The colour of money is pink

Robert Joseph looks at the unstoppable rise of the rosé category and its connection with a colour called Pale Dogwood.

Photo by Paweł Czerwiński on Unsplash  Copy to clipboard
Photo by Paweł Czerwiński on Unsplash Copy to clipboard

The term ‘Millennial Pink’ seems to have been coined in the summer of 2016 by Véronique Hyland in an article in The Cut magazine headlined “Millennial pink is suddenly everywhere”. 

As Hyland wrote, “A cohort raised to distrust pink has turned contrarian and embraced a muddied, faded version of the colour.” The technical name for this hue is “Pale Dogwood”, as christened by Pantone, the company whose colour-matching system is used internationally by paint manufacturers and printers.

Fashionable wine drinkers would recognise Pale Dogwood immediately – it’s the colour of modern Provence rosés. Sacha Lichine’s initial 2007 vintage of Whispering Angel, Brad Pitt’s and Angelina Jolie’s Miraval first released in 2012 and Yes Way, Rosé!, the wine that took the US market by storm when it was released in 2013, are all Pale Dogwood.

A lucrative trend

It is impossible to say how much the popularity of these rosés and the ones that followed benefitted from the general pink trend, or vice versa. What is clear is that Instagram lay at the heart of the pink phenomenon. The more images of bars, restaurants, clothes, furniture, food and cocktails in various shades of pink flashed onto people’s phones, the more users of the platform wanted to post their own pink scene. The closest object to hand was often a glass of Provence rosé or “frosé” the frozen, strawberry-flavoured version that became an instant hit in the US.

But there was a consequence to this embrace of Millennial Pink – producers who made wines in other shades of pink saw their wines languish on the shelves. Pale pink became the only game in town. 

Liz Gabay MW, the author of Rosé – Understanding the Pink Wine Revolution, thinks this has led people to confuse colour and quality. “It feels to me like it’s the Mafia when it comes to this pale colour indoctrination, so I don’t really know how to deal with it,” she said. “I mark Master of Wine tasting papers where people have looked at the colour of a wine and thought ‘must be good quality’.” 

As director of the Centre de Recherche et d’Expérimentation sur le Vin Rosé in Provence,

Gilles Masson cares deeply about rosé. For him, the trend for pale rosé is not a problem. “I can’t predict where it’s going in the future, but the colour of rosé generally has become paler to become closer to that of Provence because that’s a mark of quality. Because we’ve learned how to master the production of pink wine.”

It’s a far cry from the diversity of former times – but that some colours have disappeared is not a bad thing.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, there were many tones of pink on the shelf. French students of wine learned to describe Provence and Rhone rosés wine as having an “oeil de perdrix” appearance, which literally meant ‘partridge eye’ and was said to refer to the colour of the bird’s eye after it was shot. One prosaic English translation of Oeil de Perdrix is ‘pale amber’, and there’s no question that the pink wines of the past often leaned towards more golden and, indeed, bronze colours, even when they were freshly bottled.

In Provence, grapes – generally Grenache, a variety that is highly prone to oxidation – were often picked during the morning when the temperatures in southern France were high and then allowed to oxidise outside the winery while the staff had a lengthy lunch. Vinification was primitive too, with little or no recourse to temperature control. As Gabay MW remembers, one of the principal aromas in these facilities was sulphur dioxide. While 18 estates were designated as ‘Crus Classés’ in 1955, few Provence wines were taken seriously; most were drunk very well chilled by holidaymakers on the south coast of France or in Paris. In her book, Gabay quotes the British wine writer Joanna Simon who wrote in 1989 that many of the wines that were exported were “already old and stale. It is a vicious circle; people overcome their prejudices against pink when they are abroad, only to have them reaffirmed back home”.

Change took time. Gabay recounts that when Régine Sumeire of Chateau la Tour de l’Eveque and Chateau Barbeyrolles used a hydraulic press on the Grenache, after seeing its effects in Bordeaux, the pale rosé it produced “took some time to be accepted”. The introduction of temperature control in the fermentation vats at the neighbouring Chateau Minuty in 1990 was also considered revolutionary. As Gabay describes, the first vintages of the new “fresh, fruitier, more delicate” styles of rosé “caused a ripple of interest” in the region.

Producers also began to take rosé production more seriously. Today, Provence is synonymous with pink wine, with 85 percent of its wine now rosé, but, as Gabay points out, historically it was a region for sweet Muscat and red wine. Some of the reds, especially from the high-yielding Bouteillant variety, would have been pale in colour but wines had become more full bodied and powerful from the nineteenth century onwards, with fewer of the light-red wines made. An effective way to make deeper-hued reds was to perform a ‘saigneé’ – bleeding – that involved drawing off a portion of pink juice from the vat during the fermentation process in order to concentrate the remainder. In other words, the rosé produced in this way was a by-product of red winemaking.

Better quality

For Masson, the “most important factor that has changed the world of wine is the desire to make rosé, and not as a sideline”. Winemakers, he continues have said “I want to make good rosé and to grow grapes that will enable be to make pale fine fruity wine”. The efforts of the last few years have been to demonstrate that “people who make wine from grapes that aren’t ripe or aren’t healthy or that haven’t been picked at the right time, or are aiming to concentrate their red wine” should not be surprised if it doesn’t please the consumer.

