Come See the Spendier Side of Rosé

high-end rose jordan mackay provence

Most products that gain widespread acceptance in a capitalist economy—blue jeans, pillows, even cat food—quickly spawn a pricey, high-end category. Wine is no stranger to forces. Once shunned and now de rigueur, rosé prices have been going up—so much that the category now has its own Rodeo Drive: What once rarely exceeded $20 now can be purchased for $40, $60, even $100 a bottle.

The questions raised by this emerging posh rosé market are many. Is the quintessential pink drink of summer in need of a high end? Does the quality of these new expensive rosés justify the higher prices? Is this merely opportunistic marketing? And, finally, if rosé—the quintessential poolside pounder—becomes serious and spendy, is it still rosé as we know it?

The accepted narrative of dry rosé’s long road to acceptance in the U.S. holds that the introduction to wine for a couple of generations of American wine drinkers came via sweet, lightly sparkling pink wines from Portugal—Mateus and Lancers, notably—and then the so-called blush wines and white Zinfandel of California. As incipient drinkers advanced to dry wines, they nevertheless clung to the notion that all rosé was sweet. Or at least that pink wine reminded them of their unsophisticated beginnings. For a long time, that stigma clung to the category of dry rosé, slowing its growth. But that was then. According to a January 2015 Nielsen analysis, dry rosé is perhaps the fastest growing category in wine. The report says in 2014 U.S. sales of premium imported rosé (bottles priced $12 and above) grew by 41 percent on volume and 53 percent on value. By contrast, growth of wine sales in general were a paltry 1 percent and 3.3 percent on volume and value, respectively.

While rosé is made all over the world, in myriad styles and with any number of grapes, the greatest beneficiary of this growth (and perhaps greatest contributor to it, thanks to determined marketing efforts) may be the region of Provence. Unsurprisingly, many of the ambitiously priced new rosés hail from this sunny, fashionable region on the Mediterranean. One such wine is Miraval, the famous Brangelina rosé, which retails between $20 and $30. And it turns out that Brad Pitt’s ambition speaks for the region’s: “I asked the question,” he told Wine Spectator, “‘Why can’t we make a world-class wine in Provence?’”

Despite the fact that some might argue such wines already exist (Domaine Tempier, Château Pradeaux, Château Simone), when it comes to rosé, others have indeed been asking that question for years—notably, Sacha Lichine. In 2006, Lichine bought a run-down property with some 80-year-old vines called Château d’Esclans with the sole intention of making high-quality rosé. Nine years later, the estate produces three high-end rosés: Château d’Esclans ($35) and two single-vineyard wines, Les Clans (from 50-60 year-old vines, $65) and Garrus (from the oldest vines, $90-100), which is hailed as “the most expensive rosé in the world.”

“From the beginning, the idea was simply to make very good rosé,” says Paul Chevalier, Lichine’s collaborator and U.S. agent (and a former winemaker at Veuve Cliquot). “We didn’t know at what level it would be at first.” Ironically, Chevalier says, the fourth wine in the portfolio—Whispering Angel—made at first from declassified juice (now primarily from purchased fruit), was an afterthought, but has since gone on to lead the portfolio.

The luxury Provencal rosé category is still in formative stages, but it’s coming and is sure to be a boon to the prices of existing pale wines from the South of France, whose tariffs have been rising steadily for years. It wasn’t long ago that one often heard complaint about price inflation for the gold standard of Provençal roses, Domaine Tempier—a rosé from the Provence appellation of Bandol brought in by renowned importer Kermit Lynch since 1973 has been widely adopted by sommeliers, who vie for allocations of the wine—which now sits middle of the pack somewhere in the $40 range.

Whispering Angel (around $20), perhaps because its name sounds like it could be a Shania Twain ballad, has become a huge success with massive distribution throughout grocery stores and wine shops alike. “Because of the name or something, people got all excited about Whispering Angel,” says Chevalier, “but ultimately it wasn’t just because of the price or the name, but because of the taste.” (I can remember my pleasant surprise upon discovering the quality in the first bottle of Whispering Angel I bought, which was out of desperation at a trashy beach town grocery store; I chose it despite its name, because it was from Provence.)

