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A Rosé by any other name

Soon it will be time for a glass of rosé. Not this minute, as I write, because an annoying cold front has swept across the UK and temperatures are back being unseasonably low after a brief and joyous period in which there was sunshine and the barbecue in the back garden could be put into service. On the Cote d’Azur, I see from a distance, checking the forecast, temperatures are nudging upwards and the sun is out. In Florence it is even warmer and the lucky Spaniards in the south of that great country are contemplating a weekend involving only clear, blue skies.

This not only makes me want to get on a plane to head out of Britain, it prompts excitement at the anticipation of what lies ahead as soon as we catch up and get some sustained warmth. Warm weather means it is rosé time.

Jimi Hendrix quaffed Mateus Rosé between joints and guitar solos.

Not all my friends who are wine professionals – critics or experts in the trade – dismiss rosé out of hand. I have had many happy conversations with one of the very best critics, my friend Will Lyons of The Sunday Times in London and of Berry Brothers & Rudd on St James’s, about the enduring appeal of pale, pink wines. Every year he offers advice as I embark on my annual search for the palest pink wine possible. Such wines usually (not always) come from Provence, about which more later.

But is it is fair to say that rosé is not regarded by connoisseurs as a proper or serious wine worthy of study. It does not travel, as they say, meaning that what tastes refreshing by the pool in the Languedoc tends to lack lustre when swilled on a cold and grey day in Berlin, Brussels, Birmingham or Belfast. “It is refreshing, like an ice lolly on holiday,” says another critic dismissively who mocks my attempts to persuade the wine committee of a London club of which we are both members to take the pink stuff seriously enough to put a decent one on the list for the sweltering summer months, or summer weeks in the case of London.

Such snootiness is not hard to explain. In the UK it can be blamed in part on the entrepreneurial wizardy of a famous Portuguese wine family led by Fernando van Zeller Guedes. Port sales had collapsed during the Second World War and, for the want of something else to do, winemakers invented Mateus Rosé.

In the 1960s it began to sell properly to the Brits, who were experiencing a burst of prosperity that resulted in a revolution in tastes. Jimi Hendrix quaffed Mateus Rosé between joints and guitar solos. Imported wine became accessible and affordable, and food began a long and remarkable improvement in quality and diversity. No government planned it. Capitalism worked its magic. Nato kept the peace in Western Europe. People travelled, experimented with food and enjoyed it. They had their demands met by the rise of supermarkets, chefs and restaurants keen to make money. I digress. 

By 1983, some three million cases of Mateus Rosé were being sold each year, primarily to consumers in the UK and the US. Women liked it and you can imagine the horror this induced in (male) wine critics. Jokes were made about the quality and low price. The Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was said to regard Mateus Rosé as his favourite wine. Consumers moved on.

The derision persists to this day about the pink stuff in general, even though there has been a revolution in rosé production in France in particular and a surge of consumer demand. The best wines of the Bandol in Provence, and the famous Domaine Ott, and Whispering Angel, or pink Sancerre from the Loire, now command higher prices. But below them on the shelf are a range of smaller or cheaper producers that make excellent wine. Look for the palest pink and decent bottling. Avoid anything that looks too obviously sleazy as though it and its label have been thrown together by an opportunist aiming to appeal to the St Tropez super-rich brigade.

Undoubtedly, a lot of rosé is terrible, whether it be from France, Italy, Spain or elsewhere. At its worst it can be too tannic and day-glo in colour. But a great deal of white and red wine is terrible and poorly made too. When it comes to white and red we do not condemn an entire of colour of wine just because good stuff taking some finding and consideration from the purchaser.

The central charge – that inherent lack of seriousness – comes down, I suspect, to rosé being made with obsolescence in mind. It is generally intended to be drunk at a year old. Hence the search about now for good, affordable stuff from the 2016 vintage. A few of those select and more expensive wines become more interesting when aged for a few years. But better as well as more interesting? No. This is a form and style that rests on freshness, sunshine and the taste of now. That is its joy.

After all, what’s wrong with a spot of sunshine? Sometimes it produces the best memories.

This runs counter to the mystique of the wine industry, in which experts and buyers compete to age wine for as long as possible, looking for the moment of maximum advantage to drink or sell it on. Being lucky enough to taste these properly mature wines of the highest quality from time to time is a privilege, of course. But why take a one-dimensional view, as though there can only be one (somewhat pompous) route to enjoyment?

The best rosé offers a different, uncomplicated type of pleasure as compared to the great wines. Whether you are eating in the shade, beside a pool abroad, with the sun at its highest point in the sky, or sitting in the garden at home just as the heat goes out of a warm summer’s day, a glass of perfectly chilled rosé is an unashamedly uplifting accompaniment to conversation with friends or quiet contemplation. After all, what’s wrong with a spot of sunshine? Sometimes it produces the best memories.