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CONTENTS

INTRODUCTION

Politics, Power, and Pink

About This Book

CHAPTER 1

Rosé Through the Ages

CHAPTER 2

A Primer on Pink Wine

CHAPTER 3

Kings and Queens of the South

CHAPTER 4

More Southern French Rosé

CHAPTER 5

Rosato d’Italia

CHAPTER 6

Rosado on the Iberian Peninsula

CHAPTER 7

Pink Traditions of Northern Europe

CHAPTER 8

New Rosés from the New World

CHAPTER 9

Exotic Rosé Regions, from Corsica to Africa

Online Rosé Retailers

Five Top Fives

The ABCs of Wine Classification

Bibliography

Index of Searchable Terms

INTRODUCTION

Politics, Power, and Pink

Rick Ross has a rap sheet. Tattoos cover nearly every centimeter of his body. His thick neck bears the weight of ten to twenty1 massive, heavy gold chains. He goes by aliases: “The Boss”—or, as his adoring fans call him, “The Bawse”—and “Rozay.”

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These nicknames are fitting, because this rapper just so happens to love . . . rosé.

Rozay has allied his personal brand with that of a pink sparkling wine from Provence, Luc Belaire. He composes rhymes about this fizzy drink. He makes music videos celebrating it.

Luc Belaire Rare Rosé is mysteriously cloaked in opaque black glass. Some special-edition bottles have light-up labels so you can spot them across the dance floor. The Boss’s homies, the “Black Bottle Boys,” periodically trot out in black varsity jackets emblazoned with the Luc Belaire motto.

Gentle readers, please try to imagine Tupac, Snoop Dogg, or Dr. Dre crooning about rosé back in the early nineties. Snoop liked to roll down the street sipping gin and juice. Tupac was a Hennessy man. And wasn’t it Dre who warned everyone, “Don’t Drink That Wine”?2

But fifteen or so years later, tough-guy performers are striking a different chord with their lyrics. “Two in the morning I’m zoned in / Them rosé bottles foaming,” raps hip-hop artist Flo Rida. Wiz Khalifa calls for “rosé in my Champagne glass.” And then there is Rick Ross with his black bottle. Rozay’s rosé entered sixty-six international markets in its first three years of existence, becoming the top-selling sparkling wine on Amazon.com. Between 2013 and 2014 alone, its sales grew by 340 percent, according to a Sovereign Brands spokesperson. Yes, that is correct.

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ROSÉ VS TOTAL TABLE WINE MARKET IN THE U.S. IN 2015

Rosé is a pop-culture phenomenon. Rosé is all the rage. And rosé is, improbably, macho. Rick Ross the Boss, of all people, likes to unwind with pink bubbly.

So does everyone else. Sales of premium imported rosé table wines (that is, decent, food-friendly wines priced higher than $11) shot up 58 percent in volume and 60 percent in value in the United States in 2015 alone, according to data provided by Nielsen and the Wine Market Council. Meanwhile, the total table wine market was plodding along at a nearly flat 1.8 percent growth on volume and a modest 5.2 percent on value.3

Rosé is an entire category that offers excellent quality for the price and is nearly foolproof in food-pairing contexts. It can be made from any red grape variety (and many white grape varieties, too) in any winegrowing region. It’s a sure winner.

Yet it is marginalized. Despite the fact that rosé sales outstrip those of white wines in France, Business France, the French trade commission, categorizes French wine exports only by red, white, or sparkling. Contemporary media articles all follow roughly the same outline—“It used to be crap, but now it’s good, and it’s cool!”—failing to dig deeply into pink wine’s long, long, long history. Rosé is rarely mentioned at wine symposiums or conferences, and a surprising number of winemakers I interviewed while researching this book told me that rosé vinification was not a part of their education at oenology school.

I find it ironic that wine professionals have largely been ignoring rosé when it’s what they need most. After years of tasting professionally, my palate is pooped. I’m overwhelmed by an overabundance of flavor and tannin. At the end of a long day of wine-related work, I crave the crisp acidity and balanced proportions of a fine dry rosé. It might not be the world’s most precious wine, but it’s the wine that makes me happiest in the moment and recharges my taste buds for tomorrow.

I would argue, too, that the wine-erati is missing out on rosé’s intellectual prowess. Adherents to the holy trinity of pigment, concentration, and toasty oak might find rosé to be a lightweight, half-baked sort of wine, but I find it to be relevant precisely because it is irreverent. A vin gris de gris—a bona fide French rosé—is closely related to a northeastern Italian ramato, which is an outré orange wine. And there are entire avenues of winemaking techniques that are just now being explored in the rosé sector.

Yet when I asked French winery owners to explain the recent windfall as I researched this book, many of them shrugged and responded, “The women like it.” The subtext being, “It’s just pretty.”

