by Martin Walker
These long summer evenings are just right for a drink you’ll find only in the Bergerac. It almost died out but it’s making a comeback. Welcome to the Rosette revolution.
Ask most people in the wine business about Rosette and they’ll assume you’re talking about one of the American-European hybrid grape varieties that Albert Seibel developed in the late 19th century to save the French wine industry from the scourge of phylloxera. Seibel, trained as a physician, grafted European grape varieties onto the stems of American grapes that had a natural resistance.
From four original varieties of grape, constantly cross-bred, he developed thousands of hybrids including one known as Seibel 1000, and which he named Rosette, hoping to grow rosé wines. It didn’t catch on and these days most appellation contrôlée wines are banned from using hybrids under French regulations.
But our Bergerac Rosette is flourishing as an appellation in its own right. It can contain Sauvignon Gris and Sauvignon Blanc, Muscadelle and Sémillon. The two Sauvignons must account for a minimum of fifteen per cent and a maximum of seventy per cent of the wine.
What’s more, our Rosette is a white wine, and it can range in colour from a pale straw-yellow to something more golden. And while it is slightly sweet it should never be mistaken for a Monbazillac because the grapes are picked before the noble rot sets in. So the wines are not strong in alcohol, usually around twelve per cent.
It is a charming wine, with a distinctive fresh and subtle flavour of its own that is not overwhelmed by the sweetness. It reminds me of some Rieslings but without the acidity you too often find even in the Halbtrocken, or relatively sweet Rieslings. Nor is it like those sweet Portuguese wines I recall from student days and which you barely knew were wine at all. Our Rosettes are real wines, which spend months in oak barrels, with a serious body to them and a hint of richness in the mouth that does not teeter over into fatness.
What sparked my interest in these wines was that word reached me that one of the Bergerac winemakers I most admire, Pierre Desmartis of La Vieille Bergerie, had started making Rosettes. Pierre began winning so many gold medals year after year for his white wines at the big Paris expo that they simply gave him the special medal for excellence. Some years ago I wrote that his Quercus brand of Bergerac Sec was the best white wine I knew for under ten euros. It still is, even though it’s now eleven euros, and his Rosette is simply lovely and in value terms a snip at 7.50 euros a bottle. (I’m enjoying a glass as I write this.)
Then someone told me that one of the best small producers of Pécharmant reds, Bertrand Baudry of Domaine du Grand Jaure and his sister Bernadette, had never stopped making Rosettes. I began looking up his awards and found regular stars in Guide Hachette for his Rosettes which had also won three gold medals at Paris and six golds in the Bergerac. And a gold medal from the Vignerons Indépendants.
So I dropped round to see him and taste his Rosettes (and while I was there it would have been silly not to taste his Pécharmants). His eighteen hectares of vineyards are on the Lembras hillsides north of Bergerac, with a mix of sandy gravels and the iron-bearing clay of Pécharmant known as tran. His 2017 promises well but is not for sale yet. His 2016 is delightful and since he is only about a mile up the hill from La Vieille Bergerie (and also sells his Rosette for 7.50 euros) you can easily make your own comparisons. (I bought some from each.)
On the grapevine I heard that the Domaine du Grand Boisse had reopened its doors and was once again making its fine Rosettes, happy news since theirs was one of the first that I tasted. I can also recommend the Rosettes from Domaine de Coutancie and from Domaine de la Cardinolle, both in Prigonrieux. Then I called in one day at Terre Vieille, one of my favourite Pécharmant vineyards and although they don’t make Rosette I saw that that they were selling it for 8 euros under the Terres de Vins label, but the winemaker was Nicolas Eckert of Domaine de la Cardinolle and very good it was.
The Rosette that first converted me to the wine came from Château du Rooy, one of the main producers with eight of the 25 hectares of Rosette currently planted. As well as making very fine Pécharmants, their 2016 Rosette (6.80 euros a bottle at the vineyard) won the gold medal at last year’s Paris show.
I suspect this wine could have a great future because it will be new to most markets and it’s different, immediately appealing and yet with a history that goes back a long way; the geographical limit of the Rosette appellation traces exactly to the map of the original Vinée de Bergerac area that was drawn up in 1322. So in just four years it can celebrate a 700-year anniversary.
If that’s not a marketing opportunity…
Martin Walker, author of the best-selling ‘Bruno, chief of police’ novels, is a Grand Consul de la Vinée de Bergerac. Formerly a journalist, he spent 25 years as foreign correspondent for The Guardian and then became editor-in-chief of United Press International. He and his wife Julia have had a home in the Périgord since 1999 and one of his great hobbies is visiting the vineyards of Bergerac.