Provence seems to be a wonderful exception in the world of wine. Against the backdrop of falling sales, weak prices and complaints of a lack of innovation, Provence is selling more wine than ever, prices are firm, and it’s a hotbed of marketing experimentation. But the wines aren’t serious, nor are they trying to be. “We are selling pleasure,” says Aurélien Pont, general manager of Château Pigoudet. And there are two key elements to the growing success story of Provence wine: application of winemaking technology to improve quality, and a willingness to innovate.
The pink of health
Provence is all about rosé. In France, rosé wine consumption has increased year-on-year for a couple of decades now, and since 1990 has tripled. Pink wine sales now represent a remarkable 30% of total wine consumption in France. Globally, there’s been a 15% increase in rosé wine drinking over the last decade. In the UK, for example, rosé represented just 2.7% of supermarket wine sales in 2000; it’s now 11%.
Of all the world’s winegrowing regions, one can claim to be rosé capital: Provence. Provence has 27,000 ha of vineyards spread across three departments (Var, Bouches du Rhône and Alpes-Maritimes), and makes over 170m bottles in an average vintage. The region has 600 wineries, 40 of which are cooperatives. And, amazingly, Rosé accounts for 88% of overall production, which is far higher than you’d find in any other wine region. Altogether, Provence accounts for 6% of the planet’s total rosé wine production.
Most Provence rosé is drunk in France (84%), with 40% being drunk in the region itself. After all, it is a wine that superbly adapted to its environment. Exports are growing, however. They rose 15% in the last year, and demand from the largest export market, the US, leaped by 40% over the same period. According to the region’s professional body, the CIVP, in the UK year-to-date figures from May 2014 showed a 60% increase in sales in volume and 58% in value, which is remarkable. In particular, one retailer, Majestic Wine Warehouses, has pushed rosé strongly and accounts for almost 60% of UK sales. Majestic have also had a lot of success selling rosé in magnum, beginning with a large order for the AIX rosé in 2013 that sold out quickly, and continuing this summer with a further three wines – M de Minuty, Chateau de Berne and Miraval – in this format.
Winemaking technology has certainly helped contribute to the ongoing success of the region’s wines, because Provence rosé has got a lot better in recent years. Chief among the advances have been better control of pressing, protecting the wine from oxygen, and temperature control during fermentation. “The advent of cold fermentation has changed the taste of Provence rosé,” says Véronique Goupy of Domaine de Fontlade. “We are now able to have much lower levels of sulfites.” Several wineries are now equipped with the Inertys system for their presses. It’s a way of keeping all oxygen out of the press by means of a large ‘lung’ filled with nitrogen, which responds to the stage of the press cycle by filling the press with nitrogen and then recycling that nitrogen as the press inflates. This protects the delicate aromatic components in the juice from oxidation.
Rosé has also got paler. There is a research institute dedicated solely to the region’s rosé wines, Centre de Recherche et d’Expérimentation sur le Vin Rosé, based in Vidauban. Among other things, they have devised a colour scale for rosé, and are currently researching the effect of fluorescent lights on rosé wines in clear glass bottles – this is how most of these wines are marketed. Researcher Nathalie Pouzalgues explained how important colour is on the perception of rosé wine, and that their data show that over time, the region’s wines have gradually got paler. “The fashion now here is to have very pale rosés,” says Fontlade’s Goupy, “But the aroma is in the skin. If you don’t macerate enough you have no aroma and no colour. It is a very technical wine.” So winemakers are walking a tightrope between getting aromatics in their wines and yet keeping the colour pale. One way to improve aroma without extended maceration is a process called stabulation. Aurélien Pont of Château Pigoudet explains how this works. “For the last six years we have left the juice on the lees for five to fifteen days before fermentation at low temperatures. This allows lots of aromatic components to go from the lees to the juice.” Pont adds that, “If you make a tank just from filtered lees it is very aromatic and can be used as a blending component.” Some producers have also tried more novel techniques (of somewhat dubious legality) such as leaving Cinsault juice on Sauvignon lees in order to pick up aromatic precursors.
In terms of marketing, Provence is proving quite flexible and imaginative. “It’s a very dynamic region,” says Bruno Descamps of Château Gassier. “I really appreciate it. I compare it a bit to Champagne. We are at the high end of rosé wine: you can bring the fun and the party emotion that we have with Champagne.” Gassier are just one of the many producers who are making super-premium rosé. Theirs, the 946 cuvée, retails for €30.00 ($37.50) in the region.