Is this why rosé isn’t taken seriously by the wine trade? Because women think pink is pretty? As the fashion and beauty industries have proven, pink packaging resonates with female shoppers. And in the retail manufacturing world, a prevalent strategy for designing women’s mass-market products is known as “shrink it and pink it.”

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It is true that women tend to make their wine-buying decisions based on appearances, while men are more likely to be swayed by an impressive price or a “shelf-talker” (display tag) reporting a high score. Why? The answer cannot be reduced to a simple “girls like pretty things.” Rather, as advertisers and marketers have known for decades, women connect to wine socially and emotionally, while men like to collect, analyze, and brag about wine. “Women seemed to focus more on the relationship element, whereas men’s comments were more pragmatic,” observes the author of a 2012 study of wine consumers published in the Journal of Wine Research. Men, the article states, are attracted to wine’s “snob appeal,” and are willing to pay more per bottle than women are, no matter what the occasion.4

So men buy wine to show off their purchasing power, while women are scouring bottle-shop shelves thinking, “Hmm, what should I give my friend for her birthday? Which wine should I bring to book club? What would make a great hostess gift?” They are not choosing pink because it’s implicitly feminine, but because a rosé wine is simply undeniably beautiful, an aesthetic confection swathed by savvy marketers in a crystal-clear bottle. Its value as a “pretty thing” is cashed in not as some sort of fashion accessory, but as an offering of friendship.

As a wine professional, I suppose I should advise you not to purchase a wine based on its looks. But I’m also a woman who goes to book clubs and birthday dinners. And I’m drawn to rosé not because pink is feminine, but because it cheers me up, as do those apple blossoms that announce the arrival of spring, the promising glow of sunrise, the ripe peaches of summer. When I buy wine, I want a visual feast as well as a gustatory one, and I want that vision to be uplifting.

But as you’ll learn in Chapter 1, men increasingly want in on that good feeling. Thanks to Details magazine, we even have a term for this phenomenon: “brosé.” Guys made up nearly half of rosé consumers last time I checked.

Rosé is white and red, masculine and feminine. It is yin and yang, high and low, chic and shabby. It is as agreeable to the classical-music crowd as it is to rappers. A Venn diagram separating red and white wine lovers is fat in the middle. Throw a party and you’ll notice that the pink wine disappears first.

Just ask the Rozay.

Luc Belaire Rare Rosé ($$$)

Rick Ross’s favorite sparkling pink comes from the same marketing minds who brought us Armand de Brignac, aka Ace of Spades.5 Its provenance is cryptic (the website offers nothing but vague promotional speak), but Burgundy bubbly powerhouse Veuve Ambal, which produces a Provençal sparkling wine labeled Rivarose, appears to be behind the winemaking. As for the name, I’m willing to bet that the Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles served as inspiration. Luc Belaire Rare Rosé is made from a blend of grapes that’s mostly Syrah, but that’s not the point. The point is: This wine is sex-ay. The bottle is black. The color is perfect Provence peachy pink. The nose is red berries and warm pastry with a touch of boudoir. The mousse is luxuriant. And there’s just a hint of lemon-chiffon sweetness on the finish that brings to mind Moscato. Bottom line: It may not be original, but it’s anthemic.

Notes

1 The self-proclaimed number varies from song to song.

2 It should be noted, however, that Dr. Dre, the Cognac-and-weed man of the 2000s, went on to put his name on Beats headphones in a color dubbed “Champagne.” Times have changed.

3 Brager, U.S. Wine Trends: Battle for the Next Pour , 20.

4 Thach, Journal of Wine Research 23, 134–154.

5 That is, the overpriced Champagne brand that’s now owned by Jay Z. It’s packaged in an opaque gold bottle—his delicious revenge after being dissed by Cristal Champagne, which comes in a gold cellophane-wrapped bottle.

About This Book

I had been covering wine as a journalist for fifteen years when I began this book, fueled by a sense of frustration that rosé hadn’t received its due. As I write this, in 2016, there are no English-language wine guides in print on the subject of rosé. I have attempted to fill that void in the following pages.

This book tracks rosé’s recent rise from obscurity to pop-culture phenomenon. It presents a brief history of pink wine, outlines the various ways rosé is made, and explores the many styles of rosé produced in nations all over the globe. It highlights distinct regions to know and introduces you to producers and particular wines that have caught my interest.

Because my goal is to challenge the prevailing assumption that one rosé is indistinguishable from the next, I have zeroed in on wines that stand apart from their peers in terms of quality, methodology, or backstory.

Wine is a finite specialty good, and no bottle shop has the capacity to stock every producer on the planet, so—as with any wine guide—I cannot guarantee that every name mentioned in this book will be readily available at a moment’s notice. That said, with just a few rare exceptions, I aimed to include wines with distribution in multiple cities throughout the United States.

