La Vie en Rosé

La Vie en Rosé

by Robert Joseph

In 1975, Pamela Vandyke Price, wine correspondent of The Times of London, wrote in The Taste of Wine that “No one… has ever sat discussing a pink wine for more than a few minutes except to establish whether it is pleasant as a wine in its own right or as a shadow of something else that might be white or red.” 

Today, while the wine chatterati stay up all night discussing orange wines and autochthonous varieties, the public has gone wild for pink — and not just in the summer months, the traditional season for rosé.

What’s driving the trend — and is the end in sight?

A look back at pink 
Pink is a paradox. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the shade was not even officially acknowledged by the English language until a reference to “pink-coloured” appeared in the 1680s. Now, it is the colour most associated with little girls; in 1918, an American trade magazine called The Infants’ Department declared that “pink being a decided and stronger colour is more suitable for the boy”. 

As a wine style, pink has also had a conflicted history. In recent times, as Elizabeth Gabay MW points out in her book Rosé, Understanding the Pink Wine Revolution, most professionals have behaved as though “serious” wine came in two colours: red and white.
History, however, reveals that the fortunes of rosé have always risen and fallen — and every rise takes everyone by surprise. Three centuries ago, a French writer called La Framboisière published a book called Les Oeuvres in which he described three colours of wine: white, red — vermeil — and clairet whose colour “is in the middle of the two others. Which is why it excels over the others.”

Part of the pink paradox may be the nature of the colour itself; it’s not part of the electromagnetic spectrum, so there are no waves of pink light. To generate pink, other colours must be added or subtracted from red, meaning it was historically a difficult colour for artists to work with. Its relative rarity as a dye or a paint meant that different cultures and times have ascribed different meanings to it. When the writer Olivier de Serres described La Framboisière’s clairet in the late 15th century, for example, there were no pink clichés to fall back on, so he described clairet wine as rubis orientalis (the red of the setting sun) and oeil de perdrix (the pale pink of the eye of a partridge). Those became descriptions of the ideal colours. When the wines were paler they were either sold as gris — grey — or “improved” with a little red wine that was also thought to make them taste fruitier.

The social class of the pink wine drinkers also contributed to its poor image. The wines de Serres and La Framboisière enjoyed were field blends of paler and darker-skinned grapes. Larger volumes of cheap pale-hued piquette were made by passing white over the skins left in the vat after the red wine had been drawn off. This low-alcohol, vinous equivalent of what British brewers would call “small beer” was the preserve of manual workers and not even thought worth subjecting to tax. The production of cheap, poor-quality French rosé survived until as recently as 1971 when the British writer Julian Jeffs noted: “Very cheap beverage pink wines are undoubtedly blended in France by wholesale merchants using a mixture of red and white wines. And one has heard terrifying references to cochineal.” 

Some writers wrote approvingly about Tavel, the most famous Rhône appellation for pink wine, as the “only rosé that ages”, and others noticed the surprisingly high price of the Provence rosés from Domaine Ott. But French rosé continued to have what Janice Wilson — UK marketing manager at Food and Wine from France — described in a 1988 interview in The Grocer, as a “cheap image”. 

Pink on the up
Gabay believes the turning point for rosé globally began in 2007, when there was a “massive increase in production and consumption… [and an] increase in marketing focusing on pale pink ‘Provence-style’ rosé and a lifestyle image of beaches, pools, glamour and millennial-girl pink fun”. Perhaps not surprisingly, this was also the same period when social media and the iPhone, with its high-quality camera, appeared. Consumers could now photograph themselves sipping pink while next to a blue pool, and posting this idealised Provence-style vision to the world.

In 2014, French rosé production rose by 50 percent to 7.6m hl, well ahead of Spain, the US and Italy. While global consumption of still wine remained more or less stable between 2002 to 2015, pink wine increased by 30 percent, according to the French government-backed research agency FranceAgriMer.

Gilles Masson, director of the region’s Centre d’Expérimentation et de Recherche sur le Vin in Provence, thinks the phenomenon was “both very progressive and spontaneous” and a result of a steady process that began at the beginning of the century. It was not planned, but happily coincided with some segments of the market turning away from heavy, high-alcohol styles. “It’s the result of a long conversation with consumers who wanted something lighter. I don’t know if the changes in winemaking, especially harvesting at night, are the cause or the effect of the change in style. I think the effect was mutual.”

