Pinks are enjoying unprecedented popularity, with quality versions from Provence and elsewhere raising the bar
By Mitch Frank
Remember when rosé was out of fashion? That seemed ages ago when, on a sunny day this February, rock icon Jon Bon Jovi strode up the steps of the former Versace mansion in Miami to introduce his and son Jesse Bongiovi’s new rosé brand, made in partnership with France’s Gérard Bertrand. As the wine flowed, Bon Jovi treated guests to a brief concert, then took a selfie with the empty bottles.
The label, Diving Into Hampton Water, lives up to its billing, earning 90 points from Wine Spectator in a recent blind tasting. It joins a crowded shelf of star-powered rosés: Sofia, by Francis Ford Coppola; Barrymore, by Drew Barrymore; and the juggernaut of celebrity rosés, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s Miraval, from vineyards at the Provence estate they jointly own.
These brands and many others testify that America is in love with pink. While overall wine sales have grown slowly in recent years, sales of dry rosés have boomed. According to Impact Databank, a publication of M. Shanken Comm., the persistent decline of White Zinfandel and other sweeter “blush” wines resulted in a 1.8 percent dip in overall sales of rosé in the U.S. in 2016, to 17.2 million cases. But that decline obscures the strong growth in dry rosé. Sales of imported rosé, typically drier in style, grew 44 percent.
In particular, imports of rosé from Provence doubled in 2016 to 1.27 million cases, according to the Provence Wine Council. That’s up a whopping 4,852 percent from 2001, when the U.S. imported just 17,500 cases. America is now consuming 20 percent of the global rosé supply each year, second only to France.
Quality has risen as well. In 2007, when Wine Spectator published its last cover story on rosé, our editors reviewed 135 still rosés, of which only one scored outstanding. In the past 12 months, they’ve reviewed 517 still rosés, with 39 rating 90 points or higher. For sparkling rosé, 88 were reviewed in 2007, 36 of them outstanding; in 2017, of 159 sparkling rosés reviewed, 86 earned 90 or more points.
With all this distinctive rosé flowing, many wine drinkers are reaching for pink rather than red or white, even in cool months. Rosé pairs well with numerous cuisines, and while there are some pricy bottles, it’s easy to find quality for $20 or less, making the wines budget-friendly choices for everyday consumption.
And rosé can be a lot of fun, its alluring hues often packaged with eye-catching labels and creative bottle shapes. Market research firm Nielsen claims that 40 percent of rosé consumers are women ages 21 to 34, but the pink wine audience is broader in scope-just search the hashtag “brosé.”
The sense of ease around rosé is part of what has made it a cultural phenomenon. The wine comes in the form of popsicles and frosé. Rosé-themed products include T-shirts imprinted “Rosé All Day,” flip-flops, handbags and more. Riedel now offers the Vinum Extreme Rosé Provence Glass. And in 2016, 12,000 rosé lovers swarmed Governors Island in New York Harbor for Pinknic, dressing up in pink and white, enjoying lunch and plenty of rosé on the grass. The event was organized by Pierrick Bouquet, a Frenchman who has also launched America’s first rosé-and-food festival, La Nuit en Rosé.
But wine drinkers with long memories have seen this before. Americans eagerly drank Mateus and Lancers, off-dry rosés from Portugal, in the post-war years. In the 1970s and ’80s, California’s White Zinfandel and its offshoot “blush” boomed.
Is the current rosé trend the entry to a new era of wine where we recognize three separate but equal shades-red, white and pink? Or are we simply on the ascent side of another cycle of boom and bust for the category?
There has always been pink wine. In the ancient days of winemaking, the reason was simple: People weren’t that good at making red wine. Early wine was made by stomping red and white grapes together, then allowing the juice to drain into containers to ferment. Skin contact was usually minimal, and the resulting wine was a cloudy rosé. The Greeks and Romans eventually began to separate grapes by color, but even then, skin contact for most wines was brief.
