Pink wine is in: Dry rosé has overcome a less-than-stellar reputation to become one of the hottest trends in wine. Rosé sales were up 14.4-percent to around $90 million in the 52 weeks ended January 31st, according to Nielsen, and French rosés—about a third of the category—increased 52 percent. This growth isn’t just a flash in the pan. “Rosé is the overnight success that took 15 years,” says Charles Bieler, cofounder of the rosé-led Washington state wine brand Charles & Charles. “People say rosé just came out of nowhere, but a lot of us have been working at it for a long time.”
White Zinfandel and blush wines have long been successful in the United States, but dry rosé struggled to command serious attention. “There’s been a fear of pink wine’s image and how people are perceived for drinking it,” Bieler says. “Historically, pink wine represented some sweet, simple wine for less sophisticated drinkers. White Zinfandel was critical for the development of the American palate, but it stalled the progress of dry rosé for a while.” That perception has finally changed thanks to wider availability, better production methods and increased education. The wines have also become associated with an affluent lifestyle. “The splashiness of rosé in the Hamptons and other areas has really lifted the segment,” Bieler says. “It’s become almost fashionable.”
La Nuit en Rosé, the world’s first festival devoted to the pink drink, embodies the wine’s luxury lifestyle image. The event, which debuted in New York City last year and will return this June, is held on a yacht on the Hudson River over the course of three days. “We want to showcase the diversity and versatility of rosé,” says cofounder Pierrick Bouquet. “It’s a lifestyle event where people enjoy the wine and food as much as the atmosphere and ambiance.”
Last year, La Nuit en Rosé included more than 80 rosés from 40 producers across 10 countries, and Bouquet expects to offer more than 100 wines this year. Regular admission is $75; VIP tickets are $125 and include a four-course dinner paired with rosés from Provence producer Château d’Esclans. The event skews strongly toward 25-year-old to 39-year-old women. “That’s our core demographic,” Bouquet says, adding that 2014’s sold-out event hosted 2,000 people. This year, he expects more than 3,500 guests and plans to expand to Miami and Los Angeles.
France’s Provence region, where 88 percent of wine production is dry rosé, balances the wine’s high-end perception with a strong reputation for quality. “People know Provence for the Cannes Film Festival and for Saint-Tropez more than for wine,” says Jean-Jacques Bréban, president of the Vins de Provence trade association. “We want to push it as a wine region.” The appellation’s affluent image has nevertheless paid dividends, thanks to estates like Château Miraval—owned by actor Angelina Jolie and farmer Brad Pitt—and Château d’Esclans, which produces Whispering Angel rosé. “Miraval and Whispering Angel bring a prestige element to rosé,” says Charles & Charles’ Bieler. “They promote rosé at every luxury event and help make it a special category.”
The Whispering Angel brand ($21 a 750-ml. bottle) debuted with 500 cases in 2006 to a relatively slow start, says Paul Chevalier, national fine wine director at Shaw-Ross International Importers. The company markets the Château d’Esclans range in the United States and initially targeted high-end accounts in resort areas like the Hamptons and at such events as the Aspen Food and Wine Classic. “The biggest challenge was getting over the stigma that rosé is sweet,” Chevalier notes, adding that Whispering Angel has done well due to its association with an upscale summer lifestyle. He expects the brand, which is available in 46 states, to deplete around 100,000 cases in 2015, making Whispering Angel one of the top 10 French labels sold in the United States. “It’s one of the hot spots in French wine,” he says, adding that the brand sees 50 percent of sales coming from the on-premise, with a 75-percent female consumer base.
Rosé’s lifestyle image has increased awareness of the category, but its success owes as much to the increasing quality of the wines. The Center for Rosé Research, founded in Provence in 1999, has helped to improve rosé winemaking in the region and around the world. Domestic rosé has also seen an uptick in quality, thanks to producers like New York’s Wölffer Estate, a winery in the Hamptons that has produced dry rosé since 1992. “When we started, rosé was something to be avoided,” says winemaker Roman Roth. “There were blushes and sweet rosés, but nothing serious. I think we’ve lowered rosé sugar levels on the entire East Coast with our dry rosé.”
