Provenance beyond Provence

One of the most remarkable recent success stories in wine, the rise of rosé has been one of the biggest shake-ups of the still wine category for generations. From 2010 to 2015, Nielsen reported exceptional year-on-year growth, driven largely by brands such as

Blossom Hill and Echo Falls. Later in the decade, blush rosé began to lose ground to Provence and from 2017 to 2019, sales of rosé from the French region more than doubled, from £22 million to £49 million in UK supermarkets.

Retailers expect the rosé trend to continue. Selfridges buyer Terry Threlfall says: “We’ve seen rapid growth over the past few years. I think it will slow down but continue to grow.” Paola Tich, of London wine bar Vindinista, adds: “Many of my customers still think they’re unusual in asking for a pale, dry rosé, so I think the style has yet to reach its peak.”

As the paradigm for pale, dry rosé, Provence has become an emblematic success story for the French appellation system. Producers have succeeded in maintaining relative quality and consistency of style. The Provençal style has become synonymous with dryness, which has been critical to its market success. Previously, the rosé category suffered from customers not knowing whether it was drier or sweeter than equivalent white wines.

Packaging has also been a key differentiator in a stagnant wine market. With eye-catching bottle shapes, Provence has stood out on shelves largely confined to Burgundy, Bordeaux or unfashionable flute-bottle formats. Bottled in clear glass, its photogenic colour appeals to modern customers used to high- quality merchandising.

With Côtes de Provence already spanning 20,100ha, the downside of this appellation’s success story is that there isn’t much room to expand. High market demand is likely to increase prices for producers who rely on non-estate fruit, of which there are many. Yet price points for many retailers remain somewhat limited compared to traditional red and white categories. “It is mainly a sub-£20 category,” says

Phil Innes, managing director of Loki Wine in Birmingham. “Customers seem to be very happy with around £15 a bottle, which is lower than our average bottle sale value.”

The tension between rising prices and a lifestyle-led customer base may prove dangerous. There is a risk that what Provence represents becomes increasingly superficial, rather than driven by grapes or vineyards – what London wine merchant Uncorked’s Colin Wills calls “the almost-white and in a clear bottle” trend, driven more by presentation than terroir.

What of rosé beyond Provence? Inevitably, the success of Provence has spawned much imitation, with even Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon-based rosés now sporting a fashionably coral hue.

There are even fears that the hegemony of Provence rosé is stifling diversity. Tich at Vindinista says anything that doesn’t conform to the Provence colour palette is hard to sell. “I once tried stocking Tavel. I even showed it at a tasting evening all about rosé. Most of it ended up as sale stock. People really do drink rosé with their eyes.”

Other retailers report similar problems, with Erik Laan of The Vineking in Surrey reporting sales of rosé are 97% Provence, and Threlfall stating that Selfridges grew the rosé offer over the last few years by over 300%, but when really diving into the numbers, Provençal rosé completely stood out from the rest. “We will be cutting back rosé this year with a focus on Provence and relationships that we have developed with producers there,” he says.

COMPETITIVE PRICING

With Provence proving the only show in town for many retailers, there is little incentive to list quality, terroir-led rosé from traditional areas such as Marsannay, Tavel and Anjou. Instead, there’s a temptation to shun quality rosé that doesn’t meet the stereotype and source Provence lookalikes that compete on price rather than distinctiveness.

Matt Walls, Decanter’s Rhône correspondent, notes that Rhône winemakers are producing increasing volumes of pale pink –16% of Rhône Valley wines are now rosé – but that this is largely “a response to consumer demand and a useful cash generator rather than an attempt to best express their terroir”.

Threlfall says: “There are a lot of people trying to replicate the phenomena of brands like Whispering Angel and Miraval simply through bling packaging and very little thought to what’s in the bottle. Bad experiences with brands of questionable quality could hurt the category.

Innes agrees. “As a category, it may run the risk of being more and more driven by fancy bottles at the expense of quality. If this continues, customers will eventually work out there is better value in other wines.”

Yet, despite challenges around price points, a lack of diversity in styles and poor-quality late arrivals to the party, there are still many opportunities for Provence and other rosé producers. There’s already evidence that what began as a summer dalliance has become a year-round love affair, with multiple retailers noting that sales of rosé have been consistently rising, including at Christmas. As Threlfall puts it: “Rosé is no longer a seasonal beverage, as many wine drinkers switch from being white wine drinkers to full-time rosé drinkers.”

