The Rise of Ultra-Premium Rosés in Côtes de Provence
Apart from a few notable exceptions, Ultra-Premium Rosés (UPR) is a recent phenomenon in Côtes de Provence (CdP). In a region that is linked to somewhat simple, everyday wines, this niche market could potentially represent an opportunity in terms of collective reputation and profitability. However, research for this article showed a certain level of skepticism and lack of faith in the style among producers. Yet authoritative trade media has indicated there is a place in the wine market for UPR.
In 1912, Marcel Ott founded Château de Selle in Côtes de Provence. This became the first UPR of the region and, to this day, Domaines Ott is considered market leaders. A few other noteworthy producers followed in his footsteps but it is only since 2006, when Sacha Lichine bought Château d´Esclans, that the UPR movement has gained in popularity. Lichine’s intention to produce the best and most expensive rosé in the world has created a phenomenon in a region where the average price per 75 cl is 3.76€. According to Andrew Jefford (my favourite wine writer) ‘This is the best chance pink wine has ever had’. Despite the success surrounding the Côtes de Provence rosé the past years caution is definitely required but before we go in to why, let’s look at the context for this development.
Throughout the centuries, Provence has been marked by poverty and drought and in order to assure food supply in this climate, cereal, vegetables and olives remained the main crops until the nineteenth century when viticulture became a principal agricultural produce. Polyculture then became commonplace and the vinification methods were poor, resulting in wines of modest quality yet this was a prosperous period for vine growers in Provence. From around 1870 however, the climate changed. Phylloxera (a wine pest that killed almost all European vines in the latter half of the 19th century) and the European depression resulted in a decrease in both production and consumption. After years of economic stress and costly replanting of vineyards, there was little capital left for improving and modernising production facilities and techniques. The sole solution to adapt was through cooperatives. Though it resulted in increased quality and more homogeneity thanks to savoir faire from more technically trained people it also led to a lack of individual character as the cooperatives largely listened to market trends and adapted accordingly. Something that is still very true today, 60% of all Côtes de Provencewine is produced by cooperatives. With paid holidays having become mandatory in France in 1936 the post-war area became a time of significant growth for the tourist industry in Provence and along with it, the production of rosé wine.
While the wine history of Provence is not as quality-focused as some other appellations in France, it has created an excellent platform in which the rosé category could develop. Along with the flourishing tourist industry that continues to have a strong impact on the region and its wines, appellation issues, grape varieties and the trade structure are also factors that have shaped the modern industry.
Grape varieties: It can be argued that, in terms of red wine production, Provence is missing a specific grape variety that they can call their own. However, the varieties in CdP are perfectly suited to provide the aromatic, pale and crisp style consistent with CdP rosé today.
The proportion of principal varieties must be minimum 70% and consist of minimum two varieties from this group. Additional complex minimum and maximum limitations exist and vary according to the variety. Regulations also vary depending on the sub regions within CdP. White grape varieties are increasingly being used for rosé wine making but are limited to 20%.
The development of UPR
Although UPR as a movement is a recent phenomenon, there are some noteworthy exceptions. Apart from Domaine Ott, Château Minuty and Régine Sumeire are others who had a similar early approach. However, since 2005 when Sacha Lichine invested in Château d´Esclans with the goal of making ‘the best and most expensive rosé in the world', a significant increase in UPR has occurred. And with trend-sensitive beach clubs in Saint Tropez and the wealthy tourists of Côte d´Azur in its ‘backyard’, Côtes de Provence is a suitable place for the growth of such a category. Along with fame and image, price is a decisive factor in bringing about change in mentality and with prices ranging from 16€ to 90€ RRP and a clever marketing strategy, the wines of Château d´Esclans have indeed contributed to this change. But herein lies a risk; there is a tendency among certain producers to take advantage of this Ultra-Premium Rosé trend. I have been on several tastings where a producer is showing me their entry level wine at around 7 € a bottle and then their Ultra-Premium cuvee at 20€ or more and I cannot taste any difference in quality. Several producers also share this view in saying ‘Many UPR are like a superficial superstar that serves to attract attention to the rest of the range’. Another winemaker from a famous estate said ‘There is hardly any correlation between price and quality when it comes to rosé’ and ‘Above 15€ it is all about marketing strategy, not quality´.
Yet there is a true potential and there are some absolutely stunning rosés being made in Côtes de Provence. When emphasis is put on increasing quality at every stage of the production the rosé category is indeed capable of delivering. Château d´Esclans is a prime example of such a producer. With an extreme attention to detail through the whole production process, heavy investment both in expertise and cellar equipment and also a significant difference in style between their standard rosé (Whispering Angel) and their top wine Garrus, they are an example to follow.
Other top Ultra-Premium rosé producers are (in no particular order) Chateau Minuty, Mas de Cadenet, Clos Cibonne, Château Leoube, Domaine Ott and Château Gassier. These estates are driven by passionate people who really believe in the category and are committed to quality and sustainability. It is thanks to people like this that the UPR category will stand a chance in the future and perhaps even one day be accepted as a new ‘fine wine’.