Provence Rosé: Quality, Cash and Celebrity

provence-rose:-quality,-cash-and-celebrity

© Vins de Provence
| The lavender-dotted vineyards of Provence gave rise to premium rosé.

How did rosé go from a summer glugger to a big-money business proposition? The answer is surprisingly simple.

Not since George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion has the world encountered such an exciting, but believable, action-packed and dramatically satisfying transformation. I’m referring, of course, to rosé.

From a cheap and cheerful summer sip from the wrong side of the terroir to an aspirational wine that is served without question on yachts the planet over, the summer isn’t the summer sans rosé. 

Rosé sales in general have been brisk, especially in the US, where rosé wine volume increased 118 percent between 2015 and 2020, according to ISWR. Growers the world over are grabbing this pink cash cow and milking rosés from all kinds of grapes – Petite Sirah, Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon – through a variety of methods, including limited skin macereation, saignée, Vin Gris or (horrors) decoloring.

“Sales of rosé have been so strong, almost every winery feels they have to produce one, even if they don’t have a history of producing rosé, or even, I would argue, an appropriate terroir for it,” says Harmon Skurnik, president of the New York City-based importer and distributor Skurnik Wines. “There’s a big spectrum of quality, and a lot of plonk.”

Consumers seem to be gravitating toward the standard bearer. Exports of Provence rosé specifically have grown 147 percent between 2015 and 2020, according to Vins de Provence. Provence, the birthplace of rosé, and to a lesser extent, the areas surrounding Provence in southern France, currently dominate sales of the online drinks giant Drizly in the US, grabbing 58 percent of the share of rosé sales. The flavor, style and color of the region is the one that producers imitate when they enter the market (with many blatantly labeling their wines as Provence-style rosé, and perhaps unintentionally underlining the region’s dominance of the cateogry), and it’s the one importers want to bring in and consumers want to drink.

“The benchmark for rosé is Provence, and within rosé, it’s probably Bandol, a region with a very long history, and the right climate and soils for producing rosés with intention,” Skurnik says. “Wine lovers are learning more about rosé all the time, and looking at our internal sales numbers, Provence rosé in particular is clearly very sought after.”

Despite the tariffs that temporarily pumped up Provence prices, shipping and logistical headaches caused by COVID and the increased competition for shelf space created by thousands of new producers flooding the market with their shiny new bottles, Provence is sitting pretty at the top of the pink heap.

“Provence was the only region in France aside from Burgundy that managed to increase exports in 2020 year-over-year,” notes Brice Eymard, the director general at Vins de Provence. In Provence’s case, it was about 6 percent, with average bottle prices landing around at the bargain-basement of around $6. Eymard pointed out that while the average price was low, in recent years, there has been an increased appetite for bottles of rosé that cost well over $60 in the US, but also France, Austria, Switzerland and other regions where rosé consumption is part of the fabric of life.

What’s behind Provence’s initial rise, continued success and now, the premiumization of its offerings? Primarily, the usual reasons things succeed: old-fashioned quality, new-fangled cash, and celebrity cool.

Quality in control

Viticulture began in France in Provence, when Phoenicians founded Marseille 2600 years ago, planting the first grapevine. Since then, the region has been awash in rosé, and to a lesser extent, vivacious and fresh reds and whites.

Within the region, which has the Mediterranean lapping its southern and western shores and the Alps hovering to the north and east, the topography varies, with two primary geological zones featuring limestone and crystalline soils. The climate is sunny, dry and warm with the Mistral winds blowing off disease pressure and cooling down the grapevines to lock in flavors. 

Château d'Esclans, home to Whispering Angel, was a pioneer of premium, expensive rosé

© LVMH
| Château d’Esclans, home to Whispering Angel, was a pioneer of premium, expensive rosé

Today, there are 623 producers across 66,370 acres in three departments, Bouches-Du-Rhône, Var and Alpes-Maritimes and nine appellations with AOC status. In Provence, about 89 percent of the wine produced is rosé. The grapes grown vary slightly from region to region, but Grenache, Mourvèdre, Cinsault and Rolle are frequently found.

Few have done more to alert US consumers to the excellence of rosé in general, and Provence specifically, than Berkeley importer Kermit Lynch. While Kermit Lynch’s president Dixon Brooke hesitated to crown him the very first importer of rosé from Provence, he did say that he was likely “the first person who brought in dry rosé aimed at the fine wine drinking public”.

Which is to say, not cheap-o pink plonk. Domaine Tempier, in Bandol, with the late, great gourmand and brilliant businesswoman Lucie “Lulu” Peyraud at its helm, became the flagship winery of Lynch’s brand in the late 1970s, and Kermit Lynch is still Tempier’s importer today.

