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Bordeaux’s Great Sleeper Wines? They’re Rosés

Bordeaux’s Great Sleeper Wines? They’re Rosés

For winemaker Pauline Lurton, creating a new rosé involved an intergenerational struggle. “I had to use diplomacy and argument with my dad,” she says. “I said, ‘Dad, you’ll see, if we make it more clear, it will be more appealing.’ He was worried. He wanted to keep the same style with all its aroma. I’m lucky my dad listened to me—not right away, but after two years.”

Pauline Lurton | Photo Credit: Château Reynier

The wine she produced, Rosé de Reynier, is a rosé with a golden-tinged blush; a citric scent mingling with white flowers; a fruity mid-palate; and a long, acid-driven finish that makes you want to sip it again. All that isn’t too distinct for a rosé; it basically describes lots of pink wines produced in rosé-heavy Provence.

Yet, Lurton isn’t located in Provence; she’s Bordelaise, the latest generation of a dynasty that has been making wine in the region since the late 18th century. And that makes all the difference. With her light, bright wine, Lurton, 33, is bucking her forebears’ clairet, the darkly colored rosé that has long been the style in Bordeaux. For winemakers in Lurton’s generation, producing a paler, fresher rosé not only speaks to consumer demand in an appellation where vines are being ripped out because many of its wines are going unwanted. It’s also a way to be creative against the hide-bound tradition of Bordeaux’s grand vins. And with the food-friendly qualities of the grapes that distinguish Bordelais rosé from other regions like Provence, it’s an exciting new development in the world of pink wines—if only industry buyers would pay attention.

Changing Colors

“My grandmother thinks rosé is for when you have, for instance, lots of rain. In her mind, it’s a product that you don’t really want,” says Tatiana Falcy, 25, the youngest of the winemaking matriarchy behind the Haut-Médoc’s Château du Taillan. “Our generation thinks it’s a good product.”

An adaptation for off vintages, clairet, Falcy’s grandmother’s rosé, is legally defined by a minimum darkness level. It is, in other words, a very “red” rosé. Historically, it was a way for winemakers to guarantee concentration in their red wines, by draining off some juice during maceration—a process called saignée—and turning it into a wine. Though it was “officially forbidden” by the rules of the appellation until recently, “people in the know regularly have done saignée for years and years,” says the Conseil Interprofessionnel du Vin de Bordeaux’s Cécil Ha.

Tatiana Falcy (left), Gérald (center), Armelle Cruse (right) | Photo Credit: Château du Taillan

And they acquired a taste for it that hasn’t always translated outside the region. “My dad used to love very pink clairet,” says Lurton. “But I told him, ‘You love the color, but others don’t.’” For Rosé de Reynier, Lurton eschews saignée, directly pressing the grapes instead, ever so gently as soon as they are harvested, so the juice is quickly separated from the staining skins. 

But even saignée rosés are lightening up. Made only in years when their red wine, the family’s money-maker, is not at its best, Falcy’s saignée La Rose du Taillan used to be more concentrated. Now subject to just eight hours of maceration, it is darker and richer than a Provençal rosé but, with its peachy hue and red-berry brightness, much lighter than a traditional clairet. It is bottled with a label that depicts not the old-timey château, but a schematic of a rose. “People are looking for lighter rosé and an aesthetic label,” she says. “They don’t want clairet. So, today, we work on a real rosé. It isn’t a second product; it’s a real product. We have fun with it because we couldn’t be creative and innovate so much with our red wines.”

To ensure a crystalline appearance and floral freshness, both Falcy and Lurton ferment at low temperatures and bottle quickly. Though both pick the grapes at peak ripeness and neither dedicates specific plots to rosé, they do “favor grapes that have acidity and sugar rather than tannins,” explains Falcy. “That may mean bigger berries, but there is really no recipe. It is about a feeling when you work in the vineyard.”

Dinnertime Wines

Rosé wine makes sense in Bordeaux, if you think about it. Like many great rosé regions, Bordeaux, located on the Atlantic Ocean, enjoys a refreshing marine influence. Yet, no matter how pale Bordeaux’s new rosés get, the winemakers there aren’t just chasing the South of France. Rosé de Reynier might have a lip-smacking snap, and La Rose du Taillan might be full of tart, cherry flavor. But in both, Bordeaux’s Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon bring aromatic complexity and a texture atypical in rosés. That’s one thing that distinguishes Bordeaux’s pink wines: their food-friendly power.

La Rose du Taillan – Joyeuse | Photo Credit: Château du Taillan

Cabernet’s menthol notes and Merlot’s depth bring unique characteristics to these wines. “Because they’re making Bordeaux rosés with true red-wine varieties, the fruit will get more intense,” says Nick Daddona, U.S. trade representative for Graves-Sauternes. “Instead of raspberries and apricots, it’s cherries, blackberries, and plums.”

Moreover, says Master of Wine Mary Gorman-McAdams, “There’s more texture in a Bordeaux rosé, so you can have it with chicken and salad, but also with pork or skirt steak.”

Even without skins, the grapes’ structure lends itself to the aging that makes the wine fit for a meal. “You can get a good year out of these, and you still get the proper fruit, but they become more saline,” adds Gorman-McAdams. “That makes them more gastronomic.”

