Rosé, at a Premium: A Growing Category, with a Greater Range of Profiles

Rosé’s mass-market appeal lies in its fresh fruit, vibrant acidity, and simplicity (although many dreadful rosés are sold with no qualities other than being pink and Nayandelalcoholic). With so much competition—thanks to growing demand—some producers are looking at different strategies to extend their rosé portfolio beyond entry level, to provide serious wines made to go with food. Currently, high-quality (premium) rosés can include all rosé styles, from the ultimate expression of the basic style, combining ripe fruit and elegance, all the way to highly complex styles in which fruit takes a back seat.

The demand for rosé wines to suit food was the initial impetus to create more weighty and complex wines. This usually involves more weight through extraction and oak, which is a difficult balance to achieve, as the extra weight and complexity often detract from the essential freshness.

Premium rosé was seriously recognized when, in 2006, Sacha Lichine launched his Provence rosés from Château d’Esclans. The top wine, Garrus, using older vines (80-100 years) grown at 280 m on slopes with higher limestone content, grape selection, and almost Burgundian use of 500-liter barrels for aging, has great intensity, complexity, and ability to age.

A Balanced Use of Barrels

slide-esclans-homeUse of oak has been a common method to make more complex rosé, but this has often been at the expense of the fresh fruit character. In an attempt to retain the fruit, older wood, large barrels, different types of oak, and degrees of toasting are increasingly being experimented with for both fermentation and aging. For instance, Austrian barrel maker Stockinger specializes in making barrels with very light toast and minimal aromatic impact, believing that the work of the cooper is finally more important than the origin of the oak. Their aim is to create barrels which enhance the natural fruit and freshness of white wines, making them equally suitable for fresh, fruity rosés. They recommend larger barrels, around 500 liters and a mix of no more than 10 percent new oak and one-, two- and three-year fill barrels.

An emerging trend among premium rosés in Provence is the use of amphora or cement eggs, giving weight and complexity while retaining freshness, fruit, and acidity.

Provence examples such as Bandol’s Pibarnon aged their 2016 Mourvèdre-based rosé in clay jars and Stockinger barrels, to give greater breadth and mouthfeel to the wine, without adding oak flavours or reducing acidity. The same can be seen in Luberon-based Château Constantin’s Rosé d’Une Nuit, fermented and aged in amphora.

slide-wa-homeAcidity is a major element for quality rosé. Entry-level rosés harvested too early for acidity can easily be green and hard, and the wines need residual sugar to give the impression of fruit and ripeness. Premium rosés pay more attention to the differing ripening of grapes and clones, harvesting at different dates to get phenolically ripe grapes, with careful blending to achieve elegance and crisp freshness. Higher altitude vineyards, above 350 m, are increasingly used, resulting in both fresh acidity and greater intensity of fruit character. In Provence, Château Gassier’s top rosé, called “946,” uses a combination of altitude and limestone soils for freshness, and Stockinger and cement tanks for structure. The highest vineyard in France at 597 m in the Côtes-du-Roussillon produces a vibrant, intense Syrah-Grenache rosé, Rosé des Cimes.

Though the method is often scorned and reserved for cheaper rosés, saignée can, with careful handling, create quality wines that are pale, with fresh acidity, and intense fruit as well as more complex structure. Made largely from Corvina, Mathilde Poggi’s pale pink Chiaretto, at Le Fraghe in Bardolino, is a beautiful example. Harvesting the grapes at the same time as the red wines gives the wines greater fruitiness, but, says Poggi, making a good rosé this way is a far more difficult and delicate operation requiring precise timing during vinification.

Some winemakers are beginning to exploit the sense of terroir, which has been neglected with the emphasis on keeping rosé fresh and uncomplicated. Chevalier Tropez, in St. Tropez, has a range of rosés labeled by parcel—different combinations of soils, age of vines, and varieties. While nothing new for red and white wines, this is unusual with rosés. For instance, Château Tourteau Chollet in Graves has used soil to their advantage. A small area with 90 percent sandy soils is too cold to fully ripen varieties for their red wines, but produces vibrant, fruity rosés from Merlot, which benefits from the cool dry soil.

The Provence fashion for extremely pale rosés means many interesting rosés are ignored due to their darker color. Provencal rosés are the palest and lead the market. Some winemakers bemoan this obsession with paleness saying structure and balance take second place to the color, and that the fashion for light pink can result in a more neutral taste. Creating a more complex, but pale wine, they say, is often due to greater manipulation in the cellar. An emerging trend for lighter, pale red wines may solve the problem, allowing some darker rosés to be seen more in line with this new style.

Few rosés maintain their vibrant fruit character after a couple of years, but good acidity, ripe fruit and more structure have resulted in a growing number of rosés that can successfully age and even take on interesting flavors as they evolve over a few years. However, most consumers believe that rosé should be consumed within a year of production and have yet to learn to appreciate the secondary character of mature rosés.

While the bulk of rosé wine production remains simple and refreshing, a growing number of pioneers are beginning to make rosés that are both complex and fresh and fruity, allowing the wine to retain to its essential charm while being appreciated by more serious wine drinkers. As Eli Benzakein of Domaine du Castel in Israel comments, the key to making quality rosé is “not in the method but in the precision of the execution. Rosé is to wine as patisserie is to cooking.” Which is why many winemakers claim that to make good rosé is as hard—if not harder—than making red or white.


Photo credit: Community TableChâteau d’Esclans, and Nayandei.

About the Author

Elizabeth Gabay became a Master of Wine in 1998, after 12 years in the wine trade. From the start, she specialized in the wines of south eastern France, moving there in 2002. She also specializes in the wines of Hungary. She writes and lectures on the wines of these regions, especially the rosé sector, runs master classes and acts as a judge in international wine competitions.


  1. It is certinly very interesting to see more ‘terroir’ rosés appearing. I would love greater awareness of these terroir driven rosés. Maybe good to make the opportunity to taste more?

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