For more than a decade, imported table wine has held steady in the U.S., comprising roughly 25% of the market. But that share number doesn’t reflect the significant rise in the number of imported brands available on shelves, or the overall amount of cases; today the U.S. imports some 77.4 million cases, according to Impact Databank, up from just 59.5 million cases in 2003.
At the forefront of that growth are rosé wines—namely those from Provence—and sparklers, led by Italy’s flagship bubbly, Prosecco. Wines from elsewhere around the world are also rising in popularity, albeit from smaller bases. In Spain, for example, higher-end Rioja and Ribera del Duero wines are propelling the country forward in restaurants and retail accounts across the U.S. Neighboring Portugal is also soaring by both volume and value as winemakers and their importers work to transform the country’s old image as a maker of lower-end wines. In the Southern Hemisphere, New Zealand is still flourishing thanks to Sauvignon Blanc, though cool-climate expressions of other varietals are gaining traction with U.S. consumers.
A few common threads exist among the most successful players. Some have the benefit of riding major global trends, such as France with rosé and Italy with sparkling wine, but others are triumphing from a heightened focus on terroir and an emphasis on premiumization. In countries that aren’t faring as well, primarily Australia, Argentina, Chile, Germany, and South Africa, this template for success is now being actively emulated.
No matter the country of origin, rosé is a major growth driver in the U.S. market. “Every brand we import fancies itself a potential rosé producer,” says Ian Downey, executive vice president of Winebow Imports, which encompasses four separate import divisions that extensively cover New and Old World regions. “And it’s easy to see why, given that rosé labels are experiencing growth across all pricing tiers and styles.”
Traction with rosé is still mainly strong in France, where Provençal-style rosés—and, increasingly, expressions from nearby French regions Languedoc-Roussillon and the Loire Valley—have captured consumers’ hearts. In 2018, France shipped 14.4 million cases of bottled table wine to the U.S., according to Impact Databank. The country is second only to Italy, with rosé accounting for significant volume in appellations like Provence, where 89% of production is dedicated to the wine.
The ongoing success of French rosé has led many producers to start expanding the boundaries of the category, primarily through premiumization and more on-premise placements. “Though there’s still growth at the bottom tier of the rosé category, consumers are now eyeing wines at higher price points, especially when they’re coming from Provence,” says Jackson Family Wines CEO Rick Tigner. “The top-performing rosés right now are Provence-style expressions in the $20-$30 range.” Tigner notes that California-based Jackson Family was inspired to launch its own rosés after realizing that Provençal rosés were the basis for a long-term category build, not a fad.
Napa, California-based importer and marketer Quintessential Wines recently expanded its investment in upscale rosé by adding two wineries to its portfolio: Château Roubine and Château Sainte-Beatrice. Both properties are owned by Provençal winemaker Valerie Rousselle and her son, Adrien Riboud. Château Roubine’s flagship rosé, La Rose ($24 a 750-ml.), is the first to come stateside, with around 5,000 cases rolling out nationwide this month. The label will eventually be joined by other super-and ultra-premium rosé offerings from both wineries—all targeting higher-end restaurants. Quintessential co-founder Dennis Kreps says the move aims to highlight the stylistic differences within the region. “All of Château Roubine’s and Château Sainte-Beatrice’s rosés are distinct,” he says. “They’re representative of their terroirs, and each has a clear identity.” Quintessential also imports Provence-based Château Ferry Lacombe, and last November it rolled out a Beaujolais Nouveau rosé from Georges Duboeuf that attracted widespread attention.
Elsewhere in France, producers in Languedoc-Roussillon have witnessed substantial growth in rosé lately, with their regionality playing a major role. “Rosé is currently the fastest-growing segment in Languedoc,” says Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins du Languedoc (CIVL) marketing director Christine Molines. “Producers are increasing their output. The region has a great diversity of soils and grape varietals, which shine through in its rosés.” Gérard Bertrand has drawn much of the attention to Languedoc, particularly with rosé labels like Cotes des Roses ($19 a 750-ml.) and GMVW ($60-$70), among others.
While France—and Provence in particular—is the first point of contact with rosé for many American consumers, rosés from other countries are making headway. At Spanish and Portuguese wine importer Olé & Obrigado, rosé has been a huge growth category, according to co-founder Patrick Mata. “We were the first importer to bring a Mencia-based rosé to the U.S. with the brand Liquid Geography ($13 a 750-ml.), and the millennial audience has taken to it in a major way,” says Mata. “Millennials like to explore, so rosé will push the boundaries beyond Provence.”
