Posted on | May 1, 2011
Written by | Kristen Wolfe Bieler
Most French wine-producing regions are seeing a steady decrease in the amount of wine shipped to American shores. Provence—where imports to the U.S. jumped 50% last year—is a startling exception: Exports from the region were a whopping 10 times greater than that of total French wine. As this trend shows no sign of slowing, the future for Provence’s wine industry looks as sunny as the region’s Mediterranean coastline.
There is a single reason behind Provence’s ascent to the fastest-growing imported French region: rosé. Americans’ sudden and seemingly insatiable thirst for dry pink wine (rosé sales grew at five times the rate of total table wine in 2010) has placed Provence in a position of strong growth for the last six years (which is as long as Nielsen has been measuring dry rosé consumption).
U.S. retail sales of imported rosé priced at or above $12 a bottle grew by 22.3% on dollars and 17.7% on volume in 2010 according to Nielsen. Provence has benefitted the most, emerging as the preferred region for dry rosé. After all, Provence is the birthplace of dry rosé wine and remains the world’s leading rosé region—rosé accounts for 87% of all AOC wines produced within its borders. The trade seems to understand and appreciate this: One survey found that the U.S. wine industry perceives “French rosé as the highest quality rosé, and rosé from Provence as the gold standard.”
Spreading Like a Virus
According to Paul Chevalier, national fine wine director at Shaw-Ross International Importers, which represents Provence’s Château d’Esclans, rosé growth is directly tied to exposure to French culture: “I started seeing people drink rosé in New York City and the Hamptons about 10 years ago—this was the same clientele who had discovered it firsthand in the Côte d’Azur.” The trend spread outwards from there, taking off in very specific markets like Florida and Nantucket. “There is more rosé consumed in Nantucket than all of Massachusetts,” says Chevalier. He sees the rosé demographic skewing slightly younger—many older consumers still associate pink wine with Lancers, Mateus and White Zinfandel.
“Global drinking habits have rubbed off,” says Julie Peterson, VP, American World Services, U.S. strategy office for Wines of Provence. “Rosé consumption is coming primarily from those who have traveled to Europe. We are not trying to move the sweet pink wine drinker to dry rosé—it is really a different market.”
Although they may not be inversely correlated, rosé’s growth comes as sweet pink wine is on the decline. Rosé—which is required to have less than four grams of sugar per liter, compared to White Zinfandel’s average of 20 grams per liter—is more food-friendly, something Americans are starting to increasingly care about, believes François Millo, director of CIVP/Provence Wine Council: “The American consumer’s rising appreciation for dry rosé is a direct result of the change in Americans’ palates and rise of the food culture.”
While it doesn’t hurt that celebrities such as Uma Thurman and Jay-Z have been photographed sipping rosé on yachts, the most influential rosé advocates have been sommeliers. “Because rosés from Provence are so versatile, the gatekeepers have an appreciation for them, and have helped develop a real cachet for the category on-premise,” explains Marcy Whitman, senior VP, marketing for Palm Bay International, which represents rosés from Jean-Luc Colombo and Mas de la Dame.
Where Rosé is King
“It’s just different when you set out to make rosé,” says Chevalier. “Many regions make sparkling wine, but if you want a true Champagne, you look to Champagne. If you want a real rosé, you look to Provence.” This is because in Provence, rosé is the focus, not an afterthought or a by-product of red wine production (many producers make rosé with the saignée method, bleeding off free-run juice from red wines, which results in more concentrated reds).
“Winemakers in Provence aren’t saying ‘Oh, we have a lot of extra Cabernet, let’s make some rosé,’ explains Peterson. “Here, it’s all about creating rosé—it’s the first priority.” And it isn’t easy: the balance of fresh fruit and light color is difficult to achieve and getting just the right amount of skin contact as well as avoiding oxidation are all challenges—not to mention, AOC guidelines are incredibly strict.
John O’Neill, director, Jeff Welburn Selections and N7 Imports, has become something of a Provence rosé specialist in recent years, and believes Provence’s palette of grapes is what sets the region’s wines apart from those made elsewhere: “It’s all about the blend: If your Grenache is too flabby in an unusually hot year, you can tone it with a little more Cinsault. If you need more color or body, you can play with the percentage of Syrah or Mourvèdre. The great thing about Grenache-based rosés is that you get fruity characteristics without the need for residual sugar.”
Welburn’s California distribution company, Angeles Wine Agency, has been a leader in sales of Provence rosé in California for the past decade, but this year “our business has exploded,” reports O’Neill. “Just five years ago, most sales were restricted to restaurants and top retail wine merchants, but today supermarket chains like Cost Plus, Whole Foods, Vons and Gelsen’s have gotten into the dry rosé business.” O’Neill adds his company will sell 4,000 cases of Provence rosé in the state of California alone. Now that the company has expanded nationwide, most of his rosés were on allocation
Hitting the Pricing Sweet Spot
Interestingly, rosé growth is occuring in the premium segment—over $12 a bottle—and in spite of the fact that the average price per 750ml bottle was up 52 cents over the prior year. But there is a serious price ceiling for these wines, as they are largely regarded as casual summer sippers. Peterson notes that the vast majority retail under $20, and most importers and retailers affirm the sweet spot is mid-teens.
The weakened dollar has pushed prices up, but in O’Neill’s experience “most wholesalers and retail wine merchants don’t believe rosé should cost more than $14.99 on the shelf.” That said, a handful of his are priced higher, and they still sell out. And, of course, there are the category standouts which command far greater prices, like Domaine Tempier and Domaine Ott and the relative newcomer, Château d’Esclans.
In its fifth vintage since the dynamic Sacha Lichine purchased the property with the goal of crafting ultra-premium rosé, d’Esclans has generated a fair amount of buzz for the fact that its upper tiers are aged in oak, and released a vintage behind most rosés (as well as being quite expensive; the Les Clans cuvée is $60 a bottle). Fermented with Burgundian yeasts, they are mineral-laden and high in acidity—tasting them blind, many would guess white Burgundy, even though they are made with Grenache. “The role of the sommelier in selling these wines is crucial,” says Chevalier. “Why would anyone spend so much money on a rosé unless someone knowledgeable is there to explain how it was made, why it is special and why it has the ability to age that other rosés don’t?” The brand’s entry-level Whispering Angel rosé (unoaked and unaged) is $19.99.
A Sweet, Yet Short Season
So powerful is the association between rosé consumption and warm weather, sales plummet on September 1st. Philippe Marchal, French portfolio manager for Kobrand Corporation, which represents Chateau D’Aqueria Tavel, believes 90% of rosé sales occur between May and September which is why it’s crucial to “hit the market by April 15th at the latest—after September 1st your wine will end up as close-outs.”
Peterson sees this changing, however: “We are starting to see the rosé season gradually extend each year, starting as early as April 1st, and more frequently going until Thanksgiving.” Chevalier has witnessed the same thing, and observes that in warm places like Miami and L.A., rosé consumption is quickly becoming a year-round phenomenon.
As a nation, we’re still in the early stages of “a general marketplace understanding of dry rosé,” Peterson reminds. Outside the five major rosé-consuming states—NY, IL, FL, CA and MA—sales drop off dramatically, so there’s still a way to go. There are currently only about 70 producers in Provence who are currently exporting to the U.S., but many more are seeking importers. Peterson explains, “When we interviewed retailers, they all reported selling out last year—many quoted numbers above 35% growth. Now that rosé season has started, we’re seeing retailers take big positions on Provence rosé so we’re very optimistic.”