By: Gary Westby | K&L Champagne Buyer
Many of my top Champagne experiences, perhaps most of my top Champagne experiences have been with rosé. Unfortunately, most of the worst Champagne that I have tasted has also been rosé. This small subcategory of Champagne is extrodinarily diverse, not just in quality but also in style. Exploring this diversity has given me a lot of pleasure.
The reason that quality is so variable with rosé Champagne is simple: the Champagne area is to cold to reliably produce fine red wine. It is easy to forget that Champagne is one of the coldest places that can make fine wine at all, located on the same lines of latitude as Fargo, North Dakota and Winnipeg, Canada. This cold climate necessitates very special planning in order to get the ripeness that is essential for rosé Champagne to have the right color and flavor.
Since all the Champagne grape varieties have white juice (as is the case with almost all wine varieties- even Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah) color in the wine comes from the juice being in contact with the skins. This maceration process adds tannin and flavor as well as color. On some sites in some vintages in the Champagne region, veraison (the point when red grapes turn from green to red) is incomplete. Obviously, one cannot get good color from grapes like these! Warmer, sunnier parcels are essential to rose Champagne production.
There are two main ways of making rose Champagne, either by using all red grapes and macerating all of the juice with all of the skins, or by blending a fully red wine into white wine to arrive at the right color and flavor. In France, all still rose must legally be made the first way- by full maceration. In Champagne, the second way is much more common.
It is easier to set aside a small portion of south facing, mid slope, warm micro-climate Pinot Noir or Meunier and farm it specifically to make red wine; pruning shorter and even green harvesting to get the ripeness needed. Many producers even use different clones, sometimes from Burgundy for these red wine plots. Since it is uncommon for producer to make more than 25% rose and they only need 5-15% red wine to arrive to blend into 85-95% white wine, it is practical to work this way.
The Billecart-Salmon Brut Rosé Champagne ($74.99) is the most famous example of a blended rose. My very favorite for illustrating the style of red and white together is the Franck Bonville Brut Rosé Champagne ($39.99), which is a blend of 92% Chardonnay and 8% Pinot Noir. For years, the Bonville Rose was terrible, but after Olivier Bonville took over the company, he switched red wine sources (Bonville only grows Chardonnay) to Paul Dethune in Ambonnay. His rose is now one of our very best regardless of price and has excellent finesse from the top notch Chard and fantastic red fruit savor from the excellent Pinot. We also have a tiny amount of Pierre Paillard Grand Cru Brut Rosé Champagne ($49.99) which is 70% Chardonnay, 24% Pinot Noir vinified white and 6% red Pinot Noir which is very interesting. The red wine comes from a tiny clos behind the winery that is so small they cannot get a tractor into it. Everything is done by hand in this garden plot, and the results are one of the most hauntingly elegant Champagne’s in our stock. We only have 22 left at the time of writing!
Full maceration rose Champagne is much rarer, and the Laurent-Perrier "Cuvée Rosé " Brut Rosé Champagne ($64.99) is the only example that we have from a big house. Getting all of the grapes ripe enough for a large production Champagne like this is challenging enough, but getting them all in with healthy skin is a feat. Since white Champagne is pressed very gently, a little bit of less than perfect grape skins is not a problem for production. Since Pinot Noir has thin skins that are prone to problems, and the Champagne region is quite humid, this fast, delicate pressing to make white wine is a savior for quality. Once you are making rose from maceration, the skins have to be perfect, and in order to accomplish this Laurent Perrier spends huge amounts of money on mid-slope, exclusively grand cru Pinot Noir for this wine. It is deep and savory, with more red wine flavor than any other big house Champagne except for Krug. My favorite maceration rose Champagne that we stock is the Bruno Michel "Les Roses" Brut Rosé Champagne ($49.99) which is also single vineyard. The “Les Roses” plot is in the village of Moussy, just south of Epernay and was planted in 1964, exclusively to the indigenous Meunier. After the maceration, Bruno barrel ferments this wine and it is the most vinous, savory, red Burgundy tasting Champagnes that I have ever had.
There are always exceptions to defined styles, and my favorite rose that we have in stock right now is just that. The 2007 Marguet Pere et Fils Brut Rosé Champagne ($49.99) is a blend of 70% Chardonnay and 30% extremely light red (or very dark rose). This combination of styles gives it a little of the best of both worlds- the savory depth of a full maceration wine is just underneath its extraordinarily elegant Chardonnay exterior!
Ageing rose Champagne magnifies the best features in the best wines, as well as the worst features in the poor performers. I have had many spectacular bottles of old Rose Champagne, the 1978 Louis Roederer "Cristal" Brut Rose Champagne and the 1978 Veuve Clicquot Brut Rosé Champagne a couple of the greatest, showing that sometimes a late harvest that doesn’t get wide declaration in white Champagne can make spectacular rose. The best I ever had was the 1955 Rene Collard, which I had to literally dig for at his home in Reuil, with Benoit Tarlant lifting me out of the hole with the prize! This Champagne was almost red, and had huge Richebourg like power and richness. I can almost taste it now the finish was so long! The 1989 Veuve Clicquot "Cave Privée" Brut Rosé Champagne ($239) is a great example of older rose that you can try now. This is dry, savory and very complex and makes a fantastic partner to plank salmon.
I hope you will have a rose toast soon.