Provence rosé is regarded as the epitome of quality rosé, a style many winemakers aspire to. Following meteoric growth in recent years, its market position seems unassailable. However, in spring 2018 I heard, for the first time, murmurings of concern over competition.
Provence rosé, largely from the three appellations of Côtes de Provence, Coteaux Varois en Provence and Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence, is generally pale pink, dry, with ripe fruit and fresh acidity. Australian importer and rosé specialist Felix Riley describes Provence rosé as the benchmark. “Few manage to capture the salinity or minerality of Provence,” he said. “It is still the leading light [in Australia]. The style is well known, there are a number of established brands, and pricing for quality remains generally fair.” Jeany Cronk of Mirabeau says the fact that the region produces a relatively similar style has worked to its advantage. “The consumer understands what they are getting, much like when they buy a bottle of Champagne.”
Although Provence makes only 6% of the world’s rosé, it leads the world market. As a result, it has become harder to sell rosés made in other styles, encouraging imitations, with less diversity of style. While more competitors are made in the paler style, this often comes at the expense of taste, creating nice-looking but insipid rosés.
The battleground for rosé is the US. The three main Provence appellations produced, in the small 2017 vintage, about 155m bottles, 90% of which was rosé. About 20% of the Provence vintage is exported, almost half to the US, by far Provence’s main export market.
Consumption has grown rapidly in the US and half its rosé imports are French, with big players dominating. Paul Chevalier, of Whispering Angel’s US distributor Shaw-Ross, sees further growth after sales doubled from 200,000 cases in 2016 to more than 400,000 in 2018. Gérard Bertrand from Languedoc is aiming for a similar result; he sold 3m bottles of rosé in the US in 2018 and hopes to double this over the next three years. Part of Bertrand’s sales strategy is “to offer a diverse line-up” of rosés across a number of price points. His success shows that Provence origin is not essential.
Provence cannot easily make more rosé, as almost all its production is already rosé. Producers are responding by making higher-quality, higher-priced rosés, moving upmarket. Cronk predicts an increasing investment in quality: “The number of ambitious growers is on the up and there are more quality wines, using better winemaking technology … Provence rosé is justifiably moving on from an everyday drink into the affordable luxury position. To justify higher prices, the quality has to be good.”
If Provence rosé is regarded as the epitome of rosé production, which regions are rivals? Although US rosé production is growing fast, most is entry-level, leaving the higher-priced market – at least for now – largely to imports. In Sopexa’s 2018 survey of wine professionals, 63% of respondents said Provence and Corsica were among their top three performers for rosé wine, with Languedoc close behind. Corsica, with its limited supply, is a minor threat. Languedoc already produces more rosé than Provence, and could increase production considerably, but most of its rosé is IGP, less highly valued than Provence rosé and sold at lower prices.
A slow growth in interest in different styles is perceptible. Regions like Anjou, with its contrasting style with high acidity and sugar, are seeing increased sales, admittedly with some wines a little paler and drier than traditionally. Specialist importers are buying rosés from Italy, Austria, Germany and Spain, but not in great volume. Darker rosés, such as Tavel and traditional Bandol rosés, have developed a niche market among sommeliers.
Provence is one of the few regions whose appellation requires a blend of varieties. But, as British writer Robert Joseph commented, marketing by varietal may grow: “People know and trust varietals, as long as the varietal character is evident.” To offer varietals, Provence producers can make rosé under a variety of IGP denominations, but take-up of these has been small, perhaps as they lack appellation status, so are not promoted by the Provence Wine Council (the CIVP).
The success of Provence rosé has attracted competitors from elsewhere and encouraged consumers to explore other rosés. To maintain market leadership, Provence is attempting to move upmarket, increasing quality to justify higher prices. If competition leads to increased quality, the battle for market domination can only be good for consumers.
Elizabeth Gabay MW