“We see more domains launching high-end rosés,” says Liz Comte-Monk of Les Maîtres Vignerons de la Presqu’île de Saint Tropez. “That would not have happened five years ago. Consumer attitudes have changed.” Possibly most famous of all among the high-end wines is Sacha Lichine’s Garrus wine, from Château d’Esclans, which is barrel-fermented in a Burgundy style and retails for about the same price as a Grand Cru Burgundy. It comes from a block of 80-year-old vines from a hilltop vineyard, and was first made in 2006.
Savvy marketing and innovation
As an example of the innovative thinking in the region, take entrepreneurial negociant operation Mirabeau, established by British ex-pat Stephen Cronk. “The dream was to buy a vineyard,” says Cronk, who discovered wine during a gap year in Australia in the mid-1980s. Returning to the UK, he worked in the UK wine trade, did wine exams and set up his own company at the age of 24. It didn’t go well. By the time he was 30 he had huge debts and decided instead to get a corporate job, working for 15 years in telecoms, before he decided to return to wine. He toyed with buying a vineyard, but people in the industry explained the economics of vineyard ownership and persuaded him not to do it. “I think I can make better wine, more consistently and scalably, not owning vineyards,” says Cronk. “For me the negociant model is the best one.” But how could he build a brand without having a large budget for advertising?
Cronk was inspired by a book written by Gary Vaynerchuk, the Internet wine sensation, and he decided to leverage social media. He says this book, Crush It! changed his life.
As part of his social media strategy, Cronk started making small videos. His savvy marketing approach appealed to UK supermarket Waitrose, who listed his wine. Then one of his videos – on how to open a wine bottle with a shoe – went viral. At the time of writing, it had 7.9m views on YouTube, plus many others where the clip was embedded on other players. Cronk can’t be sure, but he thinks that this activity has had an impact on his brand building. “Sales in Waitrose went up 80% in the last year,” says Cronk. “It could be about the stuff we are doing around the brand.” Since then he has launched a new premium rosé called Pure, which has been selling very well.
Perhaps the most interesting marketing tactic used by the region’s producers is the wide array of novel – and sometimes quite unusual – bottle shapes, something not seen on a regular basis elsewhere in Europe. There are a number of variations on the Provence ‘skittle’ or ‘corset’ bottle, but of late completely new designs have emerged. Château de Berne are now widely known for their distinctive square bottle. Thomas Lagarde, wine director at Vignobles de Berne, explains that four years ago he had problems selling a Viognier wine, until he put it in a square 50 cl bottle, and then it sold out. So he started using this bottle across the range, giving customers a choice between the new bottle and the standard one. “Eighty per cent were buying the square bottle, so we shifted,” he says. “Sometimes it is a bit more difficult for wine experts,” he adds. “They tend to reject this bottle because it is not traditional enough.’ The bottles are made by Picardy-based Saverglass, and cost €0.60 each versus €0.30 for standard bottles. Sixty per cent of de Berne’s production is now bottled in this shape. Château Minuty are another property who have invested in new bottle designs for part of their range. Their version of the Provence skittle bottle is popular on export markets and was designed by the mother of current co-owners, brothers Jean-Etienne and François Matton. Their elegant new bottle shape, which works well in the domestic market, was a joint venture: François drew the label and Jean-Etienne drew the bottle shape.
Pigoudet have taken the bottle shape one stage further, and now have distinctive, individual bottle shapes for each of their three top wines, Insolite!, La Chapelle and Classic. The glass is sourced from Saverglass, and each bottle costs €0.40 for La Chapelle and €0.75 for the other two. Les Maîtres Vignerons de la Presqu’île de Saint Tropez also have a unique bottle for their top cuvée, the Château de Pampelonne Légende, which has an unusual flattened profile and is very attractive.
So, the Provence rosé story is a successful one, in the midst of a European wine industry that faces some severe challenges. “I feel very confident about rosé sales all around the world,” says Minuty’s François Matton. “We focus on quality, and we maintain our prices. Production is the same but demand is increasing.” There are few regions in the world of wine which can claim the same.