Understanding rosé with Elizabeth Gabay MW

When I did my WSET Level 2, I remember that to learn the grapes, our tutor gave them personalities. This has been done many times before, and there are arguments for and against gendering wine and describing it as masculine or feminine. My point is, individual grapes are taken seriously, some more so than others and we associate these grapes with different flavours, smells and colours. That’s how we pair wine with food and start to know what we like; it’s how we learn a wine’s origin. Eventually, we might even be able to stick our nose into the glass and say exactly what it’s been through, from vine to wine, otherwise known as blind tasting. 

So why, when it comes rosé, do we forget about grapes? Rosé seems to be defined by its colour only, with many misconceptions along the way. Pale rosé is crisp, refreshing, pool-side-Instagram-friendly Evian that makes you forget everything. Anything a shade darker is sweet. While this might be true about the pale variety, they come in all different shapes and forms which you will only learn if you drink a lot, like me. The darker rosés are also immensely interesting ranging from full of texture to indeed sweeter styles, but there are some that are perhaps even dryer than your setting-plaster pink styles. 

I decided that to delve into the world of rosé further, I needed to speak to someone in the know. There is a wonderfully insightful book about rosé written by Elizabeth Gabay MW, Understanding the Pink Wine Revolution. I caught up with Elizabeth to see what I could find out. 

Georgie Fenn: Good afternoon Elizabeth, where are you isolating? I’m over in the UK in Rutland. Tell me how you got so involved in the wonderful world of rosé! 

Elizabeth Gabay MW: I went for a holiday 24 years ago to Rutland, just before my first baby was born! I remember us having a nice time but it was a fairly chilly holiday. I’m based near Nice now, we have been down here for 18 years, up in the north by the mountains. My husband and I are both Londoners originally. I became a Master of Wine just before we left England with my two small children, it’s never easy juggling a career with children! Before that I had been selling wine as a consultant. When we moved here, I started writing for magazines for people who were thinking of moving abroad, it was the big craze in 2000/2001. I was also involved in education with the Masters of Wine then somehow the two sort of merged. 

During this time I still acted as a consultant, and then started writing. A lot of my work was based around Provence and also in Hungary. I think it was just one of those things, perfect timing, serendipity, and meeting the right people. It was three years ago that I was asked to write a book on rosé, predominantly because I was based in Provence. At the time it was a wine I didn’t drink or know very much about. When I first got the commission, I told my husband, and his first reaction was, ‘You don’t like rosé!’ It became quite a fun challenge, a lot of serious wine trade people almost laughed saying why are you wasting your time on rosé. I was intrigued that so many people dismissed the style without knowing anything about it. It took some time for serious wine people to respond and say ok maybe there is something. 

Sadly, a lot of people who write about rosé are repeating what’s already been written about the commercial rosé that is available. My feeling is that unless more senior sommeliers, wine buyers, and wine writers start to learn the style, it’s an uphill battle. The next book is going to be on the more whacky, unusual rosé. 

At the moment people are just sending me wines and I’m tasting them from home. I’m supposed to be going to Greece in June, where rosé wine has exploded. I’ve lost two months of work already from stuff that has been cancelled. Some things are carrying on despite the difficulties, for example, Vinitaly are still going to run their competition, it will be a military operation to organise. 

GF: What makes a wine, a rosé?

EG: There is no correlation between colour and sweetness. If you define a rose by saying it is the colour pink, you could include some wines that are very pale. They are not all pink. My technical definition for a wine to be classed as a rosé, is a wine that does not finish fermentation on the skin. It is a 19th century desire to categorise like they categorised everything else. Our wine buying should move on from colour categorisation and be sorted by taste. For example, dry pale wine should be part of white wines. Then there are the darker more tannic rosé wines with more structure, different taste. The colour is misleading. 

GF: And where can we find it, other than Provence, can you make rosé anywhere? Even England is making quite good rosé now…

EG: I haven’t tried any English rosé yet this year. However, Daniel Lambert once got me to try a Pinot Noir and Solaris rosé from Montgomary Vineyard in Wales. He brought it to supper and we all went ‘Oh god do we have to try it’, but it was incredible. I took some to an MW lunch afterwards, and they all groaned in the same way but everyone was noting it down, pleasantly surprised. I’ve tasted more of the sparkling. For me, I like it when they have vibrancy, fresh crunch and acidity. My daughter was at the University of York and we went to visit the Yorkshire heart vineyard, the second most northern vineyard in England. We tried their rosé, which is bonkers, it’s totally totally different to Provence but that’s fine. 

