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In defense of expensive rosé

A few years ago, I was out to dinner at Villa Creek with friends.  Dining at Villa Creek is always a treat because not only is the food terrific, but owner Cris Cherry and GM Erick Cadena always put together a great and reasonably priced wine list that showcases not only the best of local wines but also a terrific selection from around the world, particularly from the regions that border the Mediterranean and specialize in the same grape varieties that we (and Villa Creek Cellars) focus on.  I ended up picking a classic: a bottle of Domaine Tempier Rosé, for which, if I remember right, I paid something like $70.

Domaine Tempier

This experience came back to me thanks to a recent comment on our Facebook page, after we had posted a link to an article in our local paper in which wine columnist Laurie Daniel named our 2011 Rosé the "Wine of the Week".  The commenter said, "It's great but bring the price down. It's more than Tavel."  Now our Rosé is not a cheap one; our suggested retail is $27 per bottle.  But the comment begs two questions.  First, why shouldn't our Rosé cost more than a Tavel?  And second, what is it about rosés that means that they should be cheap, anyway?

I'll address the first question briefly; I'm more interested in the second.  Tavel is a wonderful appellation in the southern Rhone (more or less due west of Avignon and southwest from Chateauneuf-du-Pape) which makes some of the world's best rosés.  The appellation is exclusive to rosé, and the wines from Tavel have been among the world's most recognized examples of pink wine for centuries.  But, for all that, it is a Grenache-dominated appellation, with an average yield, according to the Tavel AOC, of roughly 2.8 tons/acre (42 hl/hectare).  So, our Tablas Creek rosé, made from a mix of Mourvedre, Grenache and Counoise at a yield of 2.4 tons/acre in 2011, doesn't seem out of line, particularly given that Mourvedre and Counoise are more difficult to grow than Grenache.  And we farm the Rosé organically, entirely from estate fruit, which most Tavel producers don't.  But does the quality measure up? Independent reviews suggest it does. The Wine Spectator has rated 48 Tavels since the 2009 vintage. Of these, 8 have received 90+ point ratings. They have reviewed our Rosé in the last three vintages, giving us an 88, an 89 and (just this week) a 90 point rating.  I don't say any of this to suggest that our wine is better than the average Tavel (though I think it is) but instead just to illustrate that whether you're measuring by cost of production or quality we belong.  After that, it's up to each of you to decide what warrants you opening your pocketbook. But the idea that the original home of a particular variety should always command a higher price than those same grapes translated elsewhere in the world strikes me as silly.  Drink what you like and which you believe delivers value.

The second question, of why rosé should be cheap, is more interesting. Understanding why requires a brief diversion into winemaking techniques, so bear with me. Many red grapes are harvested with less intensity than a winemaker might want. Since most of the character of a red wine comes from the skins of the grapes, a winemaker can choose to concentrate his or her red wine by removing some of the free-run juice during fermentation and leaving less juice to be concentrated by the full quantity of skins. Just as a teabag in a small teapot will produce more intense tea than the same teabag in a large teapot, a given volume of skins in less juice will produce more intense wine than the same volume of skins in more juice. This technique is called saignée (the French word for "bleeding"). The winemaker then has the choice of pouring the juice that has been removed down the drain, or fermenting it dry and making a rosé out of it. Are these rosés any good? They can be, but often are not. Typically, the reason that the winemaker was bleeding off the juice to start with was that the raw materials were not sufficiently concentrated, which means that the bled-off juice is often uninteresting. What is more, these grapes were picked at optimal ripeness for the red wine for which they were intended: typically riper and with lower acidity than would be desirable in a rosé.

For a winery making a rosé like the one above, any revenue from the reclaimed juice is a bonus.  And often these rosés are dirt cheap. In France, many are available for a few euros a bottle, and there are respectable bottles that make it into the United States for $5-$7.

While these sorts of rosés make up the majority of the world's production, they are far from the only kind made.  There are regions like Tavel where red wines are not allowed, and where any grape that is grown is selected and vinified specifically for rosé, typically pressed off after a day or two and fermented dry away from the skins.  And there are regions like Bandol, where the rosé is sufficiently renowned that a significant portion of the wine is made intentionally as rosé, often picked sooner than the grapes for the reds and requiring a sacrifice of potential red production to produce.  This second reason is one that we've always found compelling.  Far from needing to concentrate most of our red lots, we struggle to find lots that won't be harmed by extra concentration, and base our Rosé on a vineyard block that we harvest specifically for our rosé program.  Each bottle of our Rosé that we make is one less bottle of red wine.

Still, there are two good reasons that argue against very high price tags for rosés.  One is based on cost of production, the other on ageability.  Rosés tend to be relatively inexpensive to produce because they typically don't see any new oak (which is expensive) and they come to market quickly and so don't take up much space in the cellar or accumulate many winemaking costs.  And as, in general, the highest price tags in the world of wine are reserved for the most ageable wines, rosés, which are mostly to be drunk young, don't get a collector's premium.

But why is this any different than, say, an aromatic white like Sauvignon Blanc?  Essentially, it boils down to fashion.  Rosés are just now becoming fashionable, internationally.  Top Bandol brands like Domaines Ott and Domaine Tempier have seen enough demand worldwide that their prices have risen in the last few years from mid-$20s to around $40.  And you're starting to see a few rosé-producing wineries releasing luxury cuvées, most notably Chateau d'Esclans whose top-of-the-line Garrus rosé, aged in new French oak and limited to 6 barrels per year, carries a price tag of around $100.  In a rosé-themed tasting last summer (the always worthwhile RAP tasting in San Francisco) I got to taste four different tiers from Chateau d'Esclans, and preferred the freshness of the less expensive wines to the creamy oakiness of the elite levels, but that richer style clearly has its adherents as well.

So, why did I order the Tempier Rosé from Villa Creek that night?  How often can you find the best example, anywhere in the world, in an important category for $70 on a wine list or $40 on a shelf?  When I do, I feel like it's a shame to turn it down for a mid-range example of a more exalted category.  As for the Tempier, boy, was it good.  And that is my defense of expensive rosé: that even the most expensive examples are relatively inexpensive in the world of fine wines.  Because the category is still not particularly fashionable, you can get some of the world's most compelling wines for relative peanuts.  And then, unlike the big red or oaky white you might have been considering instead, you can go ahead and drink it with those very same peanuts.