Many of the first recorded wines were rosé, light libations made by watering down field blends of combined white and red grapes. In ancient Greece, it was considered civilized to dilute wine. There was a widespread belief that only barbarians—drunkards who raped and murdered—drank pure wine. The Spartan King Cleomenes I, who was driven to insanity and eventually committed suicide in a prison cell, even claimed that drinking undiluted wine led to his downfall.
During harvest, workers would crush red and white grapes together with their feet, holding onto suspended ropes for balance. The juice would then be placed into pithoi, large ceramic containers, for fermentation, resulting in an oxidative style. This pink juice was slightly off-dry and tannic from contact with the grape skins, seeds, and stems, a far cry from the rosés of today. Eventually, the Greeks and Romans explored separating grapes by color, and red and (mostly) white wines were born. However, these early examples of red wine were often tannic and hard to drink. For quite some time, the general preference was for the less harsh, lighter-colored wines. Rosé remained the beverage of choice for centuries.
In the sixth century BC, the Phocaeans brought grape vines from Greece to Massalia (modern day Marseille) in southern France. The wines they produced were, again, field blends of white and red grapes. Naturally light in color, these pleasant pink wines soon were talked about around the Mediterranean.
When the Romans landed later in Provence, they had already heard all about the pink wines of Massalia. They took these coveted wines and used their super-connected trade networks to make them popular around the Mediterranean. As a result, the south of France is considered the epicenter of rosé even today.
During the Middle Ages, it was rumored that Bordeaux created violet-colored rosé. The wine picked up the nickname “Claret” (in Latin, claritas means “clarity”) and soon became fashionable around France. When Bordeaux came under British rule, Claret wines became the new darling in England. Writer Samuel Johnson famously stated, “He who aspires to be a serious wine drinker must drink Claret.” Until the late 1900s, the English and their precious Claret were inseparable.
In the 19th century, French tourists started to flock to places like the Côte d'Azur in southern France. After a long day of playing pétanque and swimming in the sea, they would relax with a chilled glass of rosé. Suddenly, these simple local wines became a symbol of glamour, leisure, and summer.
For many, rosé also became vin de soif, a “wine to quench thirst”—an unfussy wine to drink while cooking or offer as an aperitif before dinner. Many parents would even serve it to their children as a treat. Jacques Pépin, one of the most famous French chefs today, first drank rosé when he was only six or seven years old. “It was wonderful,” he recalls. “My father would start putting a tablespoon of rosé in a glass of water, just to change the color a little bit and get a taste of what it is. You have to understand, back then, there was no soda or anything. There was water, and then there was wine. That was it.”
The image of rosé started to tarnish with the creation of two brands: Mateus and Lancers, both off-dry pink wines from Portugal. Mateus, created by Fernando van Zeller Guedes, hit the market in late 1943 and was an overnight success.
Around the same time, an American wine merchant named Henry Behar sailed to Portugal to visit the José Maria da Fonseca estate. While there, he tasted a wine called Faisca, which was slightly sweet and pink in color. He found it quite refreshing. At the time, it probably was—he had spent all day tasting rich table wines and fortified wines! Compelled to share Faisca with the world, he brought the wine back to the United States, distributing the brand that would soon become an icon.
Since the name Faisca was considered too close to “fiasco” for the American market, Behar instead named it after his favorite Velasquez painting, “Las Lanzas.” The wine’s squat ceramic bottle set it apart from other wines on the liquor store shelves, and Americans couldn’t resist. But before long, disaster struck. In a ceramic container, the wine quickly oxidized. Eventually, Lancers’ bottle was changed to a thick glass, and then to a frosted glass. To this day, it is still quite popular in Central Europe simply because most people think it is liquor instead of wine. It is also very cheap and very sweet, a combination for which there remain plenty of fans.
Slowly, people began turning their noses up at the quality of Mateus. Sales dropped. To revive the brand, compelling advertising campaigns featuring everyone from Jimi Hendrix to the Queen of England ran all over the UK and leaked worldwide. The wine was instantly back in fashion. After the 1974 Revolution, when democracy returned to Portugal, the United States rushed to import 20 million cases of Mateus rosé in the hopes of continuing their established relationship with the brand. Americans were not keen to lose their pink fix.
Yet it was a specific, popular audience that loved rosé. Kermit Lynch started his now-famous eponymous business in the 1970s, in a small shop in Berkeley, California. He says:
When I opened my business, and when I grew up in wine, rosé had a terrible reputation. In the serious wine community, people did not drink rosé. It wasn’t considered real wine; it was just something made from the rotten grapes that could not go into the red. There were a few rosés back then, one of them in a weird jug—they were just wretched! When I started, I didn’t have any rosé for sale. Of course, I had a teensy store; I wasn’t attracting the Lancers crowd.
Mateus and Lancers changed the way people thought about rosé. Novelty products, they made the public think all pink wine was inexpensive, sweet, and made in bulk. There are even phrases from the era that fondly refer to good times by referencing “Lancers poisoning” or the “Mateus hangover.”
George West of El Pinal Winery in Lodi, California, made what is documented as the first white Zinfandel in 1869. The viticultural commissioner at the time found the wine impressive and began to advocate for Zinfandel’s use outside of red wine, but for over a century, this pink wine struggled to gain any real traction.