At the ends of chapters, I have included images of a selection of the wines discussed, featuring some of the most attractive bottles and labels in rosé-dom. I hope these pages will help you recognize some safe bets on the shelves of your local wine shop.

A good merchant can procure a hard-to-find wine for you—if not from current stock, then by special order. Don’t be shy about requesting one that has piqued your interest. If that fails, ask your wine merchant to recommend something comparable. The descriptions in this book of regions and styles will still inform your tasting experience. If you’ve never sampled a Rosé des Riceys before, one is likely to taste quite similar to another. And for every wine described in these pages, there were five more I wished I’d had the space to include.

Speaking of space, I tried not to bog down the book with explanations of geographical classifications. If you are wondering what an AOP or IGP is, turn to this page for a quick tutorial. If you choose not to wonder, I don’t blame you.

Rosé is largely seasonal. It is produced in limited amounts with the expectation that it will sell out immediately. I tasted vintages that in most cases will not be available to you. So I have left specific years out of the discussion, choosing instead to offer a general sense of what to expect from each wine.

Last but not least, let’s talk price. Rosé is a category that tends toward the affordable, and there are many treasures in the sub-$15 range. In this book, I recommend plenty of those wines, and I don’t hold them to the same stringent standards I apply to $30-to-$50 bottles. A $10 rosé should be merely refreshing and pleasant. A $40 rosé should get your gray matter going with its complexity.

I have also included some of the most precious pinks on the planet, which can sell in the $75 to $100 range (or more, if we’re talking Champagne). This is still reasonable by the standards of the cult wine world. Even with the recent arrival of the luxury class of still rosés, pink continues to represent value.

While I wasn’t able to include every worthy rosé region and winery in the world, this book is a start. After all, most wine encyclopedias don’t give rosé more than a quick nod. I believe it deserves more. So let’s dive in.

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PRICE GUIDE

Wine prices are subject to change. So instead of listing specific prices that might vary depending on where and when you’re shopping, this book provides ranges according to the formula shown here.

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CHAPTER 1

Rosé Through the Ages

On two days in June 2014, hundreds of well-heeled New Yorkers piled onto the decks of a mega-yacht to cruise up and down the Hudson River. There were fresh oysters on ice. There was a photo booth and a DJ. Someone was handing out pink Wayfarer-style sunglasses.

And there were buckets and buckets and yet more buckets of chilled rosé. Some of the wines were sparkling, with gold chips floating around in them. Some were flat. Most were from France, but some were from Lebanon, Morocco, and Turkey.

The first ninety-minute cruise filled to capacity. As did the second. And the third. And the fourth.

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“La Nuit en Rosé,” as the whole affair was dubbed, sold out again in 2015 and 2016, attracting 4,500 attendees to five cruises aboard an even more mega-size mega-yacht. The party was duplicated and triplicated in Los Angeles and Miami both years. In July 2016, impresario Pierrick Bouquet6 rolled out “Pinknic,” a waterfront rosé and music festival on Governors Island, New York, at which more than 8,000 partygoers picnicked on pink blankets.

“Rosé is trending now because it makes people feel good, dream about summer vacations,” Bouquet explained. “It’s approachable, price-wise, and versatile. And rosé is not pretentious like other categories of wine that require more knowledge to be understood.” The association with partying on the Riviera, he added, didn’t hurt either.

Rosé is the new face of wine: accessible, attractive, affordable, and aspirational. In addition to the yachts, there are the movie stars and the money. In 2013, when Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt released their Château Miraval rosé, the first 6,000 bottles sold out within five hours. In 2014, a single bottle of Sine Qua Non California rosé sold at auction for a record-breaking $42,000. That summer, multiple news outlets reported on—god forbid—a severe pink-wine shortage in the Hamptons, where rosé is also known as “Hamptons Gatorade.”

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Image  ROSÉ WINE CONSUMPTION, BY NATION

1. FRANCE                      39%

2. UNITED STATES      14%

3. GERMANY                  9%

4. UK AND ITALY         TIED AT 6%

5. SPAIN                            5%>>

Image  ROSÉ WINE PRODUCTION, BY NATION

1. FRANCE                      31%

2. SPAIN                           23%

3. UNITED STATES      14%

4. ITALY                           10%>>

And in a July 2015 interview on the popular podcast WTF, the multitalented boyish movie star Jason Segel confided to comedian Marc Maron that he finally sought help for his alcoholism after consuming an entire case of . . . you guessed it. That’s right: from rosé to rehab.

This pink-wine craze had all the ingredients of a passing fad. But rosé is no flash in the pan. For the past two decades, rosé’s comeback has been declared annually. It’s a rite of spring. If I had a dollar for every time I have read about the “rosé revival,” I’d buy myself a year’s supply of pink Cristal.

