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Why your next bottle of rosé probably won’t be French

June 13, 2020, 12:00 PM UTC

It’s been charged that millennials killed wine (right down to the cork). Regardless of how true or not that might be, they certainly haven’t killed rosé.

On the contrary, they’re probably responsible for its revival. And while many naysayers might have thought rosé was a flash in the pan a couple of years ago, it’s not fading to black.

“For a long period in the U.S., rosé wine had an image of being a sweet, fruity wine, which held the variety back from greater acceptance,” says Ryan Lee, IWSR market analyst. “French producers successfully marketed and expanded tastings over a number of years to change the American consumer’s perception of what rosé wine is. This has helped grow interest in the category and greatly increase the number of rosés available. Now that rosé wine is widely known and adored, more producers—especially domestic producers—have their own dry rosés.” 

But while France’s Provence region is synonymous with rosé, as U.S. consumers further latch onto the pink-hued wine, they’re learning, branching out, and purchasing rosé wines from other regions. They’re looking not only across the U.S. and toward other New World winemakers but also toward France’s neighbors in Europe, which share similar climates and produce comparable quality wines, but often charge far less per bottle or case.

Rosé was the only varietal to grow at double-digit levels in 2019, compared with 2018, according to the Wine Institute.
Courtesy of Studio Cru

These winemakers have good reason to invest in rosé production right now. Dollar sales of rosé wine in the United States have grown year over year annually for the past three years, most recently by 42% in 2019, according to Nielsen.

Volume growth for rosé table wine grew 3.2% in 2019 year over year, compared with an overall decrease of 1% for still wine last year, according to IWSR data. Red wine decreased 0.9% and white wine dropped by 1.9%. Over the past five years (from 2014 through 2019), rosé has demonstrated a 1.7% compound annual growth rate, while total still wine has posted growth of 0.8% CAGR.

The market research firm examined off-premises dollar sales of table rosé before the impacts of COVID-19 accelerated, as sales in the past three months have spiked significantly. But analysts say that is more representative of a shift from the on-premises space (bars and restaurants) to off-premises (retail) rather than total industry overall gains. (Nielsen’s total U.S. off-premises measured channels include grocery stores, drugstores, mass merchandisers, select dollar stores, select warehouse clubs, military commissaries, convenience stores, and liquor stores.)

Domestic (U.S.) table rosé is growing faster than imported table rosé—increasing its share of total rosé sales, but at lower price points. Table rosés from Italy are performing particularly well in the U.S., with nearly 20% year-over-year dollar sales growth, primarily in the $8 to $11 bottle range. Another top performer is New Zealand table rosé, which is experiencing 16% year-over-year dollar sales growth, driven by the $11 to $15 price range.

“French table rosé is still growing in the U.S. off-premises space—particularly at a higher price point—but is losing share,” says Danny Brager, senior vice president of beverage alcohol at Nielsen. French rosé dollar sales share actually declined 1.7% year over year as of February 2020. And total French still wine in the U.S. was down 4.9% in volume last year, according to ISWR.

Off-premises sales for rosé table wine.
Courtesy of Nielsen

Nevertheless, France still remains supreme in rosé, ranking No. 1 on the list of the top 10 importers of rosé table wine to the U.S., followed by Italy, New Zealand, Spain, Portugal, Argentina, Chile, Australia, South Africa, and Germany.

While there are French rosés on the market at standard prices, most fall within the premium segment (defined by IWSR as over $10 per bottle).

“French rosé wine is expensive for your average consumer,” Lee notes. According to IWSR research, the average retail price of a bottle of rosé table wine in the U.S. is $8.32. “Domestic (U.S.) producers are bringing to market products at more attractive price points, by comparison. The domestic producer’s additional inventory and supply surplus also allows for new, higher-quality brands to enter the market at lower prices than in years’ past.”

And the sheer number of new rosés for consumers to discover seems endless these days. “Consumers are willing to pay more for a rosé, but it’s the wine profile that keeps them coming back,” says Stephen Brauer, CEO of wine importer Evaton, which specializes in Iberian table wines. “Fortunately, you don’t have to spend a lot of money to enjoy a wonderful rosé.”