Ending seasonal purchasing presents a significant opportunity for producers and retailers to move their rosé stockholding and generate sales all year round. Looking to the longer term, opportunities exist in gastronomy and, although restaurants and the on-trade may be better situated to exploit this, the versatility and flexibility of rosé with food, including less traditional, non-European cuisines such as mezze and Asian dishes, presents significant opportunities for retailers to grow the category, and seriousness, of the wine.

“A complex rosé, whether it is big and bold or spicy and lean, has phenomenal capability to pair with modern cuisines,” says John Chapman, operations director at Oxford Wine Co. “Being able to pair well with a specific dish far outweighs tradition.”

Given its success so far, it is hard to imagine the popularity of Provence rosé is going to wane any time soon. But the road to enduring popularity is not straightforward. When a new fashion comes along, will the current buyers of Provence rosé stick by the category or move on to more fashionable pastures? While growing market share has been an area of rapid success for Provence, defending it will be slower and more difficult – but with substantial rewards for those who succeed.

THE DARKER SIDE OF ROSE

By Martin Green

Just four years ago, rosé was in danger of becoming the Austin Allegro of the wine world – cheap, unfashionable and something you would never want to bring to a dinner party. Sales decreased 5.2% in the year to March 2016 (Nielsen) and its decline looked terminal. Then along came Provence rosé, which dazzled millions of Brits with its pale hues, its elegant packaging and its masterful evocation of chic people sipping classy drinks on balmy Mediterranean evenings.

Rosé is now a crucial category for all UK drinks retailers, with sales spiking during the summer, and pale, Provençal- style offerings rule the roost. However, leading suppliers are confident that rosé is for life, not just for summer, and that a broader array of styles can drive further growth.

“Sales of rosé are no longer restricted to summertime and there is a clear market for quality rosé, as shown by the 4% value growth we’ve seen in rosé sales to independent retailers,” says David Gleave MW, managing director of Liberty Wines. “A pale colour is an easy cue for consumers looking for a drier style and these wines are doing well, whether from Provence or, increasingly, from elsewhere. However, our sales are spread across a variety of regions, grapes and hues. A darker hue doesn’t have to mean sweet or cloying, and consumers are willing to try them if the style is well communicated, either on the shelf or by knowledgeable staff.

“Producers across Iberia, for example, make wonderful fruit-forward rosados whose colour reflects the darker-skinned varieties they are made from, rather than indicating high levels of sugar.”

Liberty has distributed Portuguese rosé brand Mateus in the UK since tying up an agreement with producer Sogrape in 2017. Mateus was recently given a contemporary makeover. “Mateus has a great story to tell,” says Gleave. “Its 78-year history and loyal following combine with its accessible price and distinctive bottle to give it the highest spontaneous awareness of any rosé brand [FlyResearch 2018], making it an easy sell for retailers.

“It is also well placed to meet the consumer preference for a drier flavour profile, thanks to the balanced residual sugar level of 15g/l. It appeals both to those who remember it as an old favourite and the next generation of rosé drinkers trying it for the first time.”

BEYOND THE PALE

Paul Braydon, buying controller at Kingsland Drinks, says that pale rosé is still the dominant force in the UK market, but he urges retailers not to underestimate the popularity of Zinfandel rosé and darker, sweeter styles. “It still represents a significant proportion of the volume of wines

we supply to the UK market,” he says. “We’re also expecting to see an increase in popularity for drier, premium New World rosé wines such as The Ned rosé from Marlborough, New Zealand. This Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris blend is an elegant, well-structured rosé with notes of summer berries and watermelon, with a delicate floral lift.

“Consumers are looking for refreshment all year round, something wine as a category often struggles to fulfil – rosé can do this excellently. It’s all about communicating the style, the serve – a spritzer, over ice etc – and the ability for rosé to be refreshing is important.”

Adam Marshall, buying controller for Europe at Kingsland, adds: “It’s definitely the lighter/paler styles that are still driving things forward and they seem to have become a real favourite with consumers. Provence is the area everyone goes to first and it’s still incredibly popular, but retailers and consumers are starting to look further afield as other regions have been creating and honing their paler styles over the past couple of years. We can offer a range of wines from across Europe – including Provence – but also from Italy, other Mediterranean French regions, Spain and even eastern Europe.”

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