Along with each new vintage’s release comes the publication and posting of articles proclaiming the return of dry rosé, as if it had gone missing. All follow the same script: The trouble started in the late 1940s, when the Portuguese megabrands Lancers and Mateus débuted. These wines were fizzy, pink, and celebratory—just what everyone needed after the depredation and deprivation of World War II. At first, they were embraced. Later, wine connoisseurs would deride this genre for its short shelf life and lack of character.

Then, in 1975, California producer Sutter Home stumbled upon the formula for off-dry “White Zin.” By 1987, Sutter Home White Zinfandel was America’s bestselling wine, with annual production at two million cases. But, like Lancers and Mateus before it, the success of this beverage perplexed connoisseurs. In the words of the influential critic Robert Parker, Sutter Home is the “distressingly commercial . . . McDonald’s of wine,” producing “the cloyingly sweet” beverage.7 (For tasting notes on today’s Sutter Home “The Original” California White Zinfandel, turn to this page.)

Psychologists tell us that categorization is a basic human need. We can’t help but put things in boxes. We are hardwired to develop prejudices. So, having suffered through one too many semisweet “blush” wines, whether Portuguese or Californian, the foodie elite of the 1990s wrote off rosé as a four-letter word. Regardless of their provenance, pink wines belonged in the same grouping as Hummel figurines, leisure suits, the Cadillac Seville, and Barry Manilow albums.

Then, just as it hit rock bottom, pink wine bounced back. Stealthily, French rosé production overtook white by volume in 1994. In 2008, it claimed its position after red as the second-most-popular wine color being consumed within the borders of France, leaving white in the dust.

That same year, fortified wine marketeers jumped on board, as Croft introduced the first-ever pink Port. In 2011, Lillet, the venerable apéritif producer, added pink to its longstanding portfolio of red and white.

In 2013, the stately British paterfamilias of wine punditry, Hugh Johnson, used a rosé as the cover model for his perennial Pocket Wine Book for the first time ever. He would repeat the performance two years later.

By 2014, more than 30 percent of the wine being guzzled in France was pink. Not only had it surpassed white, but rosé now threatened the dominant position of red. That same year, an Instagram account started by a couple of blond New York–dwelling besties as a joke, @yeswayrosé, went viral and made the pages of Vogue. Rosé became a meme, a cocktail-party punch line.

And out came a new rash of articles declaring astonishment at the return of rosé. Again.

When was the last time you saw an article discussing “red wine” or “white wine” as though it were a recent discovery? What halfway decent historical account begins only seven decades ago? And what if I were to tell you that rosé has been riding up and down the waves of public adulation for thousands of years?

Beginning at the Beginning

The stories behind some of our best comestibles start not with an enterprising human, but a fearless animal. Consider a legend that takes place more than twelve hundred years ago in the Ethiopian Highlands. Kaldi, a young goatherd, found his flock hungrily feasting on plump red berries, their chins dripping with juice. The goats were bleating, hopping up and down, butting their heads against each other’s flanks, and frolicking, their tails wagging. They looked like frenzied dancers at an evening celebration.

Kaldi grabbed a twig laden with the strange red berries and popped one in his mouth. The flesh was crisp and juicy. He crunched down on two large seeds, then spat them out and waited. The goats were still dancing around and, Kaldi noticed, crunching hungrily on the seeds.

Shrugging, Kaldi tried again, this time biting down on the seeds with his molars. A deeply bitter taste was followed by a jolt of excitement. Kaldi had stumbled upon the stimulating effect of coffee beans.

Kaldi’s name and story are well known, and have been passed down through folklore. But the same plot, with anonymous players, has been enacted countless times all over the planet. Herbs, fruits, and spices have revealed their medicinal and mind-altering properties through similar random occurrences: an accidental ingestion observed by a sharp-thinking human. A line drawn between cause and effect.

A large mountain ash, Sorbus scopulina, grew behind my childhood home. In late spring, it bloomed with sprays of delicate white flowers. Then, in August, these developed into bright orange berries, as plump as tiny pumpkins. By late October, the berries began to rot and emit a sweet vinegar-like odor in the afternoon sun.

And then they came: the inevitable loud thuds, shuddering through the house, as though someone were throwing softballs against our tall dining-room windows. Suicidal birds were flying straight at us like kamikaze pilots.

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In other seasons, the birds were smarter. They saw the reflection of the glass and avoided it. But in the late autumn, swallows and robins hit our windows like squash balls projected by a merciless unseen racquet. Post-impact, they lay comically splayed on our dining-room balcony, knocked out stone cold, until they eventually roused themselves and dazedly hobbled around for a few minutes before flying off.

After a few of these incidents turned out to be lethal, my parents hung up tiny aluminum-foil flags. They didn’t help. Because these birds were drunk. Sloppy drunk. They were flying while intoxicated, high on fermented ash berries. The FAA would not have approved. My mother renamed our tree the “Rocky Mountain Crashberry” in honor of them.