Wölffer Estate embraces Long Island’s terroir, which Roth believes is ideally suited for rosé production. “The grapes ripen here on a slow, steady curve, which gives us a lovely minerality and natural acidity,” he says. “But because we’re on the same latitude as Madrid and Naples, we get wonderful ripe flavors.” In a nod to his German winemaking background, Roth’s rosés blend both red and white grapes. “Having a blend creates a harmonious wine with a lot of complexity and lively concentration,” he explains. Comprising Merlot, Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc and other grapes, the flagship Wölffer Estate Rosé ($18 a 750-ml. bottle) has seen growth of 30 percent to 40 percent annually since its inception and is expected to sell 20,000 cases this year, largely in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.
While Americans only discovered dry rosé recently, the wine has a deep history. “Rosé is 26 centuries old,” says Julie Peterson, U.S. trade relations representative for Vins de Provence. “In France, they drink more rosé than white wine. Americans are just beginning to discover it.” Provence has seen double-digit growth in rosé exports for 11 consecutive years, posting a 29-percent increase in volume and 38-percent growth in value for 2014. Peterson notes that Provence rosé doesn’t necessarily appeal to drinkers of other pink wines, such as White Zinfandel. “It’s a completely different product,” she adds. “The consumer who wants this rosé wants a drier wine.”
The region’s wines are also increasingly sold year-round. “We’ve seen a dramatic story change,” Peterson says, explaining that many retailers used to discount rosés after July, but now aim to carry four or five offerings throughout the year.
The New York City retailer Sherry-Lehmann Wine & Spirits does a brisk business in rosé year-round. “We’ve had years of double-digit growth off an already heavy base,” says CEO Chris Adams. “Rosé is exemplary. There’s no other category like it.” He adds that rosé tends to appeal to a younger consumer. “The traditional demographic didn’t drink rosé in the past, and they don’t drink it much now,” Adams explains.
Top-sellers include Provence rosé and other lighter styles, led by Domaines Ott ($27.95 a 375-ml. bottle; $46.95 a 750-ml. bottle; $1,100 a six-liter bottle), Whispering Angel ($21.95 a 750-ml. bottle), Château Miraval ($24.95), Château Margüi ($21.95) and Wölffer Estate ($18). Sherry-Lehmann’s Hamptons Rosé Sampler Pack ($139.95 a six-bottle pack; $279.95 a 12-bottle pack) also does well.
Recent years have seen particular growth in luxury rosé. Upmarket offerings from Château d’Esclans, such as its eponymous rosé ($35), Garrus ($100) and this summer’s forthcoming Rock Angel ($35), aim to develop the premium rosé category and teach Americans about dry rosé styles. Wölffer Estate’s
two higher-end expressions—the 6,000-case Summer in a Bottle ($24) and the 800-case reserve label Grandioso ($29)—have also found an audience, routinely selling out before the core wine.
Some higher-end rosés ignore the category’s lifestyle-based profile and appeal to the traditional fine wine drinker. Domaine Tempier Bandol Rosé ($40 a 750-ml. bottle for the 2013 vintage) from the Bandol AOC in Provence consistently depletes around 5,000 cases annually. “We’d love for Tempier to make more wine, but that’s not how it works,” says Clark Terry, marketing director for Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant. “It’s allocated down to the bottle, not unlike our high-end red Burgundies.” The long-running success of the wine, which Kermit Lynch has imported since the 1970s, bodes well for other luxury dry rosé. “No product has this staying power without quality,” Terry says.
The visibility of high-end rosé has sparked a boom in the broader market as well. The Charles & Charles rosé ($12 a 750-ml. bottle) has been a particular success, racking up strong scores, as well as a 2013 “Best Value” citation from Market Watch sister publication Wine Spectator. Launched in 2008 as a collaboration between Bieler and Washington winemaker Charles Smith and marketed by Trinchero Family Estates since 2013, the wine was up 158 percent in the six months ended December 2014 compared to the prior year.
