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Tickling Pink

What you didn’t know—or even think—about rosé
Journalist and book author Robert Camuto

Posted: Jun 23, 2014 11:00am ET

If you're like me, you don't reflect much when sharing a bottle of good summer rosé. You chill, open, pour and drink.

But in Provence, the leader of fine rosé, a lot of thought goes into rosé—right down to the shade of pink that attracted you in the first place.

"Today people like rosés that are very pale that give the impression of lightness," explains Gilles Masson, one of the world's foremost rosé thinkers. "It's aesthetic—the idea that rosé should not only be good, it should be beautiful."

"Why deny the pleasure of the eyes?" adds the blue-eyed Frenchman, throwing in the obligatory reference to beautiful women.

At 47, Masson has served for 15 years as director of the Center for Research and Experimentation on Rosé Wine, the world's only research facility dedicated to pink wine. The center is housed in a peachy-pink farmhouse with its own test winery and lab, at the edge of Vidauban in the Côtes de Provence wine country. It was founded in 1999, before the world rosé boom took hold, by Provence winemaking groups who believed in a bigger potential for rosé. Today it conducts studies for winemakers throughout France, Italy and Spain, and its lab analyzes 1,000 samples annually from across the globe.

The team—Masson, four other enologists and four researchers—has done important work for rosé quality, shaping the way vines are cultivated, grapes are harvested and juice is vinified. The center's early studies, for example, showed how winery refrigeration (cold rackings of grape must followed by cold fermentations) extracted maximum aromas without the dark color.

These days the center is studying more aesthetic questions, such as how the color of rosé affects our perceptions.

Some years ago the center gave Parisian consumer test groups two glasses of the same rosé—one au naturel and the other colored with red tasteless food dye. The groups overwhelmingly said they tasted more fruit aromas in the darker sample.

"But," explains Masson, "it was the same wine."

In other words, we taste with our eyes. The color of the wine made people believe they tasted a difference.

Now, after a revolution in rosé winemaking, consumers apparently think differently. French consumers now given two samples say they detect more aromas and "finesse" in the lighter sample.

Masson is fascinated with the color we associate with two things: "The first association of pink is with something outside the normal, different. And the second association is with affection. L'amour."

Such associations are cultural, he explains: In China, for example, where red is revered as a symbol of power, people don't get pink and often view rosé as a mere watered-down red.

Masson's team has identified seven basic families of rosé color, including today's popular salmon, peach, apricot and litchi tones. Each is informed by the mix of grapes (Grenache, Cinsault, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Carignan and Rolle) in the blend.

Photograph of rose colors.

Rosés come in a wide range of "pinks," from melon to currant (groseille).

"We are in the middle of studying each color from a psychological and sociological standpoint," Masson says.

Why put this much study into a wine destined for summer terraces and barbecues?

Provence winemakers, happy to lead the rosé boom, don't want to end up on the heap of discarded fads like Beaujolais Nouveau, Masson says. "The vignerons want this beautiful adventure to continue. They want to be more than passengers on a train—they want to be driving the train."

But when it comes to drinking the stuff, it's best to forget science and connoisseurship and just drink.

"We mustn't sanctify rosé," says Masson, who isn't even disturbed by the recent French trend of serving rosé with ice cubes in a large wineglass called rosé piscine (rosé pool). "You must leave people free to use wine the way they want. We mustn't put rosé in a box like red wine and some whites. We don't want people to feel like prisoners."

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