When the English fell in love with the wines of Bordeaux in the late 16th century, the wines were light red, almost pink wines that were clear and fresh. (Claret comes from the Latin word for clarity.) But in the century that followed, technical advances in glass and cork production meant wine could be aged reliably. Europeans learned that wine could grow complex and evocative as it aged, especially if it was dark and tannic.
Rosé remained, but in many regions it became a byproduct of red winemaking through the technique of saignée, in which juice is bled from tanks of red wine during the early hours of maceration in order to concentrate the juice left behind. Rosé was an afterthought, and the quality of most of it reflected that.
But in some regions, rosé maintained a distinct identity, particularly in Mediterranean terroirs like Spain, Italy and, especially, Provence. The limestone hills and hot summer days in Provence produce red grapes ideal for rosé production, and the climate in Provence’s small hillside villages demands that locals have light, fresh wine to drink during the long summers.
In America, rosé first made a splash with Mateus and Lancers. Both arrived immediately after World War II, at a time when returning GIs were looking for European wine. The wines were lightly sparkling, and versions made for the export market were slightly sweet-a wine introduction for Coca-Cola palates. By 1978, Mateus accounted for over 40 percent of Portugal’s total table wine exports, with worldwide sales approaching 3.5 million cases a year.
Eventually, America made a signature rosé. Beginning in 1972, Bob Trinchero began bleeding off juice from his California Zinfandel. (See “Pioneers’ Progress”.) The resulting saignée failed to sell, but in 1975, a stuck fermentation left it sweet. That vintage sold out. For 11 years, “White Zinfandel” was the No. 1 varietal in the United States. The wine and its copycats provided an introduction to the joys of wine for millions of Americans.
But it also conditioned American consumers to see pink and think “sweet.” Thus when wine drinkers moved on to Chardonnay and Cabernet, they left rosé behind.
The recent revival of rosé’s fortunes took even experienced vintners by surprise. Aubert de Villaine of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti in Burgundy partnered with Jacques Seysses of Domaine Dujac and another friend in 1989 to establish Triennes, an estate south of Aix-en-Provence. Their goal, Jacques’ son Jeremy Seysses says, was red wine. “Rosé was absolutely not a priority,” Jeremy says. “Average quality in Provence was pretty mediocre and demand was local, with very low prices. It was hard to conceive that this would become our workhorse one day.”
But sales of Provence rosé began to rise in France in the late 1990s, largely driven by women. In response, Provence wine associations invested in improving quality. They also began to market their rosés aggressively overseas, especially in America, with the message that French rosé, unlike White Zin, was a dry wine. Sommeliers and retailers began to put rosés on wine lists and store shelves. Sales increased, though rosé remained a seasonal wine.
In 2006, Sacha Lichine decided rosé could demand respect. Lichine, son of the late wine importer and Bordeaux château owner Alexis Lichine, had sold off their Château Prieure Lichine seven years earlier and wanted to build his own identity in the south of France. Using the sale money, Lichine bought Château d’Esclans in Côtes de Provence. He launched his brand with three different cuvées. Lichine and his partner, Patrick Léon, invested heavily in viticulture and modern winemaking, even partially fermenting some lots in oak barrels. D’Esclans priced its flagship wine, Garrus, at more than $100 a bottle.
It was blasphemy. And soon every ultrawealthy yacht owner in St.-Tropez had to have it.
While Garrus grabbed headlines, Lichine’s entry-level rosé, Whispering Angel, which flaunted an edgy label and a bold but unmistakably Provençal flavor, became a best-seller at $22 a bottle. Château d’Esclans made 10,000 cases of Whispering Angel in 2006; by 2016, production was 360,000 cases, with more than 200,000 of them shipped to the U.S. Lichine’s sales team worked overtime to convince Americans that rosé could be a year-round wine.
In New York’s Hamptons, Lichine had competition from a local startup. Germany-born venture capitalist Christian Wölffer had founded Wölffer Estate in 1982 with the goal of producing red and white wines. He achieved moderate success, planting extensive vineyards and hiring talented German winemaker Roman Roth. Rosé was not a major focus. “In 1992, we made 82 cases of rosé,” says Roth. “We made a dry rosé, and at the time [rosé] had to be sweet or it had to be French, and we were neither.”
