Elizabeth Gabay MW has been a member of the wine trade since 1986, where she began working with the wines of southeastern France. She moved there in 2002, four years after becoming an MW. She has researched the traditional Provençal wine bottle, the history of wine in the Alpes Maritimes and the evolution of rosé. In January 2018, her book ‘Rosé: Understanding the Pink Wine Revolution’ was published by the Classic Wine Library. Ms Gabay is also the president of the Jury for the International Rosé Championship, making her one of the world’s authorities on rosé wines. She spoke to Meininger’s about the evolution of the style.
How did your thinking on rosé evolve as you were writing the book?
I started off thinking this book was going to be just a general guide to rosé, which I could do in six months. It was a bit like opening a can of worms, discovering rosés all over the place. The book changed from being a general overview, to looking at how historically rosés have developed and why there are different styles.
Speaking of different styles, isn’t it true that consumers prefer pale rosés?
There is a consumer bias. There is an enormous amount of ignorance about rosé, even amongst Master of Wine students, where they still look at the colour without looking any further. Yet you go to Central Europe, or Greece – if the rosé doesn’t have colour, it’s not a rosé.
I have spoken to producers who are actively trying for that very pale pink colour. Do you think that they’re training consumers to believe that it’s got to be pale pink?
They are training consumers to think that it should be pale pink and when you consider that the biggest sellers – d’Esclan, Minuty – are all pale, I think half the world’s market of rosé at the moment is pale. There are a lot of producers who make fantastic rosé, saying they cannot sell it dark, so they’re making a dark rosé for local consumption and a pale rosé for international consumption. But there are people looking for niche rosé that is not pale.
Sales of rosé are exploding. Have you got any thoughts on why rosé, why now?
I’ve just done the Pays d’Oc tasting and a lot of the big comments for both rosé and Pays d’Oc is that a vast number of consumers don’t want to have to do a wine course to taste the wine. What rosé was offering them was a chance to taste a wine that didn’t need experience of appellations and grapes; you could just enjoy it.
Do you mean in the sense that because rosé has been less taken seriously, consumers feel like they can just buy a bottle without needing a wine education?
Yes, exactly. It’s liberating. No one will judge you if you have the wrong bottle of rosé. On the whole, people will not judge you if you have the wrong bottle. There is no right or wrong bottle. That will cover a vast percentage of rosé sales.
This explosive trend must be throwing up microtrends and other trends. How is the category evolving?
Biodynamic rosé. What’s interesting about biodynamic – or organic – rosé is the fact it uses natural yeast. We are seeing just how commercial yeast-driven most of the rosés we’re tasting are, whether they’re strawberry fruit or raspberry fruit or grape fruit. For me, natural wines or biodynamic rosés are an exciting niche. You see all those different types of flavours. Rosés that are made to age, that is really exciting. That gets my hot spots on rosés, because you’ve moved on from primary fruit flavours. Most of us see a rosé that’s a year old and think we’ll put it in cooking, so most people never get to taste secondary flavours on rosé. Yes, some of them have a slightly oxidative character, but as long as that acidity is there, they’re brilliant.
Is this going to be killing the golden goose though. If people like rosé because it’s uncomplicated, why complicate it and make it a wine thing?
That’s a question that so many people ask me. I don’t think so. The number of niche people, the percentage of people who are going to go for niche rosé, is so small. You can say it might kill the market, but at the same time, how much longer can sales of rosé continue? We’ve had Sauvignon Blanc, we’ve had Chardonnay, we’ve had rosé; there has to be something else that will take its place. For me, if rosé producers do not take a step back and say, “Okay, we’re real wine,” they’ll become a 20-year bubble wonder and something else will take its place. The niche has to develop. They have no choice.
In researching your book, what was the thing that surprised you the most about the category?
Everything. I thought I knew it all. Living in Provence, you think you know a lot about rosé. I was gobsmacked at the fact I had to recalibrate my tasting when I got weird rosé. One example, I got sent a case of Slovakian rosé. High acidity, some residual sugar, lots of fruit and I went, “Oh God, do I really have to taste through all of these?” I put them to one side and I retasted them later on in the day and I thought, “Actually, I’m beginning to get a bit of the Cabernet fruits; it’s quite nice.” Then purely by luck on Twitter, I saw a post saying beetroot and goat’s cheese is good with rosé. I thought I’d try it with the Slovakian rosés: beetroots, central Europe – outstanding! I was gobsmacked. I was so excited. All of a sudden, mentally I was coming out of the Provence rosé world, thinking these are beautifully made wines, but so different. I think even though we’re all professionals at a wine fair and we think we’re open for looking at different styles, I would bet my bottom dollar that everyone who’s come to me and said they’ve tasted some nice rosés, the majority are going to be Provence style.
What impact has the rosé boom had on Provence?
I started off selling rosés in Provence in the 1980s. They were coarse, second-hand red wines. Nobody wanted them. Maybe for four weeks in the summer. Now, it’s almost overwhelming. They’re going to do this International Rosé Day with pink balloons and pink fountains. They’re going to dye the fountains pink! So, they don’t have to struggle to sell their rosé.
One of the things that wine history shows it that the worst thing that can happen to a region is a big commercial success, because they start doing high volume wines and cutting corners.
Are you seeing that kind of thing happening in Provence?
Yes, definitely. I think 2017, which was a much smaller vintage, has been a bit of a shock because they haven’t been able to sell the volumes they’re used to selling. The other big problem is all the other regions around the world are now trying to produce Provence-style rosé. So, when I was doing the book, I would say, “Okay, what is Provence-style rosé? Can we define it?” It’s pale pink, it’s dry, fresh acidity, slightly fruity. What’s Provence-style about that? Anyone can make it. This is a big discussion. A lot of producers in Provence are now taking a step back and asking what makes a Provence rosé.
If you had to make a prediction, where would you say rosé is going in the next few years?
I think volume and popularity will go down because the consumer gets bored. What I’m hoping is that it won’t become so unfashionable that some of the exciting experiments going on will be ignored. I’d like it if you could go to a restaurant, look at the wine list and people will say, “Would you like an older rosé or a wood-aged rosé?” I’m hoping the boom will last long enough for those to take root and establish a bit more.
Interview by Felicity Carter.