WORDS BY KEN GARGETT
Great champagne is a little bit of an anomaly. It is truly one of the most wonderfully luxuriant products made, undoubtedly rich-and-famous stuff, as decadent as it gets. And yet, if one looks at truly extravagant products, great champagne is a steal. Think of the cost of a first-class flight, a great sports car, an evening at a famous resort, a meal at one of the world’s best restaurants – all cost infinitely more than the best fizz (yes, there are a couple of exceptions, but they are the extreme end of the spectrum).
And if great champagne is a luxury, an essential one of course, great rosé champagne is seen as even more indulgent and opulent.
There was a time when one might have been a little concerned that Houses put little time and effort into their rosés, with most little more than some post-blending contemplation, often made simply by the addition of a little red and less thought.
That has changed over the last couple of decades, largely because wine drinkers demanded the good stuff and the Houses complied. Most Houses now take as much trouble over their rosés as they do any wine. Rosé champagne is now 10% of the category in the UK and 15% in the States. On the rise here, as well. The first rosé was made by Ruinart in 1764, so this has been a long time coming.
There are two ways to make a rosé champagne – the only place in France where it is legal to use either method. Neither is better than the other: they are simply different and it is up to each House to make the decision. They can either make a rosé champagne by the addition of a small amount of local red wine or they can allow the juice a little time on skins, to pick up a touch of colour.
Many Houses make an excellent rosé but today’s top five are the cream of the crop, the absolute pinnacle of the style. These are special occasion champagnes. Sure, they are expensive, but comparing them to top Burgundies and Bordeaux (or that first class flight) – makes them look fantastic bargains. These are the best of the best.
Dom Pérignon Rosé
Dom Pérignon Rosé is a thing of beauty. It made an early appearance in the ranks of prestige rosé champagne, with the first vintage being 1959. Old champagne still pops up regularly at auctions, but this gem is one of the rarest of all. Don’t hold your breath chasing the ’59. The entire production was a mere 306 bottles and it was never commercially released. In 1971, most of it was sent to the Shah of Iran, who served it at Persepolis, at a festival to celebrate the 2,500th anniversary of the founding of the Persian Empire by Cyrus the Great.
In 2008, two bottles were auctioned in New York, bringing US$84,700. I have seen an empty bottle (one of those two) but sadly, never had the chance to try it.
More recent vintages include the 1986, which is the only Dom Rosé made from a vintage where they did not also make the standard Dom, 1988, 1990, 1992, 1993, 1995, 1996, 1998, 2000, 2002, 2003, and 2004. Wonderful wines. Silky, seductive stuff.
The Dom Rosé is now part of their Plenitude program, whereby bottles are held back in the Dom cellars for release years later at a time deemed perfect by the chef de cave (Richard Geoffroy, a truly brilliant and innovative winemaker and rumours of his impending retirement are depressing indeed). Hence, the Dom Rosé P2 and subsequently P3 will be available at varying times, sometimes several decades after the initial release. Needless to say, these wines will be very much at the pointy price end of the spectrum. For example, a P3 1988 magnum, was recently available in London, for £2,141. The current release Dom Rosé will be significantly cheaper.
Perrier-Jouet Belle Époque Rosé
One of my absolute favourites champagnes, not just rosés. Glorious. It shares the exquisite bottle designed by Emile Galle in 1902, with the anemones, though the first BE Rosé was from the 1976 vintage. Pink grapefruit, raspberries, silkiness, complexity, persistence – all hallmarks of this wonderful wine.
This ‘Rosé’ is sometimes considered to be the traditional ‘Belle Époque’ blend, to which is added some red Pinot Noir, usually from Ambonnay and Ay. However, Chef de cave, Hervé Deschamps, has denied this, saying that it simply does not work for what he wants. He stresses the need for red which is fruity but not too tannic, strong or spicy. For example, he finds fruit from Bouzy to be too strong for his blend. Rosé makes up around 8% of the ‘Belle Époque’ production.