Last year, Olé & Obrigado imported around 5,000 cases of Liquid Geography to the U.S. The company also imports Cortijo Rosé ($11 a 750-ml.) from Rioja and Rosé Vulcanico ($26) from Pico, among other labels, emphasizing a wide variety of price points and styles across Spain and Portugal. Mata believes there’s plenty of potential for Iberian rosé to expand in both pricing and quality. “Rosé is not so much a trend as a wholly new category,” he says. “Just like red, white, or sweet wines, rosé is here to stay, and it’s going to grow at higher price points.”
Joining rosé as an import driver is Prosecco, which has taken the sparkling wine category by storm. “What’s happened with Prosecco in the last decade is one of the great stories of sparkling wine in America,” says Chris Adams, CEO of New York-based retailer Sherry-Lehmann. “Prosecco wasn’t a huge focus for us at Sherry-Lehmann in the early 2000s, but then we watched it take off and it was magnificent, and continues to be so today—American consumers are only just now discovering the breadth of its potential.” Sherry-Lehmann currently offers seven Prosecco labels, ranging from the non-vintage La Marca ($16 a 750-ml.) to the 2015 Bisol Cartizze Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG ($44).
Prosecco’s growth rate has slowed in the U.S. lately—dropping down to single digits for the first time in 2017, according to Impact Databank—but importers remain bullish. “Prosecco brought the notion that sparkling wine could be a daily event, as opposed to just a celebratory product,” says Steve Slater, executive vice president and general manager of the wine division at Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits. “Now, people are drinking Prosecco—and to a lesser degree, other sparkling wines—with meals and not holding off for special occasions. That bodes well for the category’s continued upward momentum.”
Terlato Wine Group CEO Bill Terlato expects his company’s Prosecco portfolio to maintain growth in the years ahead. “Prosecco isn’t a fad, and we’ve built our products over a lengthy period of time, so that they’ll be sustainable for the long run,” he says. “With Prosecco becoming so popular, the higher-priced DOCG labels like Nino Franco will have plenty of room to grow.” Terlato imports a number of leading luxury Prosecco brands, among them Nino Franco, Giuliana, and Riondo, placing particular emphasis on wines for on-premise accounts.
It’s not just Prosecco driving sales among Italian wine imports, as the country’s still wines continue drawing consumers into the fold. Though Italy’s volume in the U.S. declined slightly last year, falling 1.8% to 27.2 million cases of bottled still wine, its sales by value climbed by 4% to $1.4 billion. Between 2013 and 2018, Italy’s per-case shipment value grew from $46.73 to $50.09.
Driving that value rise are site-specific wines highlighting vineyards, villages, or regions. “Consumers want to know about specific terroir, and how it expresses identity in wine,” says Giovanni Manetti, president of the Consorzio Vino Chianti Classico and owner of the region’s Fontodi estate. “In Chianti, we have different soils, elevations, exposures, and cultures from village to village. We’re working to pass on that knowledge to consumers, who are responding positively thus far.” After coming on as president of the Consorzio in August 2018, Manetti outlined a plan to add more specificity to Chianti Classico labels by including village names on labels. The idea must first be accepted by the 500-plus members of the Consorzio, and may be up for a vote as soon as this coming fall. If it goes through, Manetti says it will be a way of reaching consumers who are seeking authenticity. Last year, Chianti Classico exported just under 1 million cases to the U.S. market, according to the Consorzio.
Olé & Obrigado has also succeeded with higher-end wines that are reflective of place. Albariño in particular has been a growth driver, especially among millennials. “We’ve been bringing Albariño to the U.S. for a long time, and we now have about 15 different expressions stateside,” Mata says. “Albariño is an extremely diverse grape. It’s a varietal that communicates place—it can taste dramatically different depending on where it’s grown. That resonates with millennials, who are looking to explore and learn.” Olé & Obrigado offers Albariño from Spain and Portugal, among them Leirana Albariño ($29 a 750-ml.) from Rías Baixas and Luis Seabra Granito Cru Alvarinho ($47) from the Vinho Verde DOC.
In addition to Albariño, luxury Spanish reds and Sherries have helped drive growth for Olé & Obrigado in recent years, as have high-end Portuguese offerings. “Last year, the company’s growth came from Sherry, upscale Rioja and Ribera del Duero wines, and luxury Portuguese expressions,” Mata says. He adds that the company’s average price per case for Portugal is actually higher than that for Spain, with the Portuguese portfolio improving in value by 50% in 2018. “A lot of people think of below-$10 Vinho Verde when they think of Portugal,” he says. “But we’re seeing incredible movement in the country’s higher-end wines.”