In Europe, the ash goes by another name: rowan. It has been associated with gods and mystical powers since prehistoric times. Like rose hips, rowanberries are better suited to tea or jelly than raw consumption, but early humans did eat these sour fruits, benefiting from their rich supply of vitamin C.

Perhaps these early ancestors did not bother to eat the berries that hung too high to be picked by hand. Until one day late in the season, a sharp-eyed person, someone like Kaldi, saw a group of birds snacking on shriveled late-season berries and then looping giddily around. Perhaps this person put two and two together, climbed the tree, gathered some of these fermented berries, and had a bit of fun with them.

Flip through books about foraging and you’ll inevitably find a timeless recipe for rowanberry wine. It’s an orangish pink color, incidentally. Could it have been the world’s first berry wine? And, at the same time, the world’s first rosé?

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The First Grape Wines

Patrick McGovern, the scientific director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Project at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, believes that grape wine’s creation story followed a similar arc. Tens of thousands of years ago, Paleolithic humans may have observed birds feasting on shriveled grapes, then flying in wobbly loops. Perhaps they gathered these grapes, McGovern posits, and placed them in the hollow of a rock, as a makeshift bowl.8

Returning the next day, these proto-oenologists found that the sweet fruit had collapsed into itself, forming a pale, sticky paste at the bottom. Plunging a finger into this, then tasting it, resulted in a mild, pleasing sense of intoxication.

What color would the earliest wines have been? Today’s vine-tenders carefully train and prune their vines to maximize sunlight exposure, then discard excess clusters just before harvest so that the few remaining bunches will be sure to ripen fully, thus achieving their darkest colors and richest flavors. Wild vines climbing tree trunks in dappled light don’t get the same treatment. And grape pulp is generally pale, regardless of the color of the skins.

We can only imagine how the first accidental fermentations evolved into something more purposeful. In the cellar, today’s winemakers carefully control their maceration and fermentation temperatures, lengthening soaking times to maximize color intensity. Then they punch down or pump over the cap of skins that floats to the top of a fermenting tank to further enhance color. In past centuries, this same action was achieved through hours and hours of foot treading. Before Neolithic vintners9 worked out a few basic techniques, could the very earliest wines have been pink?

In cool climates, it’s no easy feat to make a bloodred wine; it probably took generations for the earliest northern winemakers to work out how much effort and time are required to extract color, flavor, and tannin from grape skins. They weren’t able to practice every year, either. Because unlike rowan-berries, which ripen on the tree annually and reliably, wild grapevines, like people, are gendered; male vines don’t produce fruit. When both male and female vines are flowering, a gust of wind must carry the pollen of the male to the flower of the female. It’s a tedious long-distance love affair that might result in fruit only every few years.

Primeval Viticulture and Multicolored Oenology

There are, however, wild grape subspecies notable for their high percentages of hermaphroditic plants.10 The earliest humans to have found these fecund vines knew they were onto something good. As Neolithic societies transitioned from hunting and gathering to a more settled existence centered on domesticated agriculture, these hermaphroditic grapevines surely attracted the attention of enterprising farmers.

Archaeologists believe that the first of those groundbreaking vignerons11 lived in what is now known as the Republic of Georgia. Here, evidence of grape cultivation and fermentation has been traced back 8,000 years, providing the first dot on the wine-history timeline. Vine tending is so intrinsic to the culture here that the delicate looping shapes of the Georgian alphabet are said to be modeled after the curled shoots of a grapevine.

Viticulturally speaking, Georgia is a complicated place. Indigenous domesticated wine-grape varieties number in the hundreds. In the 1890s, botanists realized that phylloxera—a devastatingly destructive root louse that feasts on noble grapevines—endangered this treasure trove of plant material and began collecting samples of traditional varieties. By 1960, a publication entitled The Ampelography of Georgia listed more than 525 wine-grape varieties bred in the region since the beginning of the agricultural era. A few of those endemic cultivars appeared to be closely related to hermaphroditic wild vines. Any one of these could have produced the first wines made not thanks to a lucky accident, but with intent.

Perched at an elevation of 2,743 feet (836 m), overlooking the lush Alazani Valley and the snowcapped Caucasus Mountains, the fortified hilltop town of Sighnaghi is a popular travel destination in the Republic of Georgia. It has been settled since the Paleolithic period, but it is notable today for its eighteenth-century architecture. Tourists flock here to snap photos at the turreted church and convent, wander the narrow, sloping cobbled streets, and shop for handwoven carpets, artisanal ceramics, and wine.

WINE REGIONS AND LOCATIONS OF ANCIENT VINE COLLECTIONS

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Riotously colorful, Sighnaghi couldn’t be further from a Westerner’s notion of what a former Soviet outpost might look like. Elegant balconies, brightly painted and garnished with lacelike woodwork, festoon plaster-fronted, pastelpainted townhouses. Red-tiled roofs stand in stark relief against white mountaintops, blue sky, and the ubiquitous green of cypresses.