In the 1970s, Bob Trinchero of Sutter Home Winery created white Zinfandel as a byproduct, to concentrate his red Amador County Zinfandel. Trinchero gave his first experiment a nickname of Oeil de Perdrix, which translates from French to “Eye of the Partridge.” This term dates to the Middle Ages in Champagne, where the name was given to pink wines as a reference to the pale pink color of the eye of a partridge struggling in death’s grip. Only at a time as dark as this would a marvelous wine be given such a grave name! Sutter Home Oeil de Perdrix was available only in the winery tasting room for the first year.
The US government wasn’t content with Trinchero’s pet name and insisted that a description of the wine be printed in English on the label. As a result, the bottle also said, in very small print, “a white Zinfandel wine.”
It wasn’t until 1975 that this wine made a splash. The story the winery tells is that a stuck fermentation occurred, and the wine’s sugar didn’t fully convert to alcohol. The resulting white Zinfandel was slightly sweet. Instead of trying to fix the problem or relegating the project to the tasting room once again, Sutter Home opened the floodgates and released (slightly sweet) Sutter Home White Zinfandel. Americans loved it. After all, it was a style like that of Mateus and Lancers, which were still beloved by many—and now, Americans could also support their local farmers. White Zinfandel spread like wildfire throughout the 1980s.
Nonetheless, in the 1990s, the world of rosé and the world of fine wine were still separate. Sommeliers would never serve a bottle of rosé because serious wine drinkers would never ask for it. Rajat Parr, a sommelier in San Francisco during that decade, recalls:
No one cared about it, no one thought about it, no one drank it. At the time, there wasn’t rosé made for the purpose of being rosé. A winemaker maybe had some leftover grapes or something that didn’t ripen, and that was what the rosé was. No one was going out and saying, “I am going to make great rosé.”
Served in cafés and cheap restaurants, the wine remained on the fringes for almost 15 years. Parr adds, “From 1996 to 2009, I didn’t serve a single rosé. Never ever. It wasn’t until we opened RN74 in San Francisco that we started to serve rosé.”
In the early 2000s, rosé’s popularity started to build. Resorts and beach destinations around the US started stocking pink French wine. Americans’ fascination with France was on the rise, and with it, their interest in rosé. Celebrities like Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt and Drew Barrymore soon got in on the action with their own rosé production.
In August of 2014, panic struck when the Hamptons ran out of rosé. The shortage was definitive proof: Americans love rosé. The pink drink had become mainstream—and social media was about to turn it into a superstar. Josh Ostrovsky (“The Fat Jew”) was one champion; he went on to collaborate on a product called “White Girl Rosé,” a California Sauvignon Blanc and Zinfandel blend. Hundreds of thousands of bottles have been sold.
There have been clever collaborations in France as well. Jeremy Seysses of Domaine Dujac and Aubert de Villaine of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti co-founded Domaine Triennes in the Var and started producing tasty rosé. Sommeliers rushed to include it on their lists; it seemed every New York City restaurant was pouring it by the glass in the summer of 2014.
Like the baguette and the beret, rosé has been adopted into American culture. The charming nature of the beverage is hard to deny, and as domestic and international examples have improved in quality, it is no longer considered a guilty pleasure. Rosé is exactly what the wine world needed: an unpretentious but delicious option.
Some argue that rosé’s popularity is just a phase, but others see the recent craze as the introduction of a new style. Rajat Parr is one of them. Today, he is the winemaker and partner at Domaine de la Côte and Sandhi wineries. Sandhi has released high-quality, delicious still and sparkling Pinot Noir rosé—unimaginable in the restaurant world Parr inhabited just two decades ago. “Rosé, it’s here to stay,” he says.
As our fascination with the pink beverage grows, so does production. According to the Rosé Wine Economic Observatory, between 2002 and 2013, rosé production in France increased by 31%. Drinkers were not far behind. In France, consumption has nearly tripled since 1990. In 2013, America was second in the world, just behind France, in consumption of the pink drink.
Smart wineries are keeping a long view and focusing on producing the best possible rosé. Other producers, though, are taking a different approach, pumping out cheap blush wines to meet demand, hoping consumers will drink them ice cold and miss their flaws. Jeremy Seysses comments, “We are seeing a massive increase in bulk pricing. While this is a boon to the growers, this means that a number of clients are now turning to other areas for their supply. In France, we are seeing a new wave of very mediocre rosé hit the shelves.”
But hope is not lost. Wine professionals and consumers can push the market in the right direction, demanding the good stuff over soulless, sterile examples. Let that pink bathwater stay in the tub! Seek out high-quality producers and celebrate how amazing rosé can be.
Clos Canarelli Corse Figari Rosé - Corsica, France
Château Simone Palette Rosé - Palette, France
Venica & Venica "Jesera" Pinot Grigio - Friuli, Italy
Stein Rosé Secco - Mosel, Germany
Franz Strohmeier Schilcher Frizzante Rosé - Steiermark, Austria
Domaine de Montmollin "Oeil de Perdrix" - Neuchâtel, Switzerland
Illustration by Lyle Railsback for Drink Pink
Cartledge, Paul. Sparta and Lakonia: A Regional History 1300-362 BC. 2nd ed. Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2001.
Herodotus. Histories. Translated by A. D. Godley. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1920.
This is an expanded excerpt from the new book by sommelier Victoria James, Drink Pink: A Celebration of Rosé, released today! The book further explores rosé's history, the key regions of production, and producers to know, with quotes and recipes from sommeliers and chefs.
Glass image courtesy of Wine Folly