“I wanted to show that it was possible to do value-oriented, properly balanced rosé here in the United States,” Bieler says. “We want our wine to be distinctly from Washington.” He adds that the wine is finding an audience with sophisticated millennials and white wine drinkers. “A lot of people think they’ll move White Zinfandel drinkers to dry rosé, but they won’t,” Bieler says. “We’re expanding Sauvignon Blanc drinkers into the segment.”
At Flight wine bar in Washington, D.C., co-owner Swati Bose emphasizes the diversity of rosé. “Consumers have learned the Provence rosé flavor profile,” she says. “Light, crisp, mineral—that’s their idea of a rosé when they come in.” The bar’s rosé flight ($18 for three 3-ounce pours) aims to contrast Provence offerings with wines from other regions and consists of the 2013 Bunan Le Petit Rouvière Provence rosé, the 2012 Valle Reale Cerasuolo Montepulciano rosé from Italy’s Abruzzo region and the 2013 Sauska Villányi Kekfrankos-based rosé from Hungary. Rosés by the bottle ($38 to $48 a 750-ml. bottle) include wines from Sancerre, the Loire, Burgundy and Lebanon. Bose adds that while her rosés are popular with millennials, they do even better with a slightly older crowd.
Not all dry rosés embrace the Provence style. South Africa’s Mulderbosch winery produces a wine made from Cabernet Sauvignon grapes specifically grown for rosé, resulting in a darker and more full-bodied dry wine. The rosé ($10 a 750-ml. bottle), which depleted 30,000 cases in 2014, has grown dramatically in the last few years. Steve Doyle, senior vice president of sales and marketing for importer Terroir Selections, expects Mulderbosch Rosé to deplete 50,000 cases in 2015. “The brand has a strong on-premise following from both the sommelier community and casual restaurants,” he notes, adding that Mulderbosch will launch an on-premise–exclusive rosé magnum this spring. Off-premise chains like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s have served as important discovery accounts, introducing millennials to the wine.
The success of the category has promoted experimentation. The recently launched Mezzacorona and Stemmari rosés (both around $10) from Italy are made with grapes indigenous to the country, but showcase a flavor profile similar to Provence wines. Wölffer Estate will introduce a Malbec and Torrontés blend sourced from its vineyards in Mendoza, Argentina, later this year. Domestic brands like Trinchero’s Ménage à Trois California Rosé (around $10), the No.-3 domestic rosé, offer semi-sweet wines with more residual sugar than Provence offerings, but far less than White Zinfandel or Moscato. Such wines tend to do well with millennials and often show strong performance year-round, but getting younger consumers to trade up to higher-end wines can be difficult. “Most millennials aren’t financially ready to participate in the luxury side of the wine business,” says Terroir Selections’ Doyle. “There isn’t a lot of crossover between the $10-to-$14 brands and the $35 rosés.” He adds that high-end domestic rosés, including the company’s 2013 Wind Gap North Coast Rosé ($19) and the 2013 Sandhi Sta. Rita Hills Rosé of Pinot Noir ($38), skew heavily toward the on-premise and do much better with the baby boomer crowd.
Dry rosés aren’t the only pink wines that appeal to baby boomers. Despite recent weakness and longtime skepticism from sommeliers, White Zinfandel remains formidable, representing $357 million at retail over the past 52 weeks ended January 31st, according to Nielsen. The segment sells over 12 million cases a year, making it the sixth-largest varietal on the market, says Trinchero senior vice president of marketing Dave Derby. The company’s Sutter Home label ($6 a 750-ml. bottle) created the White Zinfandel category in 1975 and remains the segment’s top wine. “Sutter Home White Zinfandel has brought more consumers into the wine industry than any other SKU out there,” Derby says, adding that Trinchero is launching limited-edition packaging to celebrate the wine’s 40th anniversary this month. “It skews a little older, ages 35 to 65, but we’re looking at alternative sizes and usages and believe we can grab some millennials into the White Zinfandel category.”
Rosé marketers agree that the wine’s recent success won’t be a short-lived trend. Peterson of Vins de Provence admits that more education is needed and that consumers in many markets still associate all pink wines with sweetness. “But is the market saturated? Not at all,” she says. “We’re at the beginning of this story.”