“The growth of Tempier and all of the Provençal rosés in our book remain strong, despite the oversupply of rosé in the market we saw last year,” says Brooke. “I can’t say if the market can absorb all of these new rosé brands, but I can say that ours are performing very well, and are getting stronger year-round, which is very good to see.”

He attributes the continued success of Tempier and their other Provençal brands to, simply, their terroir and technique.

“They farm their grapes for rosé, it’s not an afterthought,” he notes. “Because of climate change, they have to harvest earlier and cool the grapes down before fermenting them to maintain freshness, but they are able to make it work. And at Tempier, they have always aged their wines in foudres or concrete, not just stainless steel.”

The magic of the land, combined with the carefully considered, vintage-variable strategy behind all of their farming and production methods – and Kermit Lynch’s genius for marketing them – laid the groundwork for the rosé renaissance we’re enjoying today.

Cash still king

But while Tempier and Lynch are the foundation of rosé’s success, the current iteration is decidedly more gilded, thanks what proved to be extraordinarily canny estate purchases and developments in Provence by deep-pocketed investors.

Most of the industry wondered what Sacha Lichine was thinking when he left his Bordeaux roots behind for Provence. When he purchased Château d’Esclans in 2006 “everyone said it didn’t make sense”, says Paul Chevalier, vice president of Château d’Esclans at Moët Hennessy USA. “But he had a vision. He wanted to create premium cuvées that could serve as the highest expressions of the terroir. Everyone said there wasn’t a market for it, and they couldn’t believe how much money he invested in finding the best possible equipment and the best team of winemakers.”

But, Chevalier argues, he saw that the raw materials were there in the soil, and the terroir. The 1055-acre estate, located in the Department of the Var in the Provence AOC, dates back to before the 12th Century. Of the 345 acres devoted to grapes, old-vine Grenache and Rolle dominate, with Cinsault, Merlot, Mouvèdre, Syrah and Tibouren following. The problem was, the funding to elevate and polish those raw materials was not there.

“In Champagne in the 1970s, there was a huge infusion of capital, and in Bordeaux, that happened in the 1980s,” he says. “But it wasn’t until Sacha, who is not shy about spending money, arrived that there was any real investment in Provence. He brought in the best electronic sorting machines, put in temperature controls in the cellar and brought in all of the best machines, barrels and laboratory testing.”

He also hired Patrick Léon (former winemaker for Château Mouton-Rothschild, Opus One, and Viña Almaviva) to develop four distinct estate rosés, including Garrus, sourced from single-vineyard 100-year-old Grenache and Rolle grapes, and then entirely fermented and aged in new large French oak barrels for 11 months.

The Bordeaux treatment – and at around $100 a bottle, a Bordeaux price –  in Provence. And that’s the point.

“Rosé is about more than just being pink,” Chevalier says. “Through these cuvées and the styles of wine we’ve developed, we believe we are showing how much potential rosé has. It is not just a fun wine, it can also be an incredibly complex gastronomic wine that ages, and can bring new pleasures with time.”

Lichine also has the much more wallet-friendly Whispering Angel, the Palm and Rock Angel in his Provence portfolio, which, incidentally sells more than any other rosé in the US, and comprises more than 20 percent of all Provence rosé sales there, according to Vins de Provence.

At Château La Gordonne in Côtes de Provence, which traces its viticultural roots to 1300, a similar slow but steady elevation in investment and technique is taking place.

The presence of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt at Miraval was irresistible to many consumers.

© Getty Images
| The presence of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt at Miraval was irresistible to many consumers.

“We look at the estate’s quality as a pyramid,” says winemaker Bruno Maillard. “At the base, you have the quality of the terroir, then the style of the wine being made. As you move up, and you add layers of detailed techniques, the product is refined. Eight years ago, we asked ourselves: ‘What more can we be doing?’ We looked at white Burgundy wines, and we also decided to introduce barrel aging.”

Maillard says that experimenting with barrels, stone eggs and sandstone “have opened up new dimensions in the rosé”. They have also refined their work in the vineyard, focusing on hand-picking, organic growing techniques, single -vineyard selections.

“There is a market for rosé that is $50, even $200 a bottle, if the quality and technique is there,” he says.

Celebrities

Terroir and technique helped boost Provence’s profile, sure. But … Brangelina.

“The staggering rise of rosé can be traced to 2008, when Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie first leased Château Miraval,” says the Lyon-based wine consultant and teacher Caroline Conner. “That also roughly coincides with the launch of Whispering Angel in 2007. This is when Britney shaved her head and we were all really celebrity obsessed. Celebrities have always been very present in Provence because of the Cannes Film Festival and Saint-Tropez, so when Brangelina bought Miraval, long one of the premium producers, it solidified the trend of celebrities drinking rosé and creating brands themselves.”