When Wölffer died in 2008, the estate was making 4,000 cases of rosé annually, and his children saw potential in the wine. Last year Roth made 60,000 cases of it, almost 75 percent of the winery’s overall production.
Wölffer Estate now makes three cuvées. One, called Summer in a Bottle, comes in a bottle vividly painted with a explosive garden of fruits and flowers. It’s a label that encapsulates rosé’s appeal in America, answering the complicated questions of wine with one simple rule: Drink this and enjoy.
Yet while Wölffer grabbed a nice share of its local market, it was Provence that took rosé mainstream across America. An increasing number of brands followed Lichine’s lead. Having focused on red wines for its first 20 years, Triennes shipped 4,500 cases of rosé to the U.S. in 2010. Last year, it was 20,000.
Seysses credits several factors for the boom. “There have been huge improvements in quality. The White Zinfandel generation was waning, and along with it, the stigma of being a pink wine. And millennials are less intimidated by wine than previous generations. They are willing to try all styles, from skin-contact whites to oxidative styles of wine to rosé to pretty much anything out there. Just being willing to try rosé was huge. It proved to be likeable!”
Seysses also believes the financial crisis forced people to look for affordable luxury and that rosé fit the bill, both fashionable and delicious without being pricy.
Of course, it never hurts to have star power. In 2012, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie bought the Côtes de Provence estate they had been renting for a few years, Château Miraval. They formed a partnership with the Perrin family, owners of Château de Beaucastel in Châteauneuf-du-Pape and the négoce brand Famille Perrin. Their first vintage of Miraval rosé, the 2012, earned 90 points and a spot on Wine Spectator‘s 2013 Top 100.
“What made Provence Provence is that it did not see rosé as an afterthought,” says Marc Perrin. “We believed if you made the right decisions, if you chose the right clones and picked at the right time and treated it carefully in the cellar, you could elevate the reputation of rosé.”
Today, between Miraval and the Famille Perrin brand La Vieille Ferme, the Perrins are making 500,000 cases of rosé a year. “The growth has been double digits every year,” says Perrin.
But the rosé boom faces two major risks: saturation and homogenization. As sales growth lures more and more wines into the market, and as most of them mimic the Provençal style as their quickest path to success, industry insiders worry that rosé is turning from a category of wine into a brand.
“It seems like in the past 18 months the market has gotten ahead of itself with rosé,” says David Bowman, executive vice president of marketing for Jackson Family Wines. “Looking at store shelves, there’s a lot of lower-priced stuff that has not sold through. And a lot of these are big commercial brands that sell their rosé for $8 to $10. They all thought they would be first in the category, and now they see it’s crowded.”
Jackson Family has increased its rosé production in recent years as well. This year Bowman expects to sell a combined 50,000 cases of rosé under the company’s Kendall-Jackson and La Crema labels, both made from Monterey Pinot Noir, as well as small amounts of rosé from Copain, in Sonoma, and Gran Moraine, in Oregon. He argues there’s a big quality difference between rosé above and below the $10 mark.
And while the number of rosés on store shelves has grown, the diversity of character, style and flavor has shrunk.
One of rosé’s virtues has been its variety. Partly due to its deep roots in many local regions, it has been made from indigenous grapes and with traditional methods. As a result, rosé comes in all shades and flavors, from Provençal Cinsault and Mourvèdre to Spanish Garnacha to Italian Negroamaro to California Pinot Noir.
But since Provence has become king, everyone has moved to follow its example. Most of the low-cost rosés share Provence’s pale pink hue and its flavor profile, but with a bit more sweetness. “It has to be pale pink to sell,” says one importer.
Wineries in other regions have taken note. Bodegas Muga in Spain’s Rioja has made a gorgeous, salmon-colored rosado for decades from a traditional blend of Garnacha, Viura and Tempranillo. Last year Muga added a new wine to the line-Flor de Muga, a pale pink 100 percent Garnacha with a flower on the label. Other Spanish wineries have followed suit, producing their traditional rosados for local markets but also making a Provençal style for export.
