Why French Winemakers Are Seeing The World Through Rosé-Colored Glasses

Aug 26, 2015
Originally published on August 27, 2015 12:33 pm

Consumption of rosé wine is skyrocketing. U.S. imports of rosé from the Mediterranean region have grown in the double digits for the past 10 years running. This is good news for winemakers in the southern, Provence region of France, where many vintners used to make a few bottles of rosé only for themselves. Not anymore.

The Blanc brothers, Didier and Robert, are third-generation vintners near the town of Uzes, in southern France. The area is known for chirping cicadas, olive trees and chilled rosé wine in the summertime.

Standing between the rows of vines at their vineyard, Saint Firmin, younger brother Didier pushes back the leaves to reveal clusters of plump grapes ripening under a blazing Mediterranean sun. Blanc says sales are exploding.

"We ran out of rosé last year, so we produced a lot more this year. And we're going to run out again," he says.

Rosé is made from grenache or cinsault grapes, and is certainly never a mix of red and white wine, says older brother Robert. He says a good rosé is pale, almost gray — the lighter, the better. And it's easily quaffable.

"Since it's so light, people have the impression that it has less alcohol and calories than red or white wine. But that's not the case," he says, laughing.

The brothers harvest their grapes at night, when it's cooler. Once picked, rosé grapes in particular must have minimum exposure to heat and sun to limit oxidization.

A stiff wind whips down the rows of vines. It's the legendary Mistral, a wind that blows up the Rhone valley. Didier Blanc says the Mistral is winemakers' friend, because it combats the humidity and mildew that can hurt the vines.

The two men say their father used to put a few bottles of rosé aside just for his own pleasure.

A noisy bottling machine helps them put the cork on the last of their 2014 vintage. Robert Blanc says it's the second year they've exported to the U.S. Since neither of them speaks English, Robert says it would have been hard to pierce the complicated American wine market. But he says importers have come looking for them.

"Yesterday we had a visit from another importer from Maine who was on vacation," Robert says. "He loved the rosé. Maybe something will come of that!"

John Hames, director of the American Wine Society, says that in the '70s and '80s, Americans went for sweeter wines. But tastes are evolving, and appreciation for dry rosés is growing.

"People discovered they were good food wines," says Hames. "And at the same time, they were an alternative to the chardonnays and sauvignon blancs for just having a nice cool glass of wine in the evening on the patio."

The rosé boom is transforming lives in this agrarian region. Serge Scherrer is a part-time postman, part-time winemaker. He was able to buy a parcel of land here 10 years ago because of the real estate crisis — just two days before the vines were to be ripped out. Now he's realizing a lifelong dream, making 3,000 bottles of organic wine a year. He says he understands why rosé is a big hit.

"It's simple to drink, it's very fresh, and it's not as strong as red or white wine," Scherrer says.

Scherrer shares a workspace with a local potter. He makes what he calls a piscine — or swimming pool — rosé that goes for about five bucks a bottle, as well as a more pricey, gastronomic one.

His production may be small, but Scherrer's wine is being snatched up in countries across Europe, Asia and the U.S. He says his American importer wants to buy all of his bottles.

"But you can't put all your eggs in one basket," says Scherrer.

You can find Scherrer's wine in America, under the label La Vigne du Facteur — The Mailman's Vine.

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Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Now we're turning to 21st century France where winemakers are experiencing something sweet, or not so sweet. Their light, dry roses are exploding in popularity. Far cry from the past when many winemakers made rose for themselves. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley is all over this story in southern France.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: The Blanc brothers, Didier and Robert, are third generation vintners near the town of Uzes in southern France. The area is known for chirping cicadas, olive trees and chilled rose wine in the summertime.

DIDIER BLANC: Hello (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Standing between the rows of vines, younger brother Didier pushes back the leaves to reveal clusters of plump grapes ripening under a blazing Mediterranean sun. Blanc says sales are exploding.

D. BLANC: (Through interpreter) In France and everywhere else, we ran out of rose last year, so we produced a lot more this year, and we're going to run out again.

BEARDSLEY: Robert Blanc says a good rose is pale, almost gray - the lighter the better. It's made from Grenache or Cinsault grapes and is certainly never a mix of red and white wine.

Down in the cellar, he pours me a glass to sample.

ROBERT BLANC: (Through interpreter) Since it's so light, people have the impression that it has less alcohol and even calories than red or white wine, but that's not the case.

BEARDSLEY: Blanc says his father used to put a few bottles of rose aside just for his own pleasure. Today, the brothers are bottling the last of their 2014 vintage. It's the second year they've exported to the U.S., says Robert.

R. BLANC: (Through interpreter) Yesterday, we had a visit from another importer from Maine who was on vacation. He loved the rose. Maybe something will come of that.

BEARDSLEY: John Hames is director of the American Wine Society. He says in the '70s and '80s, Americans went for sweeter wines, but tastes are evolving and appreciation for dry roses is growing.

JOHN HAMES: People discovered in trying them and found out they were very good food wines. And at the same time, they were a good alternative to the chardonnays, sauvignon blanc for just drinking on the patio and having a nice cool glass of wine in the evening.

BEARDSLEY: The rose boom is transforming lives in this agrarian region.

SERGE SCHERRER: In morning I am postman and in the afternoon, I'm a winemaker, yes.

BEARDSLEY: That's Serge Scherrer, part-time postman, part-time winemaker. He was able to buy a parcel of land here ten years ago because of the real estate crisis two days before the vines were set to be ripped out. Now he's realizing a lifelong dream making 3,000 bottles of organic wine a year. He understands why rose is a big hit.

SCHERRER: It's simple to drink. It's very fresh. It's not so strong that red wine or white wine (speaking French) Denmark.

BEARDSLEY: Scherrer reels off the names of some of the countries where he now exports. Opening the door to a small building he shares with a local potter, Scherrer shows me four modern metallic wine vats. He makes what he calls a piscine, or swimming pool rose, that goes for about five bucks a bottle and a more pricey gastronomic one.

SCHERRER: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Scherrer says his American importer wants to buy up all of his small production. You can find his wine in America the under the label La Vigne du Facteur - The Mailman's Vine. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Provence, France.

GREENE: I'll happily go tell that story next year. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.