Wine

Which Rosés Will Succeed in a Maturing Market?

The rosé category remains strong, but an influx of generic brands and the lingering impact of 2020 means it’s more crowded than ever. Will quality prevail?

Illustration by Jeff Tsui.

It’s no secret that the rosé category has boomed over the past decade, prompting wineries in virtually every global wine region to begin churning out pink wine. According to the IWSR, still rosé wine sales volume in the U.S. has grown by 118 percent from 2015 to 2020, while still wine overall only grew 1.5 percent over the same time period.

But according to Silicon Valley Bank’s State of the Industry 2021 report, the category’s growth rate sat just below zero—a sign, many believe, that the rosé market is maturing. What does that mean for the sea of pale pink-hued wines fighting for consumers’ attention?

“When a category grows, naturally, many people want to jump in and take a slice,” says Anthony Cohen, a southern France native and brand director for Vintus, which represents well-known Provence producer Château Minuty. “They may experience high sales at first as the new product, but as the category matures, the producers that have defined it and have been the essence of it, will ultimately lead it. They have the staying power.”

“Every winery is producing rosé now,” says Jon McDaniel, the Chicago-based founder and CEO of Second City Soil. “Most are doing so for economic reasons, because they think the market will buy—which is never a sustained strategy.”

Having survived the challenges of 2020, importers, retailers, and producers are gearing up for a strong 2021 rosé season. But even though the on-premise has reopened for business, how will a category on the brink of oversaturation fare, and which brands will survive the shake-out?

The Provençal Model

Provence remains the quality leader and spiritual home for rosé, setting the category standard with its dry, pale pink wines. As such, it remains the rosé to emulate—particularly in color. Elizabeth Gabay, MW, the author of “Rosé: Understanding the Pink Wine Revolution,” reports that in recent years, the Centre du Rosé in southern France saw a nearly 40 percent increase in paler rosé styles among the wines submitted to the organization for research.

“Provence is the undisputed north star of rosé. It’s what everyone has mimicked, and it’s easy to understand why,” says winemaker Charles Bieler of Bieler Père et Fils, Charles & Charles, and Bandit, among others. 

That is certainly true in the U.S. market, where consumers often judge rosés on color more than anything else. “Our clients continue to look for rosé primarily from Provence—specifically Bandol,” says Craig Maske, general manager and partner of Sherlock’s Wine Merchant in Atlanta.

“About 90 percent of the rosé being made today is to a formula. I’ve asked different producers who are new to the market, and most of them answer that they look to what Provence producers are doing because that’s what the consumer wants.” – Elizabeth Gabay, MW

On one hand, this has allowed rosés from around the globe—even obscure regions—to make inroads in the U.S. market, where style matters more than provenance, report many buyers. “The wines that have the more Provençal style, regardless of region, sell the most,” says Sandra Spalding, director of marketing for Austin-based Twin Liquors. ”Fresh, crisp, and light is the trend, whether it’s from Spain, Savoie, Rhône, Corsica, or Lebanon.”

Regions are changing traditions in order to compete: Provence’s massive rosé following has even begun to impact other traditional rosé-producing regions; in Rioja, for example, producers petitioned the Consejo Regulador to allow for the production of lighter rosés under DO regulation in 2018—a move that seems targeted towards export markets. “Quite often, the darker, traditional style is what the local Spanish market prefers, and the paler wines are being exported,” says Gabay. 

But it has also resulted in an influx of rosés looking to succeed on color, category success, and branding, from celebrity-backed bottles like Hampton Water (from Jon Bon Jovi) and Vanderpump Rosé (from Lisa Vandepump, of Real Housewives fame), to lifestyle brands like Yes Way Rosé and White Girl Rosé, and and even wellness wines.

“About 90 percent of the rosé being made today is to a formula,” says Gabay. “I’ve asked different producers who are new to the market, and most of them answer that they look to what Provence producers are doing because that’s what the consumer wants.”

Adds Bieler, “There are many that are just jumping on the trend but don’t add much to the conversation.”

Inside the cellar of well-known Provence producer Château de Berne. Photo courtesy of Château de Berne.

Not every region is shifting to pale rosé production, however; though many producers have begun toying with making paler rosé in Tavel, according to Gabay, in response to a recent regional survey asking if the region should modify its qualifications for rosé production, many wanted to stay true to the traditional, darker style. 

“There seems to be a little bit of a fightback,” says Gabay. “They’ve made a stand and said, this is what we are. Bandol is the same in that they’re now making both styles.”

The concern with the sea of Provençal knock-offs is that while these rosés may all look the same, they don’t taste the same—both in style and quality. “It just creates further confusion, as some of these new wines are the same color but not the same style—mostly higher in sweetness and not as balanced,” says McDaniel, who consults as an educator with Provençal producer Château de Berne. “I believe this will bring the customer to the thought that just because it looks like Provence, doesn’t mean it is, so they will continue buying the classics.”

