Is it just a fizz? The Champagne houses clearly think not as production is stepped up to meet popular demand
The growth in sales of pink wines over the past few years has been exceptional. Rosé Champagne has been particularly successful, with exports in the 10 years from 1996 almost trebling, while the percentage of total Champagne exports has doubled.
The days when rosé was considered naff are long gone and, certainly in the Champagne sector, consumers will happily pay a premium over normal white Brut for wine that would not appear to have higher production costs.
Fine-dining restaurant The Greenhouse finds room on its (albeit capacious) list for 20 rosé Champagnes from 11 houses. While this success is clearly visible in the glass, the origins of rosé Champagne are not quite so clear.
Along with some of London's most discerning sommeliers – Bruno Murciano (The Ritz), Vincent Robichon (The Greenhouse), Luke Robertson (Chez Bruce) and Pascale Breton (Maze) – we were invited to visit Champagne, by the Union Auboise des Producteurs des Vins de Champagne. More precisely, we were invited to visit the Côte des Bar sub-region of Champagne.
The Côte des Blancs, Montagne de Reims and Vallée de la Marne are located around Reims and Epernay, and are the three areas within the appellation most familiar to visitors and aficionados of the region. However, there is a fourth zone – the Côte des Bar – found some 110km south-east of Epernay near the city of Troyes. It gets its name from the hill which links the two towns of Bar-sur-Seine and Bar-sur-Aube.
Even the Champenois weren't always keen on the area. In 1911, riots broke out in the centre of the Champagne region when the French Assembly suggested that the Aube (of which the Côte des Bar is a part) should be included in the area to be defined as the official Champagneproducing zone. Nevertheless, when the boundaries were fixed in 1927, the Aube was included.
The Côte des Bar, with Kimmeridgian chalky, clay soil, is ideal for the production of Pinot Noir, and 85 per cent of its 6,000 hectares are allocated to growing the variety. That's rather a lot, so where does it go? Half of all the Pinot Noir needed for the Champagne business as a whole comes from this region. Much of it is used for blending in normal Champagne, but most of the red wine used to give rosé Champagne its alluring pink colour comes from here too.
Union Auboise is a dynamic co-op, which owns Devaux, the largest Champagne producer in the region. Its members control nearly one quarter of the area's vineyards, making it a significant player, not just in the Aube but in Champagne as a whole. The co-op is a little coy about who it supplies but will admit to selling Pinot Noir to "five or six" of the major players in Champagne.
As a rosé specialist (it makes three cuvées, using both the saignée and blending methods), Union Auboise wanted us to learn about the Aube and taste rosé Champagne with food. We liked the idea of that, but we wanted to taste lots of rosés, so they bravely put on a blind tasting of their own three rosé cuvées against a number of leading rosés available on the UK market (see box for results).
Our sommeliers were surprised during their visit to the Côte des Bar. It was an "amazing discovery" said Bruno Murciano. "When you go to Champagne you normally learn about famous brands and the three ‘traditional' areas."
He particularly enjoyed visiting the vineyards.
It is not always easy to grasp the nuances of appellation from a book or lecture, but on the ground, the difference between sites classified as AOC Champagne, as opposed to, say, AOC Rosé de Riceys, was apparent.
Frenchman Vincent Robichon knew the Côte des Bar but had never visited before. He was fascinated by the expression of Pinot Noir here and liked "the wild style", which he thought was "a pure reflection from the soil".
It's a cliché that the Champenois won't let visitors drink anything but Champagne while visiting and insist that Champagne can be drunk throughout a meal. Devaux hauled in a Michelinstarred chef to help us put this to the test: three starters, three mains and three desserts. It's tough work, but someone had to do it.
We discovered that rosé Champagne was remarkably versatile with food. Quelle surprise!
The natural acidity of Champagne was one key, enabling a happy marriage with shellfish and seafood, and balancing citrus and vinegary influences. Moving on to mains, it became apparent that the more substantial the dish, up to and including lamb noisette, the more substantial and characterful the wine was required to be. There was also a consistent affinity with spice. As I suspected, the dessert matches were trickier but there was one remarkable combination (see box).
Rosé Champagne is clearly not a passing fad.
