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The rise of rosé wine in France, plus taste trends to note

Jonathan Hesford on taste trends and the most ‘Instagrammable’ of French tipples.

Rosé, the celebrity strain of wine

The popularity of rosé wine has soared in the last eight years. In the USA, sales have been increasing by as much as 40% per year. It is particularly popular with younger consumers in every wine market in the world. 

Although other countries have been upping production, France remains by far the largest producer of rosé. The French also consume more of it than any other nation. Rosé sales in France account for about 30% of the market, outselling white wine. In 2002 it only accounted for 16% of sales.

Wine marketing experts believe that the colour of rosé is particularly suited to photos on social media such as Instagram, which helps to explain its huge popularity among millennials. Provence rosé is the flag-bearer of the rosé trend. It is traditionally a pale salmon pink and this may explain why pale rosé is much more popular than darker coloured ones. Provence is also perhaps the wine region most associated with an aspirational lifestyle, with its vineyards close to the glamorous Côte d’Azur and the Riviera. It reminds us of holidays, sunshine, the Mediterranean coast and beautiful people.

Celebrities have been launching brands and buying wine estates in Provence. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie bought the famous Château Miraval, Star Wars creator Georhavege Lucas bought Château Margüi and Sex in the City star, Sarah Jessica Parker and Jon Bon Jovi have launched Southern French rosés. Graham Norton has added a Pinot noir rosé to his range in the last couple of years, while Lady Gaga has stuck to her Italian roots with her “Joanne Trattoria Vino Rosso”. 

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How is it made?

Rosé can be made from four slightly different methods. The first method, direct pressing, is considered the best for making highest quality wines. Red grapes are pressed to produce a pink juice from the very short contact it has with the skins. The juice is then fermented in a tank just like a white wine. The second method involves a slightly longer maceration period with crushed red grapes being held in a tank for 24-48 hours before the juice is extracted off.

The third method is referred to as “saignée”. Here black grapes are crushed into a tank to make red wine and some of the juice is bled off before it becomes too strongly coloured. It has the dual effect of concentrating the amount of skins in the red wine and therefore used where the red wines may lack colour. The saignée method is considered to produce lower quality rosés because they are effectively a by-product of the red wine.

Lastly, rosé can be made by combining red and white grapes. However it is quite strictly controlled in Europe, where it is really only seen in the production of sparkling rosé wines, including Champagne. Otherwise it is seen as a lower-quality method of making rosé. It is more common in the New World. Furthermore, rosé can be made by enriching a white wine with concentrated red must but this is typically only for the cheapest wines.

Because pale rosé is more desirable than darker rosé, producers make big efforts to keep the juice as light as possible. The riper the grapes are, the more colour they have. So picking early will produce paler juice.

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Grape varieties and what they mean for wine-making

However, unripe grapes are acidic and lack sugar and flavour. Some grape varieties such as the Cinsault used for Provence rosé, Merlot and Pinot noir, are not highly coloured and make the extraction of pale juice relatively easy. Other varieties, like Syrah and Mourvedre, are more richly coloured and make it difficult to extract pale juice. Grenache is relatively low in colour but reaches alcohol levels which are not well suited to a summer quaffer, unless you drink “Rosé Piscine” with an ice cube in the glass.

However, colour can be reduced in juice and wine by adding fining agents such as PVPP and casein. The most effective colour-reduction is achieved by adding activated carbon and filtering. Higher levels of sulphites help keep the wine pale too. These additives, especially carbon, can result in slightly chemical aromas in the wine as well as stripping away flavour.

Making the perfect commercial rosé is a highly technical process. A whole range of winemaking products have been developed to help winemakers find the balance between pale colour, attractive hue, low acidity and sufficient aroma and flavour.

Yeasts have been developed to bring out the aromatic grape compounds of terpenes and thiols. Nitrogen-based nutrients are often required to help the yeast complete the ferment of low-nutrient juice from early-picked grapes and minimal extraction. Oxygen and temperature control needs to be more precise than with white and red wines.

Ten years ago, slightly orange pink was the most popular colour but recently the fashion has moved to a more purple hue. Winemakers can achieve this bluer pink by filling the press with an inert gas to avoid oxidation.

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Quick to make, easy to consume

Also a more acidic wine will give a bluer hue because the colour of the pigment is dependent on pH. These two factors also help to stabilise the colour for longer in bottle and prevent fading or browning. Rosé has perhaps the fastest turnaround of any wine style. It is a relatively quick wine to make as it does not require ageing in barrels or blending. It sounds like the perfect winery cash-cow.

However, there is a catch. Most consumers want to buy the latest vintage. It is assumed that rosé doesn’t age (although some of them do) so merchants do not want last year’s rosé and producers are racing against each other to get their wines onto the market as soon as possible after the vintage. They don’t want to be still in the queue when the summer rosé drinking boom is coming to an end. 

This need to sell out quickly combined with the overly visual appeal of the wine, compared to white and red, means that branding and marketing are hugely important. More important than flavour, I would argue. The labels need to be appealing, the bottle needs to stand out, even the name of the wine is important in making sure that consumers choose one brand over another.

So we see successful rosés coming in tall frosted bottles, lots of gold on the label and names chosen to evoke that image of beautiful, youthful, glamorous Provence, even if the wine is made in a factory in Bordeaux from imported Spanish must and bottled in Manchester.

Jonathan Hesford is owner and vigneron of Domaine Treloar in the Roussillon; Suggest future wine topics:

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