Millennials, more than any other demographic, have been a key driver for the rosé category’s success. Global consumption of rosé wine has soared in 17 years, growing 40% between 2002 and 2018, according to Rosé Wines World Tracking. Within the U.S. market, Brauer says millennial consumers are looking for light and easy drinking wines, but they are also looking for a lifestyle. “More than just a summertime drink, rosés offer something special that is affordable and accessible,” he says. “Pink makes every occasion glamorous, regardless of your budget.”

The new Mateus dry rosé, made by the most prominent family-owned Portuguese wine producer, Sogrape.
Courtesy of Mateus

Message in a bottle

As consumers continue to look for the next big thing, Portugal is a prime alternative. Before the outbreak of COVID-19, when nonessential travel was not an issue, Americans were flocking to Portugal at staggering numbers. In recent years, Portugal became a top travel destination and has been dubbed the Best European Tourist Destination by the World Travel Awards three years in a row (2017 through 2019). Plus Wine Enthusiast named it one of the 10 Best Wine Travel Destinations in 2019.

“What people find in Portugal are phenomenal wines at an unbelievable value,” Brauer says. “The popularity of rosé in recent years can be attributed to the considerable improvement in overall quality of rosé wines that can now be found on the market and also the wine’s amazing versatility. Around the world, consumers enjoy rosé in cocktails, as an aperitif, or as an accompaniment to a variety of summer meals.”

Evaton, the U.S. arm of Portugal-based wine producer Sogrape Vinhos, is celebrating the relaunch of a dry rosé from Mateus, a leading Portuguese family-owned winery to the northeast of Porto, and one of the top producers within the Sogrape portfolio. The original Mateus rosé was conceived and developed as a sweet and slightly effervescent wine in 1942. As consumer tastes have changed over the years, Mateus adapted—primarily for the U.S. market—with its first dry-style rosé wine. “With Mateus dry rosé, we have adapted our wine style to current consumer tastes and believe we offer a wonderful product that can compete with the top French Provence rosés,” Brauer says.

“One of the most important elements that we look for in all of our rosé wines is drinkability, which combines elegance, delicious flavors, and balance,” says António Braga, enological director at Mateus. “In the specific case of Mateus dry rosé, we are looking for freshness, fruit expression, and integrated acidity, [which] will deliver a wonderful mouthfeel.”

Mateus, the crown jewel of the Sogrape wine portfolio, was born in 1942 as a pink-colored wine in a bottle inspired by the flasks used by soldiers in World War I.
Courtesy of Mateus

Mateus is available in over 120 markets, with its top market being its home country of Portugal. And local consumption has been strong, growing from 179,000 cases shipped in 2010 to 275,000 cases in 2019.

But the U.S. is the only market where the Mateus dry rosé is launching. “In the U.S., we took a bold, different approach given the American taste profile and developed a dry-style rosé, that is a lighter pink color and less sweet,” says Raquel Seabra, an executive board member of Sogrape. “We have really focused on bringing our brand into the digital space and have placed a lot of our efforts in building our social channels that we believe capture the true lifestyle essence of Mateus. The pink wine, the iconic packaging, and the overall love of the brand has been perfect in the social media landscape for reaching our core target consumer.”

Seabra also points to the success of multiple form factors among U.S. consumers, especially 187 milliliter bottles (versus an average of 750 milliliters in a standard bottle of table wine). “The bottle size allows consumers the perfect portion for any occasion, and the shape itself is quite unique,” Seabra says, explaining the bottle was designed to reflect the flasks worn by soldiers in World War I.

The Gorgo Bardolino Chiaretto has a bright and intense pink hue, with a delicate bouquet and a zesty finish.
Courtesy of Cantina Gorgo

Untapped potential

Americans looking for an Italian summertime drink might be conditioned now to order an Aperol spritz. But in the shadow of the Instagram-approved cocktail, Italy has substantially grown its rosé wine production and sales both within its own market as well as across the European Union and the U.S. in recent years.

Made from red grapes using white-wine-making practices, Chiaretto is a dry and crisp rosé produced in the region surrounding Lake Garda, between Milan and Venice, in northern Italy. (The name Chiaretto derives from the Italian term chiaro, meaning “light” or “pale.”)

Lake Garda is the most important region for rosé in Italy, producing more than 10 million bottles annually on average, and rosé makes up 6% of the Italian wine market. That upward trend is poised to continue in spite of the coronavirus pandemic, as the region shipped 2.6 million bottles of Chiaretto during the first quarter of 2020—half a million more than in the first quarter of 2019.