Industry leader Moët et Chandon – a relatively late entrant into the field – has started taking market share from benchmark rosé producer Laurent Perrier. You can't ramp up production of Champagne overnight, so clearly they think there's something in it. Customers love the stuff, it works with all kinds of dishes and it's good for the bottom line. Perhaps it's time you added more pink fizz to your wine list.
KISSING THE PINK:
Warm Lobster Salad, Coral Dressing and Krug Rosé at Roussillon "The warm lobster and the grain mustard dressing work very well with Krug Rosé; the nuttiness of the Pommery mustard with the sweetness of the coral from the lobster are really pushing the Krug Rosé up, without showing any sign of acidity."
Alexis Gauthier (chef)
Marinade de Saint-Jacques et Homard, Huile de Crustacés and Devaux Cuvée Rosée NV, chez Devaux "The dish is very subtle in terms of texture… the softness of the lobster and the scallops with the fatness from the oil. Cuvée Rosée gives freshness and restructures the dish; the minerality from the seafood combined with the minerality from the rosé give freshness and crispness."
Vincent Robichon (sommelier)
Isles of Scilly Lobster Ravioli, Oriental Ragout and Krug Rosé at The Harrow at Little Bedwyn "The magic of this delicious, fresh, exotic wine is its ability to be matched with a variety of foods, especially dishes like this with a slight hint of oriental flavours, which marry well with the wild berries, fruit and spices evolving in the wine."
Roger Jones (chef)
Sea Scallops with Confit Pork belly and Spicy Carrot Purée and Moët et Chandon Rosé 1999 at Lindsay House "This dish needs richness; the mediumfull body of this wine is just right for the ‘meaty' scallops and the mellow and fatty pork, and it is also refreshing and elegant. It's not overtly sweet but it balances the sweetness of the scallops and the purée too."
Bruno Murciano (sommelier)
Mousse au Chocolat Blanc, Framboises, Meringuée, Coulis Chocolat Chaud and Devaux Rosé Intense, chez Devaux "I've never bought into the Champenois argument that Champagne works with dessert; it normally isn't sweet enough. Devaux insists that Rosé Intense – of their three rosés, the one I found most challenging – makes an excellent partner with chocolate. So it proved. This combination produces a harmony of flavour that was almost shocking and somehow, the dish tamed the wine's edgy tannins."
Peter McCombie, MW
FIRST Billecart-Salmon (Billecart-Salmon UK) Pale, rusty pink. Floral and fruity, bready on the nose, summer pudding in the mouth. A lovely fresh bite. Serious but still fun.
SECOND Gosset (McKinley Vintners) Partridge eye. Attractive and forward. Biscotti aromas vying with lively fruit and fresh acidity. Good with or without food.
THIRD Bruno Paillard (Bibendum) Salmon pink. Biscuity and showing some attractive evolution. Rich and rounded, persistent and dry.
EQUAL FOURTH Devaux Cuvee Rosée (Liberty Wines) Reddish pink. Nutty evolution and ripe berries, understated, a little lean, suggesting it will work better with food.
EQUAL FOURTH Laurent-Perrier (Laurent-Perrier UK) Pale rust. Restrained, serious, savoury, quite full-flavoured and round with elusive red fruit. Nice balance.
EQUAL FOURTH Piper-Heidsieck (Matthew Clark) Reddish pink. Confit strawberries, some delicacy. Mid-weight, quite pretty, fresh style.
Devaux ‘D' (Liberty Wines) Partridge eye. Some restrained breadth with clean fruit and a tight structure. Not a blockbuster, but versatile.
Devaux Intense (Liberty Wines) Red pink. Aromatic and fruity, with more than a suggestion of raspberry cordial. Earthy dark red fruits, with a little grip. Controversial.
Mumm (Allied Domecq) Pale pink. Primary strawberryscented fruit. In the mouth fruity and straightforward, with fresh acidity and decent weight. Good aperitif style.
Moet et Chandon (Moët Hennessy UK) Rust. Mature with caramel undertones. Sweet fruit.
Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin (Moët Hennessy UK) Partridge eye. Takes time to open up in glass. Quite broad and soft but has enough acidity for balance. Soft and easy.