“We were a little too early in this luxury rose category, so we continued to grow Whispering Angel,” Chevalier insists. “Now it’s the one bringing the spotlight to the estate wines, which is the reverse of what we were trying to do.”

The luxury Provencal rosé category is still in formative stages, but it’s coming and is sure to be a boon to the prices of existing pale wines from the South of France, whose tariffs have been rising steadily for years. It wasn’t long ago that one often heard complaint about price inflation for the gold standard of Provençal roses, Domaine Tempier—a rosé from the Provence appellation of Bandol brought in by renowned importer Kermit Lynch since 1973 has been widely adopted by sommeliers, who vie for allocations of the wine—which now sits middle of the pack somewhere in the $40 range (or even higher, in many cases).

The salient question is how to approach the new luxury rosés? After all, Lichine and Chevalier have chosen to battle uphill against another stigma—first it was that all rosé is sweet, now it’s that rosé is cheap and simple. In fact, the upper tier rosés from Château d’Esclans and others establish a new category. They’re not necessarily a marketing gimmick to seduce the moneyed classes of Miami, LA, New York and the Côte d’Azur (though those places remain the likely market for these wines). Some of the new high-dollar rosés actually break new ground. “You do lose the idea of summertime, swimming pool wines, and you’re definitely into food wine,” says Chevalier. “But that’s okay because that’s what they’re meant to be—more serious food wines.”

For wines with the pale, pinkish-salmon hue of classic Provençal roses, the Château d’Esclans, Les Clans and Garrus do set a new benchmark. The quality of the juice is undeniable, showing serious concentration, power and balance while remaining true to the classic salmon hue and strawberry-citrus flavors that many have come to associate with Provence. Château d’Esclans’ website attributes this very much to winemaking and technology. Chevalier says that a lot of rosé in Provence is made by picking grapes underripe, thus losing flavor and depth. At Château d’Esclans, they pick later than most, but use technology in the form of temperature-control (dry ice, heat exchangers) and cutting-edge optical sorting to ensure only the best grapes are included and kept cold, slowing oxidation and over-extraction, two primary enemies of the style.

The full line-up d’Esclans lineup is fascinating, each tier representing a different expression—the Château d’Esclans wine was the closest to a standard pounder, but much more elegant; Les Clans is made from good juice, but suffers from a dominating veneer of oak; and Garrus—aged for a year in 100 percent new, lightly toasted demi-muids—integrates its oak deftly, and drinks more like a high-end Burgundy. Of all the luxury rosés I tasted, my favorite was Château Saint-Maur L’Excellence Rosé ($45), which showed more depth, vivacity and balance than its more expensive sister, Clos de Capelune ($60).

Certainly more of these bottles are on the way. “I’m not sure what’s going on with other producers,” says Chevalier. “But I guarantee there are other people starting to scratch their heads and wonder if they could make this style of wine.”

There are, of course, other examples fine-wine quality rosés that have long been made in and outside of the South of France, from the ageworthy Provençal uber rosé Château Simone ($70) to Valentini’s Cerasuolo Rosato made from montepulciano grapes in Italy’s Abruzzo ($90) to the wines of Rosé de Riceys, an obscure appellation in Champagne’s Aube district responsible for rosé wines from pinot noir (only 17 producers make one).

Whether the new class of Provençal luxury rosé—which was conceived after the rosé boom—ends up as a noteworthy category or is dismissed as simply opportunistic is yet to be seen. As it stands, the prices of these wines are not just marketing gimmicks. Made with intention and craft, they warrant their higher prices by offering something more serious than your typical rosé. The question is, are they better rosés? If you believe rosé’s function is to be an uncomplicated companion to a languorous afternoon, the answer is no. But if you believe rosé can be something more—well, you’ve got your proof, just be prepared to pay for it.

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