Bordering on Oversaturation

As more rosés have flooded into the U.S., sales have undoubtedly gotten more competitive. “I see our distributors getting more strategic in how they take rosés on,” says Mark Raymond, the national sales manager for Carolina Wine Brands in Wethersfield, Connecticut. Though they will often take on a handful of rosés from different regions or in different styles, they won’t take on dozens of rosé SKUs anymore.

As a retailer, Maske makes shrewd decisions not to overstock too many labels as well. “You have to strike a balance between a good selection and not muddying the water with too many,” says Maske. “You don’t want to have a massive closeout [sale] at the end of the season.”

Fortunately for Atlanta, Austin, and other warm-climate markets, rosé is generally sold year-round with only a slight lag in the winter months, a factor that helps inventory sell-through. But in colder markets, there is a definite seasonality to rosé sales—though perhaps not as much as there once was. Erin Drain, the Chicago-based head of marketing for Olé & Obrigado, notes that the portfolio purposely carries their Liquid Geography rosé as a year-round rosé SKU.

Languedoc-Roussillon producer Gérard Bertrand (photo courtesy of Olivier Labaron), Elizabeth Gabay, MW (photo courtesy of Elizabeth Gabay), and Bob Gaudreau, chief executive officer of of MDCV Global Americas (Photo courtesy of MDCV).

“There is a lot of competition for shelf space and by-the-glass placement, but with increasing demand for rosé year after year, the quality selections all seem to find a home before their next vintage arrives,” says Jack Mason, MS, the Texas state portfolio manager with Republic National Distributing Company (RNDC).

This is perhaps where the category will mature with time—the distinction between Provençal-style rosé and quality Provençal-style rosé. “I think we will see four phases of rosé appreciation among consumers,” says Vintus’ Cohen. “People may ask for a glass of rosé at first. Then, they will start to ask for a rosé from a specific place. Then, they will ask for a glass of Provence rosé. Then for a specific brand like Château Minuty.”

At this point, the U.S. is somewhere between Cohen’s third and fourth phase, and as their rosé tastes become more discerning, so will their buying choices. “Consumers’ palates are becoming more sophisticated, and they’re looking for quality,” says Languedoc-Roussillon producer Gérard Bertrand.

“I do think we’ve hit a saturation at lower price points. The consumer is going to get bored, and that’s where some brands may go away.” – Erin Drain

It’s the established Provençal (and Provence-adjacent) brands such as Château Minuty, Château d’Esclans, Château de Berne, Gérard Bertrand, and Chêne Bleu that have continued to hold their position both on-premise and off-premise even with an influx of new brands to the market. Even expensive rosés from well-known producers—like Château d’Esclans’ Garrus, Domaine Tempier, Domaines Ott, and Gérard Bertrand’s Clos du Temple—have a following in the U.S. market.

“High profile winemakers such as Sacha Lichine of Château D’Esclans helped catapult ‘designer rosés’ onto the world stage, which has helped small wineries like ours,” says Nicole Rolet, the principal of Chêne Bleu. “I personally believe that cream rises to the top, and wines that are made with no shortcuts, serious craftsmanship, thoughtful intent, and respect for the environment will outlive fads and continue to be relevant for years to come.”

For now, there’s still room in the rosé category to accommodate a range of rosé SKUs—even those that might not prioritize quality. “The bubble will eventually burst on the celebrity rosé, the same way that it did with celebrity vodka,” says McDaniel. “We haven’t hit that point yet, but I think we are starting to see a shift away already.”

“I do think we’ve hit a saturation at lower price points,” says Drain, who has seen more interest for the portfolio’s higher-priced wines over the past two or three years. “The consumer is going to get bored, and that’s where some brands may go away.”

Competition for Off-Premise Placements

The mounting oversaturation of the rosé category was compounded by the twin challenges of U.S. tariffs on EU wine and the onset of COVID-19. “COVID, unusual weather events, and fires led to delays and lags in production and shipping, and we have seen the price of everyday wine increase due to tariffs,” says Colin Groom, Twin Liquors’ wine director.

Though 2020 dealt a hard blow to many in the wine industry, it didn’t help that the on-premise shutdown occurred just as the 2019 rosés were landing on the market. Losing restaurant and bar sales initially resulted in a backlog for producers who typically focus their efforts here. While larger, more established producers were fairly well-positioned to transition sales to off-premise and ecommerce, smaller wineries with on-premise footholds had a harder time.

Rosé sales for Chêne Bleu, for instance, were typically geared towards on-premise placements. “Our importer, Wilson Daniels, had to help broaden our retail presence, which took courage because retailers, especially online, wanted large, established brands that could sell themselves,” says Rolet. 

Nicole Rolet. Photo courtesy of Chêne Belu.