During the same period, the colour pink itself was undergoing an Instagram-driven renaissance, becoming so ubiquitous in design and fashion that a popular version acquired the name “Millennial pink”. And winemakers such as Gavin Quinney of Château Bauduc in Bordeaux confirm that across the world, pale, Provence-style pink is most consumers’ first choice. Again, Masson is clear. “The colour was not a marketing choice –it happened naturally, there was no study.” 

When trying to explain why rosé now outsells white in French supermarkets and sells so well across the world, Masson says that, in France at least, women have been crucial. “In supermarkets, it is women who do most of the shopping. A few years ago they had difficulties finding red to please their men,” he says. The beauty of rosé, he adds, is that it’s not complicated and people feel they are less likely to make a mistake — a social faux pas — whatever rosé they choose. Not only that, but the wine style, being lighter and less tannic, meant that the women themselves enjoyed it. “They imposed their taste and choice on their men. Men used to say rosé is for women. We don’t have any data, but I often see how consumers react. Men grimace at first, then they enjoy the wine.”

Masson’s theory is supported by AgriMer figures, showing the percentage of French women who declared themselves to be non-wine drinkers dropped dramatically from 47 percent in 2010 to 39 percent in 2015.

Hollywood pink
No discussion of the rise of rosé would be complete without a reference to “Brangelina”. The 2013 launch by Brad Pitt and his then wife Angelina Jolie of a Provence rosé made for them at Château Miraval by the Perrin family of Château de Beaucastel certainly gave the wine style and region a big dose of Hollywood glitter.

However, it was Sacha Lichine, another outsider to Provence, who deserves a lot more credit. Lichine’s larger-than-life, half-Russian, half-American father, Alexis, had shaken up Bordeaux when he bought an estate in Margaux, renamed it Prieuré-Lichine and pioneered wine tourism in a part of France where it was previously almost unknown. Following the sale of that château, Sacha — a similarly memorable character whose appearance and self-confidence are reminiscent of Orson Welles — made similar waves in 2006. Having bought an estate called Château d’Esclans, and with the help of top Bordeaux winemaker Patrick Léon, he launched a pale-hued barrel-fermented wine called Garrus. Its €80.00 ($95.00) price tag made it the most expensive rosé in the world.

Lichine’s strategy for selling Garrus and his more commercially priced Whispering Angel rosé relied on shoe leather. As Alex Hunt MW, managing director of the London distributor Berkmann, says: “He must have visited and revisited almost every single state in the US and every island in the Caribbean.” Hunt believes that, from the outset, it was the beautifully packaged Whispering Angel that opened the way for other rosés. “What Lichine did was bring together elements that seemed to be quite incompatible: a fresh easy-to-drink wine, made with the same care as a fine Burgundy; out of control St Tropez beach parties and an immaculately manicured château.”

Gilles Masson shares the credit more broadly. “We are lucky to have the stars of the region, and they are lucky to have us. We worked for many years before they arrived and they benefited from the visionaries of 30 or 40 years ago. Domaines like Ott and Minuty were the precursors but lots of work was done by little estates and coops who worked for quality and focused on technology, technique and brain power. The brain lies at the heart of rosé production.” However, he adds after a pause, “when it comes to image and export success, the stars brought a lot”. 

Still, while Masson says: “It’s flattering to be copied and to be a reference for the category, it’s also dangerous”. He adds “it would be a shame if all rosé were the same colour. There is a lot of responsibility for Provence to be the leader and show difference, knowhow and terroir. A colour doesn’t make a wine.”

Will rosé ever be taken as seriously as the finest reds and whites? Masson says that “even if the average price has gone up, it would be very difficult to reach the price of top whites. There are wines that are priced for pleasure and wines that are priced for prestige. Wine has to link to emotions, sharing and conviviality, holidays, savoir-vivre. People will pay more, but it will be long before people pay a lot more.”

Gabay sees a “Jekyll and Hyde scenario with, on the one hand, serious rosé and on the other, the market being swamped with commercially successful pale pink”. 

More rises and falls are inevitable.