Indeed, last year Portugal shipped a total of 1.75 million cases to the U.S.—a rise of 7.5%, the highest of any country among the top ten. Its dollar sales also increased by 13.5% to $55.5 million. At Quintessential, Kreps has taken note of this growth, though he adds that Portugal has a long way to go. “It’s completely undiscovered and underdeveloped,” he says. “There’s a lot of Portuguese wine at $10-and-under, but we don’t work in that space. Our Portugal portfolio ranges from $12-$250. We’re putting those wines in front of consumers, and we’re seeing success.” Quintessential imports the Portuguese labels Herdade de São Miguel, Quinta do Vallado, and Vila Nova. Kreps is also eyeing opportunities in the Douro Valley, where luxury reds have gained traction.
New Zealand is experiencing a premiumization push of its own, even if the shipment value of its still wines fell slightly in the 2013-2018 period, from $58.61 to $56.54. By both volume and total dollar sales, however, growth rolled on last year, with shipments up 4.6% to 5.24 million cases and value rising by 1.2% to $427.9 million. “New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc doesn’t seem to have an end in sight, and it’s moving toward the higher end,” says Slater of Southern Glazer’s.
Kim Crawford has been among the most visible New Zealand brands in the U.S., and its momentum continues. It’s now the third-ranked premium-plus import by volume, with depletions jumping by 5.1% in 2018 to 1.33 million cases. Last year, the brand debuted its Signature Reserve line, which launched with a Sauvignon Blanc retailing at $25 a 750-ml.—well above the core label’s $18 price point. The new offering, from the lower Wairau sub-region of Marlborough, is tapping into consumer demand for more complex expressions of New Zealand’s signature varietal.
New Zealand’s Antipodean neighbor Australia is also accelerating at the upper pricing tiers, as winemakers turn to cool-climate expressions from such regions as Adelaide Hills in South Australia and Yarra Valley in Victoria. “Australia is coming around, and it’s regional- and vineyard-specific,” says Quintessential’s Kreps. “Below $20 is a tough sell, and it’s not where we’re focused.” Cool-climate Shiraz and Riesling from Western Australia are performing well for Quintessential, whose Australian portfolio includes such imports as Frankland Estate in Western Australia’s Frankland River region.
Treasury Wine Estates has had noteworthy success with its Australian 19 Crimes brand, which launched in 2013 and has since posted massive gains. Today, 19 Crimes stands at almost 1.56 million cases and, after five years on the market, the brand now comprises a 11.4% share of the Australian category in the U.S. The 19 Crimes portfolio consists of Hard Chard ($13 a 750-ml.), Cabernet Sauvignon ($15), and Red Blend ($13) expressions, among others. Treasury has aimed to transcend the greater Australian category with 19 Crimes, implementing concentrated digital branding that includes interactive label art and an augmented reality component. But despite the success of 19 Crimes and momentum at the luxury tier, Australia faced another year of declines by volume and value in 2018. Bottled shipments fell 10.8% to 9.11 million cases, while total dollar sales dropped 16.5% to $299.8 million.
Two South American winemaking stalwarts—Chile and Argentina—have likewise slumped in the U.S. by value and volume, although some observers see potential for a comeback. “I have a positive outlook on the future of Argentinian wine, and on Malbec in particular, because we have a strong, growing presence in the over-$15 retail price segments,” says Laura Catena, managing director of Bodega Catena Zapata, whose portfolio includes a slew of high-end Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Chardonnay wines, among others. She cites some rocky recent vintages and the fall of Argentina’s bulk market as reasons for overall volume and value declines—Argentina’s shipments slipped 5.1% to 5.1 million cases in the U.S. last year, while sales fell 1.8% to $242.9 million—but notes that the dramatic jump in shipment value—which is now at $41.72 a case compared to $23.78 a case in 2013—is an encouraging harbinger of future success.
At the heart of the country’s move towards more upscale wines is regional specificity, which Catena says should be a point of focus for winemakers and importers moving forward. “Argentina needs to inform consumers of the differences in flavor for regional Malbec, from the floral, mineral Malbecs of Gualtallary to the jammy, rich Malbecs of old vines in Lujan de Cuyo,” she says. “And even beyond the regional differences, there are contrasts from parcel to parcel in a single vineyard, as well as in adjacent lots with unique soils.” She cites Catena Zapata’s own White Bones ($140 a 750-ml.) and White Stones ($120) Chardonnays, both from the Adrianna Vineyard, as evidence of the acute differences that microcosms of Argentinian terroir can express.
Even as domestic wine becomes increasingly sophisticated, with new AVAs and fresh brands emerging on a regular basis, the capacity of imports to influence trends and attract consumers ensures that they will long play a role in the American wine industry.