Hervé Deschamps is an impressive man, though as humble as one could imagine. Perrier Jouet began operations in 1811 and yet Hervé, who took the job in 1993 after he had already been with the company for ten years, is only the seventh chef de cave in more than 200 years. It truly is a job for life.
1976 was the first ‘Belle Époque Rosé’, but it was for sale only in France. The next release, 1978, was for the international market. Further vintages followed – 1979, 1982, 1985, 1986, 1988, 1989, 1995, 1997, 1999, 2002, 2004, 2005 and 2006 – a range perhaps more curious for omissions than inclusions (an example – no 1996 rosé. Hervé found the red fruit too acidic to be successful in a Rose that vintage).
Krug is the only champagne on the list which is not represented by vintage releases (they prefer to call it by the much more appropriate name of ‘multi-vintage’, rather than ‘non-vintage’). It is blended from Pinot Noir, Meunier and Chardonnay from a wide range of years, but the Pinot is fermented on skins for additional colour and, as Krug suggests, to give the wine its “characteristic spice”. It will then be aged for at least five years in the Krug cellars, often considerably longer. Flavours run the full gamut with strawberries, brioche, florals, red berries and rose petals.
Krug decided, just last week, that from now on, as with their Multi-vintage blanc blend, the ‘Édition’ concept will apply to the rosé. This basically means that even though NV or Multi-vintage blends were supposedly consistent from year to year, Krug has recognised that isn’t always so and hence identify each new ‘release’. The latest will be the ‘21ème Édition’ (the Blanc is up to No. 163).
If memory serves, Krug Rosé arrived on our shores in 1985, and cost what was then a whopping $90 (a fraction of today’s price). I recall that, as a friend managed to get the entire Queensland allocation of 6 bottles. I doubt they lasted a month. In fact, it was first released internationally in 1983 but did not arrive here for a couple of years. The blend was based on the very fine, but warm, vintage of 1976.
Louis Roederer Cristal Rosé
For many, the ultimate expression of rosé in Champagne is that offered by Louis Roederer’s Cristal Rosé, rare and expensive though it might be. The latest release is the 2009, a blend of 55% Pinot Noir and 45% Chardonnay, reportedly sourced from Grand Cru vineyards in Aÿ. 15% of still Pinot is used in the blend, after vinification in oak. It is a rosé that is ideal for quality seafood, with notes of chalk and cherry, hazelnuts, ginger, oystershell, dark fruits and richness, while always epitomising elegance.
A bucketlist wine.
The first vintage of Cristal Rosé was 1974, what might seem an extremely odd decision as it was a largely horrible year and not the quality one would want to feature in a new wine. Roederer is a little different to most, however, as they have a treasure trove of their own Grand Cru vineyards. This means that in almost every year, no matter how bad, some very fine grapes can be found. This was the case in 1974.
But wait, if you really want something for the bucketlist, Louis Roederer have now ventured down the path of the late disgorged style for their Cristal Rosé (a style perhaps best associated with the Bollinger RD). The first is the Cristal Vinothèque Rosé 1995, but only 200 bottles have been released for the entire globe. The UK got a dozen so if you want one, first of all good luck, but secondly, you’ll need to part with nearly £2,000 for a bottle.
Ruinart ‘Dom Ruinart’
Too often overlooked, as this is a House best known for its wonderful Blanc des Blancs wines, the Dom Ruinart is a superb expression of the rosé style. Even this wine is very much Chardonnay dominant, with 80% from that variety and the rest, from Pinot Noir. That split has been almost consistent since the Dom Ruinart Rose was first made in 1969, with the exception of a few years where an even higher percentage of Chardonnay was included.
Rose petals, pink grapefruits, orange rind, raspberries, minerality, tangerines and delicate floral notes all combine to make this an exquisite wine. The aromatics are especially appealing, before the supple, almost creamy texture steps forth.
They also offer a Vinotheque Rosé for Dom Ruinart, though I’ll confess I’ve never seen it.
The most recent Dom Ruinart Rosé is the 2004. It may not have the recognition of wines like Dom Pérignon or Cristal, but do not let that put you off. This is a scintillating wine and you’ll never regret purchasing a bottle.