Rosé Champagne gets Serious for Valentine's Day

by Jim Clarke Illustration by Dimitri Drjuchin
January 2007

If you can’t talk about rosé Champagne on Valentine’s Day, when can you? I suppose I could recommend it at some other time of the year, and even pretend there’s nothing particularly romantic about it: here’s a good wine, try a bottle. But wine without romance is just a commodity, and romance without wine…well, it happens, of course, but a few sips of the right stuff can certainly help the wheels turn a bit more smoothly. And Valentine’s Day is a time when we want to avoid any unnecessary bumps in the road.

Rosé Champagne does stand out, then, for its romantic character and because it can aspire to greatness in a way that rosés seem incapable of. Every summer, we wine writers trot out the old chestnut about rosé’s virtues and how well it suits the season: “How refreshing! How light! Summery wine that you don’t have to think about, the cheap paperback novel of the wine world.” Damning praise, because what we’re really saying is that drinking rosé is slumming.

Unless it’s Champagne. Rosé Champagne is, indeed, fun, festive, and refreshing, but it can also be complex and rich. Nicolas Feuillatte and Laurent Perrier have both made a specialty of rosé; the former’s non-vintage brut shows how well the bread dough notes typical of Champagne can meld and blend with the refreshing red-fruit notes (in this case, cherry) that come with that pink shade. That color, of course, comes from the grape skins, and Laurent Perrier actually uses two different means to get it. They make their non-vintage Cuvée Rosé with the saignée method (separating juice from red grapes – in this case Pinot Noir – by letting it run off before fermentation) while the vintage Alexandra Rosé is additionally lightened by a touch of Chardonnay (about 20%). The full-bodied Cuvée Rosé is fruitier, with lots of raspberry, strawberry, and cherry notes that show its Pinot Noir origins. The Alexandra Rosé 1997 is spicier, with darker fruit aromas of black cherry and plum augmented by notes of cardamom and graphite as well as a touch of earth. The ’97 is the current release; that long period of lees-aging adds an extra dimension to this wine.

While Laurent Perrier has brought out their ‘97s, a few other Champagne houses have moved on a year and found ’98 to be the year to think pink. Pol Roger, for one. Some rosé Champagnes seem to forget that they’re Champagne – those leesy, nutty, brioche-like notes can get hidden under the more assertive aromas of red fruit. The latter are present in the Pol Roger Brut Rosé 1998 – especially raspberry – but touches of marzipan, fudge, and spice serve to remind us of the distinctive flavor profile of paler bubbly. The Gosset Celebris Rosé 1998(Celebris is their vintage line, made exclusively from Grand Cru vineyards) has similar virtues in a richer, fuller-bodied package: cherry, croissant, bread, and a bit of earth.

Gosset’s big-boned style has often been compared to those masters of full-bodied Champagne, Krug If I occasionally indulge in a lottery ticket, it’s so I can spend an afternoon dreaming about being able to drink Krug more often. I suppose you could say they give their rosé short shrift – they don’t bother to make a vintage version, just the non-vintage (excuse me, “multi-vintage”) Brut Rosé . However, there are no signs that they skimp in the winemaking. As I mentioned, it’s full and rich (though not quite as full as their “Grand Cuvée and vintage wines); it’s also smooth and elegant – big, but not bulky or ungainly by a long shot. It shows notes of dark raspberry and cherry supported by touches of vanilla, fudge, vanilla, and ginger. This is no after-thought, and if pink, bubbly wine seems frivolous or light-hearted to you, be careful – this wine may send a more serious message than you intended – as if the price hadn’t already told you that.

Price isn’t the only way to suggest seriousness in the wine world. There’s also ageability. As with most wines, aging Champagne is usually a matter for you and your cellar, but Veuve-Clicquot recently released an older wine, the 1985 Rare Vintage Rosé . Since it’s been aged by the producer you can be pretty sure it’s been maturing in the perfect environment and not languishing in someone’s closet. There’s still some fruit left on the nose, but the aged Pinot Noir element comes to the fore in notes of mushroom and forest floor. The palate adds a touch of leather to the dark raspberry notes, and the texture is silky and rich, with soft bubbles providing just the right amount of lift and freshness.

If you don’t want your wine choice to lead you into deeper waters than you’re ready for, you can play off your selection by focusing on the wine’s food pairing qualities, these wines go great with mushrooms, nuts, risotto, many meats…or, for that matter, chocolate.

Recommended Wines (Prices are approximate):

Nicolas Feuillatte Brut Rosé NV ($40)
Laurent Perrier Cuvée Rosé ($55)
Laurent Perrier Alexandra Rosé 1997 ($100)
Pol Roger Brut Rosé 1998 ($75)
Gosset Celebris Rosé 1998 ($120)
Krug Brut Rosé NV ($250)
Veuve-Clicquot Rare Vintage Rosé 1985 ($120)