Rosé may have become synonymous with Côtes-de-Provence, but it hasn’t always been that way. In fact, the word rosé does not come from Provence at all - it was invented in... Argenteuil.
The present-day colour distinctions – white, red and rosé – are relatively recent. Until the spread of phylloxera – and with it the almost mandatory replanting of the entire area under vine – most European vineyards were planted to field blends, i.e. white and red-skinned grape varieties were grown in the same plots. After being mixed together in the press, they produced clear, light red wines, or ‘Vinum clarum’ as the Romans used to refer to them. Also, the duration of skin-contact macerations in the tanks were often short and making wine quickly, with high acidity, was considered healthier.
Bordeaux’s ‘clairets’ meaning light wines (today a protected appellation) are well-known, but this was the case in many other wine regions, such as Puligny, in Burgundy, where the monks also made ‘clairet’. Nowadays only white wines are grown here.
Argenteuil, the source of wines for Paris (...and Versailles)
Until the advent of the railway, the capital had to source a large part of its wines locally. Argenteuil is known for its asparagus, but in the 17th century vineyards covered up to 1,000 ha, which is almost 60% of the current locality! After a single marketing stint – the wines were served at the table of Louis XIV – the lightly-coloured wine of Argenteuil became famous. Parisians would travel to the suburbs to indulge in these light wines and the term "rosé wine" was used in 1682 in one of the local taverns. It was probably here that the descriptor was popularised, but it had already been coined. The following is a dictionary listing:
"Rosé: an adjective that is only used in the masculine and refers to a wine. It is used to mean a pleasant red with a hue bordering on bright red. [It is an excellent rosé wine. To like rosé wine]”. Interestingly, it is not yet a noun - it is ‘rosé wine’ and not a ‘rosé’ and there is no distinction with red. Rosé is a shade, a tinge, but not a colour in its own right. In fact, there is currently no legal definition that separates dark rosés from light reds.
Provence, or the rediscovery of rosé
Subsequently, in the 18th and 19th centuries, more concentrated red wines (‘medicinal’ wines, workers' wines) were in vogue. Rosé wine fell out of fashion. But during the era of the popular front and the first paid holidays, people from northern France rushed to bask in the sunshine of Provence. Here, the tradition of rosé wines had never been lost. Often rosés were drunk as whites, which were challenging to make in very hot wine regions. This is how the custom of drinking Provençal rosé was born.
In an era of globalisation, the term ‘rosé’ has become international and even seems to have taken precedence over the word ‘pink’ in the English-speaking world. The Oxford dictionary, the accepted standard, stated in 2018: "Rosé: Any light pink wine, coloured by only brief contact with red grape skins’.
by Alain Echalier