Masi, the famed Amarone producer, makes a rosé from Friuli grapes. A few years ago, the winery began aiming for a lighter style. “For us to have any success in the U.S. market, it has to have that Côtes de Provence color,” says Tony Apostolakos, director for the Americas.
“Probably the most worrisome trend we are seeing is a homogenization of style across a wide range of appellations toward a pale, very delicate, citrus-scented rosé,” says Dixon Brooke, president of Kermit Lynch Wine Merchants. “This is all to meet a certain market expectation.”
Even the Perrins, for all their success with Miraval, have struggled with a different style of rosé-their Tavel, made just across the river from Châteauneuf. The appellation has a long history of making salmon-colored rosés with richness and an ability to age. “Provençal is what consumers want,” says Marc Perrin. “We make a Tavel and it’s quite good, but the consumer might think it’s too dark.”
This all suggests that rosé may be viewed as more of a brand than as a category of wine. Thirty years ago, American consumers looked at all pink wine and saw sweet. Now they see Provençal.
So can rosé become like white or red-a category populated by many grapes, many regions and many styles, all valued for their individuality? Gérard Bertrand thinks so. He points out that a decade ago, French rosé consumption surpassed white wine consumption, and that now a full 35 percent of the wine the French drink is pink. And not all of it is Provençal style. Nearly every region in France makes its own version of pink.
Seysses is more skeptical, noting that most French consumers buy their rosé in supermarkets and that low price is what they value. “There is really no mature rosé market yet,” he says.
The best outcome is that consumers will explore rosé’s variety rather than demand a uniform flavor, which could turn the wine into a fad. “The key is quality,” says Perrin. “As long as people continue to focus on quality, we will be great. It worries me that people will come into the category looking for a trend.”
Others who specialize in premium rosé aren’t too worried, however. They are quick to point out that making such a seamless, easy-drinking wine is not easy. “High quality rosé is all about avoiding excesses,” says Seysses. “The balance has to be just right for the purpose. Good rosé is not too alcoholic, is completely dry, has acidity (but not too much), lots of aromatics, no tannins. It has to be thirst-quenching and easy to drink.”
As Roth describes how he makes Wölffer’s flagship rosé, it’s clear there’s nothing simple about it. “For our Gold Label estate rosé, we pick the grapes a little earlier. It has to be vibrant and elegant and refined. Rosé should be an understatement. But to make it interesting, not just a quaffable wine, we use seven different varieties: Merlot, Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling and Gewürztraminer.
“For Summer in a Bottle, we pick seven to 10 days later. The acidity comes down and it makes it a little softer and more elegant.” The reserve rosé, Grandioso, is richer, a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay and a little bit of Gewürztraminer, fermented in used barrels.
Top rosé producers agree that rosé wine should be its own goal, not just a byproduct of red wine production. That means grapes are picked earlier, for freshness. Juice isn’t bled off of tanks of nascent red wine—instead it’s gently macerated for enough time to draw the ideal amount of flavor, then quickly removed to ferment.
Jake Bilbro is proprietor of family-owned Limerick Lane Wines in Sonoma’s Russian River Valley. His father was a Sonoma pioneer, founding Marietta Cellars in 1978. Bilbro picks the Syrah for his rosé at a lower ripeness, with the express purpose of creating a fresh, vibrant wine. “If you choose to bleed your tanks to make your rosé, that wine is an afterthought,” he says. “If you’re choosing to pick your grapes at lower Brix and make rosé, that is forethought.”
He could make a red Syrah and sell it for more money. But instead, he makes an orange-colored rosé. “A great rosé is a beautiful thing,” he says. “And this is the kind of rosé Sonoma Syrah makes.”
He sells most of his 800 cases of rosé made from Russian River Valley Syrah direct-to-consumer, because he finds wholesalers are not interested in a dark rosé priced at $26 a bottle. But that’s fine with him.
Rosé is wine’s rock star at the moment, hoping not to become a one-hit wonder. If it continues to sing new songs, it will always have loyal fans.