It’s no surprise that a well-known artist should have been drawn to this dazzling backdrop. What is odd is that when this artist decided he wanted to stay in Sighnaghi, he learned that he couldn’t, unless he opened his own winery.

With his reddish-blond beard and ponytail and the proportions of a well-fed yeti, John Wurdeman could play the part of a Viking on film. The American artist, whose works are represented by galleries in the United States, first traveled here to satisfy a longing to hear live performances of Georgia’s haunting polyphonic music. He met a singer and dancing troupe leader in Sighnaghi and fell in love. He wanted to get married. But he couldn’t, because he didn’t have enough of the right sort of wine.

Everyone in the Republic of Georgia drinks. A lot. It’s an agrarian society, where most farmhouse cellars store terra-cotta pots full of homemade wine. You can even find fermentations percolating in the basements of the drab Soviet Bloc public housing of Tbilisi.

Plus, the music that drew Wurdeman here is closely connected to the tradition of the supra, a feast centered on a proscribed system of toasting, singing, and heavy drinking. So, in order to marry his lovely bride, Wurdeman had to supply scores of high-tolerance guests with rustic country wine; to do otherwise would have been an insult to the people of Sighnaghi. But Wurdeman, the expat Yank, didn’t have a basement full of clay pots.

In 2005, while painting in a vineyard, Wurdeman struck up a friendship with an eighth-generation vinetender and wine-maker, Gela Patalishvili. One thing led to another, and two years later, the men were business partners and vineyard owners. Wurdeman got his wedding day.

The winery the men run together, Pheasant’s Tears, is located outside Sighnaghi’s city gate and past its formidable rock walls, in the hamlet of Tibaani. The north-facing vineyard, looking out over the Alazani Canal at the Caucasus, is primarily planted with the prominent Georgian red grape, Saperavi. The northernmost acre or so (half hectare), however, is devoted to a living library—one of just a handful in the nation (see map on this page)—of ancient indigenous grape varieties.

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Pheasant’s Tears has made a name for itself in the West by resurrecting these endangered varieties and following vinification practices that have been in use since preantiquity. To witness wine-making here is to get a sense of the protocols the earliest oenologists followed thousands of years ago.

The winery is a simple stone barn that appears, at first glance, to be confusingly empty. Where are the tanks and barrels? Instead, circular holes in the floor mark the gaping mouths of massive egg-shaped terra-cotta vessels, called qvevri. Nestled deep in underground cavities, cradled in sand for stability, and topped with clay lids, the qvevri stay cool year-round.

This form of winemaking disappeared under Soviet rule, when traditional qvevri-fermented dry wines were deemed “dirty” and their sale outlawed. Georgia’s vineyards were converted to factory production, eventually fulfilling 75 percent of the demand for sweet wines in the Soviet Union. Georgians didn’t drink the stuff, continuing to quietly ferment wines in clay pots in their home cellars.

The tradition of fermenting in buried pots, however, was not fully revived until 2006, when Russian president Vladimir Putin banned imports of Georgian wine, effectively killing the commercial industry. The artisan winemaking movement that arose from the ruins revived Georgia’s proud history of oenological innovation.

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For anyone familiar with the fundamentals of contemporary winery design, the elegance and efficiency of this empty room come as a stunning revelation. Why do Western winemakers pay thousands of dollars for French oak trees to be cut down, toasted, bent into shape, and shipped overseas, only to discard their barrels after three years of use? Why expend the energy to refrigerate massive stainless-steel tanks? Buried qvevri are naturally temperature-controlled, and the same clay vessel can last for centuries. Why did anyone ever think to make wine any other way?

Of course, today’s consumers like the smoky spice and silky texture of a barrel-aged red. And they crave the crisp, fresh whites that can only be made by pressing the juice off the grape skins and fermenting it in airtight stainless-steel vats, then dosing it with sulfur. But at Pheasant’s Tears, most of the white grapes are treated the same way the reds are. The juice macerates on the skins, soaking up color, texture, and tannic structure. This ensures that the wine will be long-lived, despite the lack of modern winemaking equipment. It also makes for a flavorful—if rather confusing—beverage that doesn’t jibe with our idea of what a white wine should be.

The poets of antiquity had no word for blue. Likewise, the modern American tourist has no lexicon to describe the appearance of the traditional wines of Georgia. These wines, then, could have no better ambassador than John Wurdeman, a professional painter. The guy knows his colors.

A grape that would, in the rest of the world, be categorized as “white” makes a wine that can be as cloudy as apple cider and dark as “amber,” or it can blaze like a “fire opal,” as Wurdeman describes it. And how to describe that unusual red that seems to glow from within? It’s “like a garnet with the sun backlit through it.”