Indeed, because it isn’t produced every year, Falcy’s current vintage is a 2021. “This is not a Provence rosé, so it can age,” she says. “It will change. The fruit will not be as fresh. It will have more ripe notes, which makes it more complex in the mouth.” The texture of the grapes helps it hold up. “It has acidity and a bit of tannins, but it’s velvety, and that makes it nice with a salad or quiche.”  

The gastronomic power of Bordelais pinks is even more evident in clairets, where the longer extraction brings greater structure. Though these wines might seem old-fashioned to a new generation, both Gorman-McAdams and Daddona are fans. “Are you going to drink super pale rosé, or a deeper, sturdier rose that will go with food better?” ask Daddona. “One of my favorite pairings with clairet is pizza. It can go with strongly spiced foods. It goes great with game, like a duck liver terrine.”

“In the past, those saignée wines might have suffered from pyrazines, but there’s more know-how today in Bordeaux. Younger people have beefed up their techniques and are making rosé more seriously, coaxing full ripeness and harvesting earlier. Obviously climate change is also happening, but they’re still getting acidity,” says Gorman-McAdams. “Clairet fits into that category of a chillable red. I call it a gastronomic rosé. When it’s chilled, it’s refreshing but with a nice tannic grip. It’s a perfect Thanksgiving wine, a summer red, or an all-year wine for how we eat today.”

It might be its trendy chillability that garnered Château Massereau’s fruity, spicy Vin de France clairet “ultra-positive” feedback at the natural-wine festival Raw Wine in New York last year, according to family owner Anne Marie Chaigneau. But the low-intervention producer’s au courant winemaking shows the evolution of Bordelais clairet as clairet. The juice is not simply drawn off the red wine maceration. Instead, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot grapes are harvested early, macerated in cement for 48 to 72 hours, and vinified on the lees in old barrels and concrete eggs. The result? A wine that’s “more fruity than a rosé, with more structure, and freshness, which allows it to fit in with all kinds of dishes,” says Chaigneau.

All these wines might sound appealing at dinnertime, were it not for something else that distinguishes Bordelais rosé: Little of it is available to us in the United States. Rosé comprises just 3 percent of Bordeaux’s 600,000 annual bottles, and 80 percent of it is consumed domestically. Other labels—Clarendelle Bordeaux Rosé, with its blue-fruit backbone and salty savoriness; Les Hauts de Smith Bordeaux Rosé, full of powdery cherry notes; fleshy Domaine de Chevalier Rosé, with its blackberry oomph—might be slightly easier to come by, but Lurton’s rosé is sold in California only, while Falcy’s can be mail ordered from France. The winemakers say its scarcity is due to buyers’ reluctance to gamble on it. “They say, ‘Bordeaux, you should be more modern,’ and then you try and the distributor says, ‘It’s too modern for Bordeaux,’” complains Lurton.

With Provence dominating a stagnant rosé market—3 million more hectoliters of rosé were made globally in 2021 than were consumed—Bordeaux rosés might be what’s needed to shake things up. “Hopefully as the rosé market continues to mature, people will look for something different, and, in that sense, there is an opportunity for Bordeaux because, while it’s a small proportion of the wine in Bordeaux, the region is very large, so it’s not insignificant,” says Gorman-McAdams. 

Unicorn Bubbles

If Bordeaux’s still rosés are scarce in the States, its sparkling rosés are moreso. Crémant, the region’s traditional-method sparkling, accounts for just 1.5 percent of Bordeaux wine, and crémant rosé is a tiny portion of that. Still, wines like the peaches-and-almonds Louis Vallon Crémant de Bordeaux Blanc de Noirs, and earthy Amélie Constant Brut Nature Rosé, with its strawberry candy aroma, are worth seeking out. “The grape varieties aren’t Chardonnay and Pinot, so they have this lovely floral lift, more so than the biscuity note of Champagne, even when aged on lees,” says Gorman-McAdams. Proper apéritif wines, “they are light, round, and balanced, with pretty fruit and texture.” 

And with the emergence of pét-nat rosés, we are seeing the evolution of Bordeaux’s sparkling rosés as well. Regional pioneers in the style, fifth-generation winemakers Guillame and Rachel Bossuet-Hubert produce L’Amour du Risque, a Cabernet Franc pét-nat rosé with a tight, fierce bubble and a caramel apple character at their biodynamic estate, Château Peybonhomme-Les-Tours. As a style outside the classification, it is labeled a Vin de France, but that’s just fine with the siblings. “We made this wine quite simply because we wanted to make it. It doesn’t matter if it’s not in the appellation,” says Rachel. “We like to innovate.”

Rachel & Guillaume Bossuet-Hubert | Photo Credit: Château Peybonhomme-Les-Tours

At just under $30, sparkling wines like Amélie Constant and L’Amour du Risque are priced on the high end for Bordeaux rosés, though they’re consistent with pricing for other French bubbles made outside Champagne. Bordeaux’s still rosé wines hover in the $10 to $20 range, and their affordability makes them all the more worth the hunt. Says Lurton, whose rosé retails at $14, “With Provence rosé’s price going up and up, I think we have a way to enter the market and have a final place in the customer’s heart because of quality and pricing.” 

That’s important in a region where the grand vins seem so unapproachable. “Lots of people are afraid of Bordeaux. They think that they need to know a lot to really enjoy our red wine,” says Ha. “But nobody is afraid of rosé.”