Premium Rosé – a style whose time has come across the planet

Pink wine was traditionally the unsophisticated sector that the wine industry rarely treated with respect or interest. Today, it is increasingly premium, popular and profitable, as James Lawrence reports.

Rosé origin #1: France's Provence
Rosé origin #1: France's Provence

The rosé category has arrived at a key moment. As markets have expanded (notwithstanding the impact of Covid-19) and consumer attitudes have evolved, global brands can aim to achieve growth that would have been impossible – or at least highly implausible – in the 20th century.  Provence's monopoly on premium rosé is well and truly over. Democratisation is happening at a lightening pace.

“50 years ago, rosé was not even a recognised wine category,” observes Sandro Sartor, president of the Ruffino winery in Tuscany.

“Now we are at the beginning of this incredible growth period, enhanced by the rise of rosé Prosécco. Italy can play an important part in this unfolding story.”

The ascent to fame and fortune of premium rosé has come at a time when still wine volumes have been declining in many European markets and growth has stalled in the US. The mantra “consumers are drinking less but better” has been as much of an aspiration as a statement of fact ,and the availability of pink wine for which they happily pay more has been especially welcome.

“Rosé wine has gone from strength to strength, driven by a glamorous image, refreshing taste profile and  ability to work across a range of social occasions. This has enabled rosé to break through and hold universal appeal, regardless of the consumers' knowledge or experience with wine,” says Daniel Mettyear, Head of Research EMEA at IWSR Drinks Market Analysis. He explains that the current headline premium rosé markets are Canada, France, Holland, US, and UK.

“The global appeal of the rosé movement means that there are a wide range of markets showing good momentum, although many are from a small base. I think Australia, the Nordics and to an extent Germany and Belgium are emerging as particularly interesting markets for premium rosé,” notes  Mettyear. 

Victor Verhoef, founder of the AIX Rosé brand in Provence, believes that “there’s a lot of potential in Australia, where it’s basically summer the whole year round, and Singapore and Israel. These last two countries have solid growth compared to other markets.”

 

From pool to premium

Once upon a time, rosé was widely viewed as a 'pool wine', with little aspirations beyond cheap summer drinking. Yet pink now boasts a decisive advantage over red and white styles, not least because rosé has been more successful in selling the 'lifestyle'. Buoyed by the obvious cachet of having attracted the interest – and dollars – of several major celebrities, rosé engages with consumers in a way that puts its rivals to shame. Brands like Mirabeau and Chateau d'Esclans have focused on selling seductive imagery, not just a product  for consumers to buy into. 

They take their marketing inspiration from the worlds of fashion and beauty, encouraging customers to brand call, and seek out particular brands, rather than just the category as a whole. Meanwhile, the European centre of production is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. "Provencal rosé is actually the new 'Champagne',” enthuses  Eric Kurver of AIX Rosé. The formula has clearly worked, albeit certain members of the trade do feel that luck has played its undeniable part.

“Rosé's triumph was a case of 'right place right time' – 10 years earlier and I do not believe it would not have worked, as the generation of drinkers of premium wines at that time would not have taken rosé seriously,” argues Jeroboam's wine director Peter Mitchell MW.

He continues: “Sacha Lichine [of Chateau d’Esclans and Whispering Angel], helped rosé to shed its downmarket image, but Gen X was a receptive consumer base looking for new trends and didn’t carry the same snobbery about rosé. At a time when an increasing number of people with increasing disposable incomes but little knowledge were coming to wine as a drink of choice, it also helps that rosé is not an intimidating drink and is generally easy to enjoy.”

 

Selling a specific lifestyle is stil part of many brands' marketing concepts

 

Nevertheless, Lichine's relentless proselytising of rosé in the US was an important catalyst. His father Alexis Lichine  played a key role in marketing top French brands to American consumers during the second half the twentieth century, while his son spent his formative years in New York.