In the traditional cellars of Georgia, white grapes are vinified as though they were reds, and in some cases, red grapes are treated like whites. Because thousands of years ago, early Georgian wine-makers didn’t feel beholden to critics who dole out points based on the concentration of color. They still don’t.

Rkatsiteli, for example, is a grape variety that’s a yellowish-gold color with splashes of rosy pigment, like a Comice pear. Because the juice is not pressed off the skins but is allowed to wallow in that gorgeous autumnal color, the finished wine ranges in appearance from apricot to amber. A cultivar of the same grape, called Rkatsiteli Vardisperi, bears blushing pink fruit and makes a raspberry-candy–colored wine. Pheasant’s Tears is the first estate in a looooong time to have a significantly sized planting of this grape. “Even if you do a long skincontact maceration, it never becomes red,” John Wurdeman says.

Then there’s the highly unusual Tavkveri: It’s a modern Vitis vinifera 12 variety that’s female rather than the now-typical hermaphroditic. Could it have been the world’s first domesticated wine grape? (Rkatsiteli is also in the running for this title, as are other Georgian varieties.)

At full ripeness, Tavkveri is midnight blue. But there’s a long tradition in Georgia of fermenting only its free-run juice—that is, juice that hasn’t had time to soak pigment from the skins. The resulting wine is a rosé.

The murky, mysterious liquids at Pheasant’s Tears are just a few of the many endemic Georgian varietal wines that look unlike anything most of us have ever poured in a glass. They’re impossible to categorize.

But then, what would ancient oenophiles think of today’s wines? Imagine pouring New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc for a Roman nobleman lounging in his toga. In a world where white wine looked like apple cider, he’d probably think he’d been handed a cup of piss.

The idea that wine must be either as pale as water or as red as blood, and classified as such, by color, is a recent one. These stark hues didn’t exist in wine until contemporary vinification techniques and equipment made them possible. Until relatively recently, most wines fell somewhere between cloudy gold and ruddy amber, with a large spectrum in the pink-to-cranberry range. “These distinct wine genres we have today are a bit crude,” says Wurdeman. “They leave out the thousand other shades in between.”

Classical Colors

While our Platonic ideal of wine might be red, the wine Plato actually drank probably wasn’t. The wines of antiquity weren’t strictly made from crushed grapes. Water, spices, and fruit juices were added; as we have read in Homer, this krasi was “honeyed” for sweetness.

Mas des Tourelles, a domaine in France’s southern Côtes du Rhône, runs two winemaking operations. One produces standard table wines. The other, inspired by an important archaeological site located on the estate, is a precise reproduction of a Gallo-Roman winery, following descriptions outlined by Cato.

Winemaking is carried out—in costume—according to classical treatises on the subject, following the recipes of first-century agronomist Columella. Get out of the way when the grapes in the wine press are being squashed by the lowering, by pulley, of a massive tree trunk that could easily crush your bones.

The winery is also a museum where visitors can peruse materials on ancient winemaking techniques and materials. Among them are a list of color additives, which includes saffron to add color and vine-stock ash to remove it.

Owner Diane Durand guided me around her remarkable cellar, where that year’s clay-orange–colored wines were quietly fermenting in squat open-topped amphorae that were half buried in a bed of small pebbles. Then she poured tastes of her classical wines: “Produit en Gaule,” as the labels so aptly put it.

One, called “Turriculae,” was as bold yellow as a yield sign. Mixed with seawater—yes, actual seawater—and fenugreek, it smelled like hay and tasted nutty and salty, like a Sherry.13 Another, called “Carenum,” looked like a watered-down cola. The addition of quince concentrate had halted fermentation, resulting in a sweet drink that finished dry, not dissimilar to a tawny Port.

An ancient Roman might not recognize today’s red and white wines, just as we find the wines at Mas des Tourelles to be bizarre. But Columella and Pliny both described one style that would be familiar to us: the young pinkish-orange protropos (protropum in Latin), made from “the must that runs spontaneously from the grapes before they are trodden out.”14 Other famous writers of antiquity such as Galen and, again, Pliny mention the range of colors in wine, and Aulus Gellius specifically cites a “vinum medium” thought to be a rosé that was popular back in fourth-century BC Greece.

The Bible is full of wine mentions but frustratingly lacking in detail. What descriptions we have, however, lead us to believe they weren’t all bloodred. Wines are watered down, “full of mixture,” and flavored with spices and pomegranate juice. And there are multiple references to “new” wine, a descriptor that denoted quality, since older wine had an annoying tendency to turn brown or become vinegar.

“For thousands of years, people drank wine within the first year,” winemaker Jean-Baptiste Terlay of Gérard Bertrand in France’s Languedoc region tells me. “The test of a good wine was for it to be fresh and fruity.” The best-known “new wine” today is the French Beaujolais Nouveau, which is released every November, just a couple of months after harvest. While it’s red, it tends to be translucent rather than opaque, and as it lacks pigment-stabilizing tannins, it can fade quickly.

