The Not-So-Pink Plight of Natural Rosé

While it seems like every other day a new producer is feeding the market his or her new rosé, there is one category of wine that seems to be immune to the trend. Aaron Ayscough on the plight of natural rosé, and why so few winemakers even bother to make it.

natural wine rose punch

Bus passengers in Paris this month are treated to a final confirmation of summer’s arrival, in the form of rosé advertisements from the Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins de Provence. This year’s poster depicts an empty seaside lounge in which three glasses of rosé glow with a radioactive pink that slightly surpasses that of the sunset in the background. It carries the elliptical subheading “9pm, dinner…” along with the probably unintentional implication that whoever was drinking the rosé has ditched it to go have dinner.

Summer in France brings rosé in ubiquity the same way it does in the U.S., but there are some notable places where you’ll be hard-pressed to find more than just a few options: Paris’s natural wine establishments. Although Le Verre Volé owner Cyril Bordarier insists he doesn’t stock much rosé because he simply doesn’t like drinking it, part of the issue is that respected natural rosés are simply a relative rarity.

At Paris natural wine shop Cru et Découverts, owner Michael Lemasle does allow that certain winemakers “just about succeed in creating something profound from Mourvedre,” but on the whole doesn’t rate the category highly, while veteran Paris restaurateur Pierre Jancou draws a line between the sort of rosé depicted in the aforementioned advertisement and those that might fall under the banner of natural. “The habit of drinking rosé that’s very clear, filtered to death, obviously sulfured, with some ice in it for an apéro is one world,” Jancou says, “and natural rosés are another.”

So why are there so few natural rosés on the market?

The short answer seems to be that natural winemaking is to rosé what live musicians are to hip-hop. The economics are more challenging, and simpler substitutes are always close at hand. (In natural wine, the latter might be found in countless red or white vins de soif—or “thirst-quenching wines”—whose freshness and drinkability are loosely comparable to those of a rosé.) This dynamic seems to have created a mild prejudice among natural wine virtuosos against rosé as a genre. But why, exactly?

“For whites and reds we accept aromas that can be animal, mineral, vegetal,” says Gilles Masson of the Centre du Rosé in Provence. “On the other hand, for rosés, from which we expect aromas of freshness, fruit, and flowers; it shocks us a little to encounter [these flavors] in natural rosés.”

Jean-Pascal Sarnin, of natural Burgundy négociants Sarnin-Berrux, brings up a practical hurdle for natural rosés: temperature control. Not in the fermentation or the cellar, but at the point of sale. “Most rosé is consumed in hot places at hot times, and unsulfured or low-sulfur wines are very sensitive to temperature,” says Sarnin, whose own low-sulfur rosé doesn’t, unfortunately, see stateside distribution. “Very few of the restaurants or bars where a lot of rosé is sold have good temperature control.”

France’s widespread lack of air-conditioning is a significant challenge itself. But in the rosé retail market, nothing counts more than the color.

The reality is that consumers in both the U.S. and France mistrust dark or cloudy rosés. And a central tenet of natural wine production is a refusal to employ color correction techniques, which range from fining with isinglass (an agent derived from fish bladders) or casein (a milk protein) or PVPP (polyvinylpyrrolidone, an insoluble white powder used to absorb polyphenols that is forbidden in organic wine) to, in the most extreme cases, charcoal filtering. Natural rosés, in general, tend to veer far from the glimmering pink Provençal archetype.

Low addition of sulfur, another feature of natural wine, can make rosés susceptible to oxidation, yielding more orange tints, as in the “Canta Manana” from cult Banyuls winemaker Alain Castex, or Agnès & René Mosse’s sparkling rosé “Moussamoussettes.” And without fining or filtration, many natural rosés can also be a bit cloudy, like Sicily-based winemaker Frank Cornelissen’s Etna rosato, “Susucaru.”

Gilles Masson, in his role as Director of Research and Experimentation at the Centre du Rosé in Provence, has vinified hundreds of rosés. He’s adamant that consumers ought to accept rosé in a multitude of colors; the Centre du Rosé has even published a document codifying the chromatic range of rosé wine, which ranges from “currant” to “onion skin” to “pink marble,” among many others.

“On the other hand, when we try to make rosé with zero sulfur, that is still very complicated,” he admits. “It doesn’t really give the wines that the market expects today. It’s a very different style of wine.”

While Masson allows that natural winemaking tends to yield rosés that are “more oxidative, more orange,” he suggests that sulfur-free rosés are unpopular less for their color than for their aromas and flavors. “For whites and reds we accept aromas that can be animal, mineral, vegetal,” he says. “On the other hand, for rosés, from which we expect aromas of freshness, fruit, and flowers; it shocks us a little to encounter [these flavors] in natural rosés.”

But then you have Southern Rhône winemaker Eric Pfifferling, the Questlove of natural rosé production. He’s the guy who makes the sulfur-free, live-band thing work and receives the highest critical accolades, even from natural wine devotees who turn up their noses at other rosés.

Pfifferling, whose his age-worthy, sulfur-free Tavel rosés loom large over any discussion of natural rosé, sees these problems as one and the same: “The problem [with the rosé market] is that winemakers make ‘readymades,’” he says, using the English term. “Wines are made that are meant to be drunk in a year or two, whereas I have a cuvée of Tavel rosé that I age in barrel for almost 24 months. It’s a wine that attains a patina with the test of time. People are surprised when they taste it.”

His Tavels, however, might best be considered rosés in name only. The grapes undergo carbonic maceration, and the wine emerges a luminescent, semi-opaque purple, visually almost indistinguishable from red Beaujolais produced in a similar manner. It’s his “Chemin de la Brune,” an un-macerated, direct-press rosé that is practically unique in the natural wine world for attaining, in most vintages, the purity of both fruit and color found in the most prized conventional rosés.

Pfifferling bottles it, like his Tavels, in green burgundy bottles. So what if it hides the color?

“Color doesn’t necessarily have a flavor,” he says.