When I was in Germany, there is some interesting rosé coming out of there. And Austrian rosé is stunning. The good stuff is really top notch, very very exciting. Loire, rosé d’Angou off dry stuff is quite a good rosé for people who like white zinfandel. It has the sweetness but also a stunning acidity making it brilliant with cheese and salads. That’s an area that should be looked at a lot more. 

Then in Puglia there’s the Negroamaro rosé. Greek rosés. Just everywhere! What is interesting is that from around 2007 when the rosé market just exploded until about now, people were looking at the Provence rosé as the benchmark. Now, people are making that as well as a regional style. I think over the next couple of years, maybe wishful thinking, we might be able to taste regions in a blind tasting and see more differences in pink wine making styles. 

GF: I read throughout your book that a wine can almost gain a bit more substance if it can stand up to food. Does a good ‘food wine’ make it better overall?  

EG: I am constantly surprised. I’ve just been doing some Languedoc tasting of rosé wines, and one of them included some Muscat and would make a beautiful aperitive wine. Then we had another rosé that was so pale it looked like a white wine. My first reaction is that this is going to be a very standard pale rosé style. But it had so much structure there, it could take on a really powerful meal. Conclusion with matching rosé with food is, if we are buying a white or red wine we have a mental vocabulary that will help us, for example a big tannic Chianti goes well with Bolognese. But we haven’t yet developed a vocabulary for how we would match rosé with food. We just don’t know yet. 

The swimming-pool-imagery of Instagram never talks about rosé going with food. Rosé is often thought of as a neutral liquid that won’t fight fish or whatever. ‘ Just drink it ice cold with Olives.’ A good experiment would be to get a load of rosé and lets find out what it goes with. In exactly the same way you’d do it with white and red wine. It’s still new, and even though I taste a lot of rosé, I have no clue what I’m going to expect. It is still a very very fluid definition and this actually makes it more difficult to sell the wine. 

GF: With some of the Provence styles, is it getting too expensive? Does price always assume quality?

EG: The Gerard Bertrand and Chateau d’esclans top of the range rosés are exceptions, they have their own market. But say for instance Mirabeau, they really really struggle to keep their wine at the £10-12 bracket. Above £12 they know they’re going to lose the market but to make any money it needs to be up there. Italian wines are often under-priced, there are some excellent wines from Puglia that struggle to get a higher price which is a shame. Languedoc is the best value for lower priced classic style rosé; dry, pale, ripe fruit. Last year was a bad vintage, it was very dull. I tried 200 wines from Provence for Decanter and the Mirabeau, and the Miraval’s are the cut & paste style. If you are not confident as a rosé drinker, then they are good value. Bandol rosé is a bit of a schizophrenic style at the moment. 70% of Bandol is now rosé, four estates last year only produced rosé, no red. There is a difficult market for the big tannic reds that need time to age. It’s best to buy by estate in Bandol now.

GF: Rosé is very pretty, making it a sucker for a good Instagram photo. But how bad is lightstrike and should we be wary of clear bottles.

EG: Is lightstrike really serious? It is yes. In shops that have all those bright lights, at lunch when you’ve got the bottles hanging around, it can give it that cabbage character. Rosé is pretty, that’s what has attracted people to it, the prettiness of the colour. It has lovely names. Far more colourful names, that has always appealed. Nothing new there. And I don’t think we should throw the water out with the baby, just because we want to make it more serious. Some bottles now have a UV protective invisible skin, but you just have to be careful really. Fortunately it’s usually consumed quite quickly. 

With Austrian rosé, there were quite a lot that were dark. Their cult rose is in a dark bottle, it seems ok for them. We have to remember that winemakers are running a business at the end of the day, I can be as purist as I like but it’s not going to change. Domaine Begude, his rosé looks like a red wine, it is a stunning wine, he sells it all. But he’s just selling a good wine, not a dark rosé. It’s not the grape, it’s not the style, it’s the quality.

Until 30 April, you can get 40% off the cover price (£30) of Elizabeth Gabay MW’s fantastic book, Rosé: Understanding the pink wine revolution, Use code ROSEWINE40 at US customers code

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