With a lower ABV, Cantina Gorgo’s Chiaretto rosé is ideal for pairing with a light lunch.
Courtesy of Cantina Gorgo

Cantina Gorgo, a wine estate southeast of Lake Garda, has seen its Chiaretto sales shoot up 60% in the past three years, thanks to sales in Italy and abroad. The winery’s primary market is the wider European Union—notably Germany. But Gorgo co-owner and winemaker Roberta Bricolo says the largest and most recent order requests have been from the U.S. (especially New York and Massachusetts), Canada, and the U.K. as supermarket chain Waitrose has added Gorgo Chiaretto wines to all of its locations.

While consumers’ first love might have been Provence rosé, Bricolo says, she thinks there is a lot of untapped potential in the global market. “The key for us to emerge was to introduce the Italian flair and flavor to the rosé scene,” she adds.

Roberta Bricolo, one of the owners of the family-run Cantina Gorgo, established by her father in 1973.
Courtesy of Cantina Gorgo

Cavalchina, just down the road from Gorgo, has also seen its rosé sales soar, and Chiaretto is one of its bestsellers. The winery produces 800,000 cases per year, on average, and half of that is exported. The only problem: The winery sells out of its product every year. In 2019 Cavalchina sold all of its rosé within Italy, the wider EU, and the U.S., and it has observed increased demand across all of those markets.

And yet, despite the growing business, the Piona family doesn’t plan on expanding or buying more land beyond its 110 hectares (272 acres), because they want to keep it sustainable as a family business.

“Sincerely, I think that trends may come and go, and we are seeing that also for rosé wine,” says Francesco Piona, whose father, Luciano, was one of the two brothers who established the winery in 1962. Sales figures demonstrate that rosé definitely has near-term staying power, but what is extra special about Chiaretto is that it is one of the few rosés that does age well and is often received better if it is held for a few years. “The market wants a young wine, but you can age it two to three years,” Piona notes.

The Azienda Agricola Cavalchina winery near Lake Garda in northern Italy.
Courtesy of Cavalchina

Rosy reputation

The U.S. doesn’t have one particular region dedicated to rosé production, akin to Lake Garda in Italy or France’s Provence. But industry experts point toward California and Oregon as competitive options, from San Luis Obispo up to the Willamette Valley.

Jessica Kogan, chief marketing officer of Cameron Hughes Wine and Vintage Wine Estates in the San Francisco Bay Area, suggests that the U.S. style of rosé is “generally more lush and modern.” And most rosés made here are dry and often lower in alcohol, making them more palatable for summer.

“Most consumers want a dry California rosé, where the only perceived sweetness is coming from the natural red fruit flavors from the grape itself,” says Kogan. “Many of our consumers consider rosé to be a more uncomplicated drinking experience as the wine can be easily paired with a variety of foods or enjoyed by itself.”

“Our rosés typically lean on the fruit-forward side (albeit dry), with summer strawberry and melon flavors, unoaked and balanced acidity. Our Napa rosés are produced from varieties including Zinfandel, Sangiovese, and Malbec,” says Kogan.
Courtesy of Cameron Hughes Wine

Kogan says she recently had a customer from Texas tell her he was ordering a case of [Cameron Hughes] rosé as his “summer porch pounder” because it was cool and easy to drink. “Consumers often choose rosé over white wines as it provides the wine drinker a chilled and refreshing experience without the oaked or acidic flavors of California’s leading white wine varieties that many wine drinkers find polarizing,” she explains. Chardonnay, in particular, has a rough reputation for being overly oaky and buttery, whereas a Sauvignon Blanc is oft criticized for being too grassy and vegetal.

Rosé, however, feels a bit heartier than a white wine, but not as heavy as a red on a warm day. “A rosé is usually understood before its first sip—the drinker can anticipate its subtle red fruit, its crisp finish, and its often smooth mouthfeel,” Kogan says.

But rosé—especially in the U.S.—had to overcome a poor reputation of its own to get where it is now.

“For quite some time, dating back to the 1970s, rosé was considered inferior wine—think boxed wine, often sweet,” Kogan says. “Up until five-ish years ago, rosé was definitely a hard sell through the direct-to-consumer channel and not typically included in wine club shipments. Improved education and simply getting it in customers’ hands has been key.”

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