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Unfortunately, tasting notes with the appropriate color descriptors weren’t a thing back then. To this point in history, all we have to go with are a few written descriptions, a few artworks, some ancient amphorae coated with reddish residue, and a lot of conjecture.

Historian Rod Phillips points out that Byzantine writers classified wines as either white, yellow, red, or black,15 leaving one to wonder what the word “red” really meant. One thing we can be certain of: “Mega Purple,”16 the most notorious of contemporary wine color additives, was not present in the wine at the Marriage at Cana.

Time travel to France in the Middle Ages and we’re on firmer ground. It is at this point that the northern European wine industry takes shape, thanks to the proliferation of Christianity and the establishment of monastic orders. Wherever a monastery was established, its inhabitants planted vines and devoted themselves to the study and improvement of the arts of viticulture and oenology. Their wines began to look more like what we drink today—less spice and seawater, more pure grape juice. Except there was a notable difference: The majority of the wines of Europe were not red, nor white, but pink. And France—the center of wine production from the Middle Ages on—made rosé what it is today.

According to historians, nearly 90 percent of medieval Bordelaise wine was a pink co-fermentation of red and white grapes. This was most likely a field blend—that is, a mishmash of different grape varieties grown together.17 It was nothing like the dark Bordeaux “claret” of today; indeed, a red Bordeaux wine would have been quite unpleasant. The grape varieties of the era were exceedingly tannic,18 and since the jumbled assortment of varieties would have all been harvested at the same time, as Phillips points out, only a portion would have been ripe at harvest. They were not destemmed, and those stems tended to be green and bitter.19

So the finest wine was made from grapes that had macerated for no more than one night.20 This clairet—also called vinum clarum, or vin clar—was that which flowed freely from the press. The darker pressed juice was astringent from its extended exposure to the skins and stems and could be used in small amounts to color clairet, but wouldn’t be drunk on its own. Even worse was the final press of smashed dregs. Impoverished but resourceful drinkers mixed this with water to ferment a dreadful beverage called piquette.21

And rosé wasn’t prevalent in Bordeaux alone. Phillips states that clairet was the predominant style throughout France, citing cellar inventories and wine-geeky accounts of the era. An agronomist writing in 1600, according to Phillips, is torn over which shade of clairet is “more exquisite”—partridge eye, hyacinth, orange, or rising sun—putting this wine writer to shame with his evocative metaphors.22

Cellar temperature was another factor in rosé’s rule over northern Europe. Visit Epernay, the “Capitale du Champagne,” in October, just after harvest, and you’ll find that the average temperature is around 51°F (11°C), dropping to 43°F (6°C) by November. And the subterranean chalk cellars are even chillier. This explains why historians of Champagne so often mention that all Champagne was pink until it was white (and rosé): To get pink wine from dark-skinned grapes, contemporary rosé makers “cold-soak” their crushed fruit in tanks refrigerated to 50°F (10°C) or so. Vintners working in cold cellars were inadvertently following the recipe for rosé-making, until the monk Dom Pierre Pérignon came along in the seventeenth century and determined that Pinot Noir grapes could be gently pressed to make white wines. Today’s wine-makers can control the temperature of their fermentation tanks. For vintners working through the “Little Ice Age,” which set in around 1300, this was not an option.

Cold wasn’t the only force of nature dictating rosé. Down on France’s balmy Mediterranean coast, the thirteenth-century Benedictine monks of L’Abbaye de Psalmody began cultivating grapevines in the wetlands of the Camargue and making vins de sable—sand wines—first mentioned in print in a 1406 royal decree. The vines, improbably, live and produce fruit in the white sand, where they aren’t able to muster up much pigment or tannin. “For centuries, they only made rosé here,” says Martial Pelatan, director of Domaines Listel, the giant of the Camargue. “We have always thought of rosé as a noble wine.”

And noble it was. Tavel, the sole rosé-only appellation23 of the Rhône Valley, was a favorite of fourteenth-century Pope Innocent I and a series of Russian czars. Not to mention French kings, beginning with Philippe IV, who ruled from 1285 through 1314. The long-reigning (1643 to 1715) Louis XIV was famously a fan, as was, apparently, XV: A royal edict issued in 1737 instructed estates only within a 13-mile (20-km) radius of Tavel to stamp “C.d.R.” on their barrels in an effort to protect the purity of the wine. The reds and whites of the rest of the larger Côtes du Rhône region would not be officially recognized for their distinction for another century.

The quality of wine improved over the centuries, with clear-cut red, white, and sweet styles emerging. That said, the whites tended to be pink-tinged. As Hugh Johnson points out, the top white grape of northeastern France was the pink-skinned Pinot Gris, and Dom Pérignon didn’t truly master the art of separating skins from juice until the seventeenth century. And 24