From the importing side, Bob Gaudreau, the CEO for MDCV Global Americas, witnessed the larger brands maintain strong sales. “Brands like Whispering Angel, Côte de Roses, and Miraval shipped more and grew quite well due to their brand presence,” he says. “They benefited from all of the click-and-collect purchases from the off-premise channel last year.”

Tariffs only made this more challenging, says Ian Downey, the executive vice president of Winebow Imports, who said that producers and importers were forced to either hold pricing or lose sales. “Well-known producers and brands, as well as those who fought to absorb the tariffs for as long as possible, fared better than others,” he says. “This was done in many instances but is not sustainable long term.”

MDCV, a collection of four rosé producers in Provence including Château de Berne, Château des Bertrands, Château Saint-Roux, and Ultimate Provence, is one of many companies that absorbed the cost of tariffs and held their pricing for consumers. 

“We had to start with the consumer,” says Gaudreau. “The last thing I wanted to do was get above a certain price point to make our brands inaccessible to buyers. So, we held the prices, and our company ate the cost of the tariffs. This was an important part of maintaining our brand awareness with the consumer.” 

But not every brand was able to weather the storm as easily. “Smaller, lesser-known brands suffered a lot of difficulty with tariffs either forcing them to raise their price or lose sales velocity,” says Gaudreau.

While there isn’t evidence just yet that small producers are vacating the market for good, Downey says that time will tell. “We should expect that some producers with vintage backup may skip a vintage or short a vintage to the U.S. in order to ease that backlog and correct the inventory levels to meet the new vintage release cycles,” he says.

Photo courtesy of Côte de Roses.

A Rosy Future? 

Ultimately, the dual-pronged impact of COVID and tariffs didn’t decimate rosé sales in the same way it did for other wine categories: Though the IWSR’s 2020 data has not been finalized, initial forecasts indicate that still rosé wine posted volume growth last year, while the overall still wine category was down.

Additionally, 2021 has offered some respite with a temporary lift on tariffs giving producers and importers a much-needed financial break as well as the ability to get wine shipments moving again.

“Tariffs have been suspended just in time for the spring rosé releases from France and Spain. The timing is perfect as more and more restaurants are opening,” says Downey. “There are still quite a few 2019 deals to be had as they clear the path for the ’20s, which will not have tariffs.”

While shipping backlogs and container shortages this year are delaying imported wines by more than a month—”When I say nightmarish, it doesn’t even begin to describe it,” says Raymond—importers and distributors don’t foresee the delays hurting sales. “I think people will be clamoring for it by the time it arrives,” says Mason. Raymond agrees, noting that delayed arrivals have not hindered distributors from ordering the new vintage of rosé.

In fact, it has been a blessing in disguise in some ways. “The shipping situation is pretty grim, but it’s helped to move what has been left from the 2019 vintage,” says Drain, noting that rosés arriving into the market later also won’t be subject to tariffs–and will also benefit from people especially eager to drink rosé outside again. 

From left to right: Photos courtesy of Château de Berne, David Fritz Goeppinger, and MDCV Group.

“If anything, I think it’s created a unique environment where we have an opportunity to sell prior year vintage rosé at a non-discounted rate because there’s a need again,” says Raymond.

However, predicting the future for rosé remains fuzzy despite optimism from U.S. industry leaders, particularly now that even more producers are fighting for shelf space in an already crowded off-premise market. 

In addition, the adoption of digital wine purchasing, interaction, and education throughout 2020 has created new opportunities for rosé producers. “We’re noticing new purchasing behaviors and have found new ways of sharing our stories and wines with a wider audience worldwide through virtual festivals and tastings,” says Bertrand. “I think this will remain part of the future.”

The IWSR forecasts 70 percent growth for rosé sales in the U.S. from 2020 to 2024. But as the quality and premiumization drive the category forward, not all rosé brands will survive.

“Wineries that focus on rosé—that have been producing it for years, generations—will be the ones that will outlast the exponential growth,” says McDaniel. “But fewer producers will make rosé in 5 to 10 years. Those wineries that just jumped on the bandwagon will be shifting their resources to making wine spritzers—or whatever the next fad is.”

Jessica Dupuy is a wine, spirits, and food writer based in Austin, Texas, whose credits include work in Texas Monthly, Imbibe magazine, Wine Enthusiast magazine, Sommelier Journal, and The Tasting Panel magazine and with the Guild of Sommeliers. A Certified Sommelier, Certified Specialist of Wine, and Certified Specialist of Spirits, she holds an Advanced Certificate with the Wine & Spirit Education Trust. Dupuy keeps her palate sharp through travel, reading, and endless tasting.

Most Recent

Wine

A Wine Renaissance in Calabria

A focus on indigenous grapes, terroir-driven winemaking, and a burgeoning natural wine movement push this overlooked Italian region in the spotlight