brut Rosé; Henriot Vintage Brut Rosé
•    Bruno Paillard NV Brut Rosé Première Cru
•    Perrier-Joüet Vintage Belle Epoque (aka,Fleur de Champagne) Rosé
•    Pommery NV Brut Rosé; Pommery Vintage Cuvée Louise Rosé
•    Ruinart NV R de Ruinart Brut Rosé; Dom Ruinart Brut Rosé
•    Jean Vesselle NV Brut “Rosé de Saignée”


Prices for lighter-styled rosé Champagnes listed above are $40 (for the Guy Charlemagne) and up.  My particular favorites among the non-Vintage Champagnes above include Ayala Cuvée Rosé Nature, Henriot, Bruno Paillard, and Ruinart.  My sublime recommendations among the lighter-styled Prestige Cuvées include Perrier-Joüet Belle Epoque Rosé and Pommery Cuvée Louise Rosé.