“After working in virtually every aspect of the wine business  in the US, I developed the confidence to  eventually have a go at producing and marketing rosé. And beyond that, rosé was in a sort of ‘vacant sector’ that had yet to be developed the way I envisioned it could be,” says Lichine.

“So I left Bordeaux to eventually go to Provence and began my journey now entering its sixteenth vintage. I saw that there were certain category and brand development opportunities that had already established themselves with rosé Champagne and Sauvignon Blanc. This made me think that if rosé Champagne could be successful, why couldn’t still rosé be as well?”

 

Growing supply

When Lichine launched Chateau d'Esclans in 2006, there were “a dozen identifiable rosé 'marques' with limited distribution in the global fine wine landscape,” he says. 

Today there are hundreds, while new players enter the category every year.

“The industry has proliferated with overwhelming force and while some entries are quite good there are many that are less so. That being said, some form of atomization or a ‘shake out’ could present itself whereby inferior brands will be weeded out and the best marques will survive,” Lichine says. 

“Provence has opened the path, we are now following it in the Languedoc,” agrees  Clémence Fabre of Famille Fabre.  She reports that Japan  is showing great promise as a market, particularly for the more expensive cuvées.

“Rosé is not yet an important category in Asia, but everything is in place for the new generation of Asian consumers, curious about wine culture and looking for aesthetic products, to also convert to rosé,” added a representative from Vignobles Bonfils in the Languedoc. 

But overcrowding is starting to worry some growers in Provence. Growers cultivating grapes in warmer climates can enter the rosé market with relative ease. Moreover, the style is generally straightforward to make (certain cuvées are treated to maturation in French barrique) and can be brought to market fairly quickly. Indeed, the number of rosé brands made in the Languedoc has skyrocketed in recent times – producers have set their sights on emerging territories, keenly aware that competition in the US is fierce.

“The competition in several markets will become more challenging, as we have seen in the Champagne category. There is almost an oversupply of different rosé brands, and because of the ‘hype’, the market is getting saturated, “ says Victor Verhoef.

 

International competition

French producers also bemoan the deluge of 'cheap imitation brands' being made by domestic Australian producers, while nations like Chile are making good rosé wines at half the price of Provence.  Even Sacha Lichine admits that the Provencal rosé style (dry and fruit-forward) is being imitated in other regions with some skill. “It is conceivable that one day places such as Chile and California will perfect replicating what is done so well in Provence which today is to rosé what Champagne is to sparkling,” he says.

Despite the fustrations of some producers concerning saturation, analysts are confident that global demand will rise considerably over the next decade. “Until very recently, Provence has been at the centre of the broader rosé trend as well as the premium movement. While this will certainly continue, I expect to see rosés from other regions and countries, not just emulate the Provencal style but develop their own super-premium labels, helping to diversify the segment and aid its development,” says Daniel Mettyear. 

Equally, the industry cannot afford to get complacent. As the Russian 'spat' regarding the labelling of Champagne demonstrates, no business is immune from the geopolitical environment, while the threat of new protectionist trade measures can never be discounted. In addition, many regions in the northern hemisphere picked low grape yields in 2021, due to the spring frost attacks and turbulent weather throughout the season. The price-inelasticity of premium rosé could be put to the test.

“Everything is inelastic until suddenly it isn’t; there are enough premium rosés with recognition now that £20 ($27) seems to be a ceiling above which brand loyalty is stretched and sales will fall off with the volume shifting to a different brand at sub £20,” says Peter Mitchell.
“I’m also sceptical about the growth potential of these deluxe bottlings. They have yet to demonstrate the complexity and ability to improve with age that this should demand. For a small number of consumers they allow a display of wealth but they are currently a very niche market and I would expect them to remain so.”

Yet there are reasons to remain very optimistic about the category's future. Innovation, occasion stratification, and image premiumisation constitute the holy trinity of rosé's marketing arsenal. More than any other still wine category, rosé has demonstrated a unrivalled ability to market itself to modern expectations and audiences. 

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