“Since the moment when we really became interested in rosé we’ve made important strides in quality – in colour, aroma and flavour – and consumers have appreciated it. It has been a virtuous circle,” he went on.

If a large part of that appreciation depends on the appearance of the wine, Masson agrees with Gabay MW’s reservations about it being too predominant a factor. “Colour is important; it puts very positive thoughts of elegance, finesse and lightness into the brain, but it’s not enough. People have understood that rosé is more than a colour. If the flavour of wine doesn’t live up to this promise people won’t buy it again.”

Sometimes, however, that promise is not clearly expressed. Gabay recalls being in a restaurant in Provence that she was told had run out of rosé. “They said they only had white wine from this particular estate so we said okay, we’d have that. After we’d been served our glasses of white wine, I just happened to look at the back label, saw it was made from Grenache. It was a rosé that was so white the restaurant didn’t recognise it as being a rosé”.

Masson thinks that “people making white rosés are making a mistake. It’s another category of wine – maybe Blanc de Noir, but not rosé. Because rosé always has to have a little flash of pink or orange blossom that makes the brain vibrate and creates thoughts of conviviality, leisure and relaxation.”

But, beyond this, he is relatively relaxed about what colour a rosé should be. “We’re a bit hostile to norms and laws and rules and specifications that are too restrictive. Rosé is liberty – in consumption and in production,” he says, warning that preferences can change. “Those who want to fix a floor or a ceiling for colour today, could regret doing so in five years or so”. On the other hand, he concedes, this doesn’t mean “you can allow just anything – or that a region can’t decide to give itself rules collectively to make wines with a family resemblance. So, allow liberty, but with regional typicity because consumers don’t expect a Bordeaux rosé to taste like one from Provence”.

But what if that Bordeaux rosé looks like Provence rosé? Consumers could be forgiven for thinking that wines made from grape varieties with darker, thicker skins such as Cabernet Sauvignon should have a deeper colour than ones produced from Grenache, but Masson is pragmatic on this point. “The variety is a very important factor, but it is the partnership of variety and terroir that is more determinant. You can make pale rosé with Cabernet, Merlot or Pinot Noir,” he said. “It’s not a problem, provided you have a winery that is equipped. If one has the right tools, one can make pretty pale rosé with any variety”

Gabay MW is strongly against producers following this through to its logical conclusion. “I’ve had people who make rosé in totally different countries with totally different grapes, and I’ve asked ‘How did you decide how to make your rosé?’ And they said ‘Well, we looked on the website of Domaine Ott [one of the most respected Provence estates]’.” She has had similar experiences in classic regions of France. “There’s a language to the rosé made from Cabernet Franc in Anjou, for example, and a number of producers who are now making it almost Provence pale, which has upset the balance of the fruit and character of the wine.” 

Masson’s reference to producers using the “right tools” to do this raises all sorts of questions, along with images of the charcoal fining that is illegal in France but employed by some producers elsewhere to strip colour out of pale red wines in order to hit the desired shade of pink.  Masson is firmly against ‘excessive fining’ but acknowledges that fining if used ‘sparingly’ can be good “if one wants to have a product that is coherent in its colour, aroma and flavour.”

For him, such techniques are like cosmetics. “There’s no shame in a bit of eye-liner or lipstick; that kind of cosmetic can be a way to show off the best features of a wine at its best. But cosmetic surgery is another matter – using kilos of charcoal or other fining agents just to get rid of colour – that modifies the structure and flavour of the wine, and you end up selling nothing more than the colour. And that isn’t enough to sell a wine.”

Like every other part of the wine sector, the rosé market is in a state of flux. Even before the Covid-19 epidemic, Nielsen was predicting a slowdown in the growth of rosé sales in the US, though only from double, to single figures. The epidemic, and the resulting closures of the on-trade, will certainly have affected sales. There are likely to be stocks of the 2019, and even the 2018, vintage sitting in warehouses, losing their freshness by the day.

A bright pink future

However, new celebrity rosés have been released by the actress Sarah Jessica Parker in 2019, and singer Kylie Minogue and the rapper Post Malone in 2020. The Languedoc producer Gérard Bertrand, maker of the best-selling Côte des Roses, and collaborator with Jon Bon Jovi on the premium Diving Into Hampton Water rosé, has launched a super-premium, single-vineyard example called Clos du Temple with a price tag of €190. 

All of these wines share the Millennium Pink colour, but Ms Gabay MW wonders if this will be true of future launches. “Now that rosés from everywhere look the same, there may be an advantage in looking a bit different. I’ve spoken to a number of sommeliers who say that in an upmarket restaurant, ordering a darker rosé could be a social sign that you know enough to have the confidence to taste a more interesting or gastronomic wine.”

Perhaps, she muses, “paler pink is going to become the symbol of Instagram 20-year-olds drinking by the pool, while darker rosé such as Ribera del Duero might be a mark of sophistication.” 

Unless of course it’s a deeper shade that takes the fancy of the Instagrammers. Only time, New York magazine journalists and Pantone will tell. 

Robert Joseph

This article first appeared in Issue 3, 2020 of Meininger's Wine Business International, available online or in print by subscription.

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