Plus, there’s Lichine’s Château d’Esclans and his take on “super-premium rosé”, she notes. “I think he was the first to slap English on French wine labels, just obviously a brilliant marketer.”

Miraval, indeed ushered Provence the place, rosé the wine, and the lifestyle they both represented, into the hands of the Us Weekly-reading, celebrity-obsessed folk who began to see a bottle of Provence pink as their own small piece of the glam life.

The estate is far from the red-hot coastal regions of Provence, and is instead tucked into a private valley in Correns, the first organic village in France. The estate encompasses 1235 acres of land, with a regal château set like a jewel amid olive trees, old-growth forests and vineyards. There’s also the recording studio where Pink Floyd’s The Wall was recorded, but that’s another story.

In 2012, the pair partnered with the Rhône Valley’s Perrin Family of Château de Beaucastel.

“We were introduced through mutual friends,” says Miraval’s winemaker Marc Perrin. “We were interested in Provence and had been searching for an estate for more than a decade, but we hadn’t found anything like Miraval. It is a historical site, where people have been making wine for centuries, and with elevations of up to 1500 feet. The soil is magnificent, with limestone and clay, a specific type of clay usually found in grand cru sites in Alsace, Keuper marl, which produces wine of incredible character and flavor, and a food-friendly salinity at the end.”

The Perrins and Brangelina were determined, he says, to make the “best rosés in the world”. As with Château d’Esclans, investing in better equipment, replanting grapes and experimenting with new and delicious ways to ferment and age rosé was part of Miraval’s DNA from the beginning.

The public was here for it. Their debut line of rosé sold out within five hours. And now the line includes a limited edition (20,000 bottles) rosé Champagne, Fleur de Miraval, at around $360 a bottle.

While Miraval’s success is undeniable, it’s future is uncertain as Brangelina’s messy split continues to drag on. Angelina Jolie has made it clear that her days of thinking pink are over. According a report in Us Weekly, Jolie is eager to “extricate herself” from the winery, and wants to sell the château to Nouvel LLC. Her legal team is arguing that the property is exclusively hers since it was purchased by her before their marriage.

Brad Pitt wants to stay involved, and has so far been able to prevent the sale from going forward. Miraval, which released an ad for the Champagne featuring Pitt in October, seems to be taking his side.

Whether or not Hollywood’s ex-Golden Couple remains officially part of Provence’s story, they put the region on the map for millions of thirsty Americans who probably would never have come to consider rosé an essential lifestyle accouterment and summer staple.

Where to from here?

So what’s next for Provence? Bringing some of those new converts over to see Provence for themselves, and offering fellow Europeans the kind of luxurious, well-appointed retreats and tastings that echo experiences in Bordeaux or the Napa Valley. (Fewer unmarked wineries requiring dodgy cellar door knocks for entrance, more well-appointed, fully staffed châteaux with gold-plated bells and whistles). 

“I think tourism is going to blow up in Provence,” Chevalier predicts. “Provence is spread out, but more and more estates are creating destination experiences for tourists. We have invested in a Napa-style tasting room ourselves, and we are open seven days a week, which is very unusual in France. But we are busy year-round, except for January. We have a special experience waiting, tastings and tours, and we find that a lot of people are stocking up on wine when they visit, just like they do in Napa. They fill their entire trunk!”

At La Gordonne too, they’re investing in renewing the château and offering special tastings and guided garden tours.

“People are more interested in coming here to discover ‘s behind the bottle, do vertical tastings to see how the wine evolves over time, tour our cellar and vineyards,” says Maillard.

Experiential tastings at historic châteaux are also increasingly being paired with fine art exhibits on estates and Michelin-star dining. Eymard sees the steady pace of investing in equipment, accouterments and experiences increasing.

“For the past 10 years because of the financial success of these large, and small brands, producers have been able to use that capital to purchase better equipment and create luxurious experiences for visitors,” Eymard says. “It’s a cycle of success, and I see the premiumization continuing.”

But perhaps real magic behind Provence’s success though, is much simpler.

“You can be an excellent chef, but that doesn’t mean you can make a pastry well,” says Perrin. “All of these red and white winemakers think they can make rosé simply because they know how to make wine. It’s completely different. In Provence, we have the history, terroir and experience, we have the correct equipment.

“We are the pastry chefs of the winemaking world. It requires a different level of precision at every step of the farming, harvesting and production process.”

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