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French Rosé Finds Fame and Fortune in the U.S.

Sales of rosé wine shot up 53% in the United States last year. The reasons for this record growth can be found in the booming wine culture in North America and the aggressive marketing strategies employed by winegrowers from Southern France.

It has to be said that rosé wine has not always had the best reputation. The go-to rosé in the United States was long White Zinfandel by Sutter Home, a grenadine-colored, sweet, syrupy tipple from California. This cheap wine was made popular by the rom-com Pretty in Pink and is hardly the last word in chic. “Many Americans see rosé as a substandard wine,” says Franco-American oenologist Paul Chevalier. After working for Veuve-Clicquot, he is now head of promotion in the United States for the Provençal wine estate Château d’Esclans. “I am trying to educate consumers,” he says. “I draw their attention to the pale pink color followed by the taste, which should be dry and fruity.”

Rosé only counts for 5% of the wine market in the U.S.A. but is currently enjoying the highest growth rate. Sales went up 53% between 2016 and 2017, and the 2018 forecasts are already encouraging. Rosé is a summer drink par excellence, and the second Saturday in June was even named National Rosé Day by American marketers. In the New York region, and particularly among younger consumers, this “pink wine” is even starting to compete with champagnes and sparkling wines.

Converting Americans to Provençal Rosé

One in every five bottles of rosé in the United States bears the label of Château d’Esclans, whose winery is located some 20 miles north of Saint-Tropez. The Whispering Angel vintage — the vineyard’s most popular product and the best-selling French wine in America in 2016 — was the catalyst for American consumers’ first love of rosé. No other French wine has been as successful in North America since George Dubœuf’s Beaujolais Nouveau in the 1980s. Château d’Esclans sold 6,000 bottles in the United States in 2007 and is hoping the figure will be closer to five million this year.

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A bottle of rosé by Château d’Esclans at the Pinknic festival in New York City in 2017. © Pinknic

In an effort to convert Americans to Provençal rosé, the Château d’Esclans sales representative spends his time on the road. The brand exports 60% of its production to the United States and sponsored 458 events in 2017, including the U.S. Tennis Open, the Coachella music festival, a regatta in Nantucket, a boating trade show in Palm Beach, and nights at the winter sports resorts of Colorado. Château d’Esclans even has its own official DJ, a certain Nicole Rosé.

The boom in rosé is also driven by derivative products such as “Eau de Rosé” candles, baseball caps proclaiming “Make America Rosé Again,” inflatable pool rafts shaped like bottles, and rosé-flavored popsicles. These (often quite tasteless) marketing techniques have contributed to the rise in the popularity of rosé among younger consumers, particularly women between the ages of 28 and 33. According to Frenchman Pierrick Bouquet, who organizes two annual rosé-themed events in New York — the La Nuit en Rosé river cruise and the Pinknic festival — rosé has become the “champagne of the millennials.”

Rosé Wines Born in the U.S.A.

Half of all bottles of rosé sold in the United States are imported from France, but another third of them are produced on American soil. And while just 1% of the rosé wines served for the first La Nuit en Rosé cruise in 2014 were American, this year the percentage has jumped to 10%. “Wines from the regions of Provence- Alpes-Côte d’Azur and Occitanie are still the market leaders,” says Pierrick Bouquet. “But some U.S. rosés now offer the same quality as French wines.”

American producers are currently trying to remedy the negative image of White Zinfandel and are drawing inspiration from French winemaking techniques. Vermont-born Michael Croteau produces rosé in Southold on the north shore of Long Island. Provençal winegrowers taught him to select grape varieties — he had vine stocks of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Sauvignon Blanc brought from California — and to minimize the use of sulfites, as rosé should be consumed within the year and so requires fewer preservatives than red wine. The cellar master at Croteaux Vineyards also attended a three-week training course at the Center for Rosé Research in Vidauban in the Var département. “Our rosé wines are getting better with every year,” says Michael Croteau. “We produce a Provençal-style rosé but the marine environment of Long Island lends the wine its singular mineral notes.”

Provençal Know-How in California

Another initiative led by U.S. producers is the recruitment of French oenologists and winemakers. Julien Fayard, a former employee of Château Lafite-Rothschild in the Bordeaux region, now works as a consultant in Napa Valley where he offers his services to 8 wineries. “Northern California and Provence are similar regions,” says the French wine expert, who grew up in Toulon where his family owns the nearby Château Sainte-Marguerite, a wine estate renowned for its rosés. “The schist and granite soils are comparable to those found in Provence. The days are also just as hot, although the nights are colder in the U.S.A.”

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Covert Estate is one of 8 California winemakers who produce rosé with the help of French consultant Julien Fayard. © Jimmy Hayes 

Contrary to popular belief, rosé is not in fact a mix of red and white wines! It actually gets its color from the skins of red grapes, and the juice obtained is pale green after extraction. Some grape varieties macerate for two hours, while others take up to 24 hours. The longer the process, the darker and sweeter the wine will be. “There is no time to waste between the harvest and the pressing, and each movement has to be very precise,” says Julien Fayard. “It took quite a long time to teach the Californian producers this method.”

Despite the time invested, the Frenchman is pleased with the result. He has been producing and selling a “Provençal-inspired American rosé,” made using Syrah and Grenache grapes, two varieties from Southern France, since 2007. Some 42,000 bottles of Azur Rosé will be sold this year in California, Oregon, Florida, Missouri, and Texas. “The Azur Rosé terroir is Californian, but our know-how is French,” he says.

Is American Rosé a Threat to French Wines?

While rosés from California and New York State are growing in quality, they are far from being able to compete with French wines. The grape varieties planted in the United States, including Mataro, Grenache, Syrah, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot, are too young to produce premium rosés. As a result, U.S. producers have begun using a technique known as assemblage or “blending.” This is now common practice on the West Coast. For example, Josh Cellars makes their rosé by combining the harvest from several vineyards from Central and Northern California. Pierrick Bouquet admits “it is a good American wine,” but “its vague origins mean it would be relegated to the status of table wine in France.”

If there is one category in which American wines stand out, it is their price. In France, a good bottle of rosé is sold for between 10 and 15 euros, while high-quality rosé would cost twice that in New York! But the U.S. wines sold between 15 and 20 dollars a bottle offer good value for money according to the organizer of La Nuit en Rosé. “American rosés are comparable to the wines from the center of France. A Pinot Noir rosé from Oregon such as Elouan is similar to a Sancerre rosé from the Loire Valley.”

Article published in the June 2018 issue of France-Amérique

  • En fait, Chateau d’Esclans, et beaucoup d’autre vignobles en Provence, utilisent un cepage blanc, Rolle ou Vermentino, dans leurs assemblages, y compris Whispering Angel.

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