Nose Diving: French ros winemakers seeking foothold in U.S. market

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To find a local constituency fluent in the language of ros wines, one need look no further than a gathering of French food professionals.
And Club Culinaire, which earlier this summer put on its Picnic des Chefs to raise money for the Concern Foundation and the Hope Program at Childrens Hospital, is just such a flock.
At the fundraising soiree in Elysian Park, I met up with Lauren Sanne and Ricardo Chapa, project managers with the D.C.-based American World Services Corporation, a firm that helps international businesses — in this case, a council of Provence wineries — break into and navigate the U.S. imports market.

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The Provence Wine Council (Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins de Provence) includes about 750 wine producers in the French region, Sanne said, and about 80 of those are seeking to be discovered, so to speak, by United States wine consumers.
A handful of wineries from the Provence association were pouring at the Picnic des Chefs, where the donation of time and effort could score a key deal with an L.A. restaurant — or at least generate public interest and retail sales.
Sanne, who was born in Pasadena and raised in La Verne, said the first step for Vins de Provence is to get more of their wines into the U.S. market by establishing relationships with importers and distributors. Then the team gets busy making a stateside name for Provence ross — and this is the really “fun stuff,” she said — by marketing them at trade events and consumer tastings in major wine-drinking hubs like Los Angeles and New York.
The last five years have seen a measurable rise in the popularity of ros in the United States. Retail sales of imported ros wines grew by 28 percent in 2009, according to Nielsen Group research. (That’s four times faster by value — and 11 times faster by volume — than the general table-wine market.)
Chapa said ross already sell particularly well among two types of U.S. consumers. The first group includes true Francophones and world travellers who already know French wines.
The other segment is less obvious: young people. Chapa said ros sales are strong among younger wine drinkers because they haven’t yet appropriated any misconceptions about what ros is or should be.
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And there has been plenty of confusion — in the past and residual — over the often-pinkish wine.
For one, betraying that candy-colored hue, ross are not sweet or dessert wines.
“Ours are bone dry,” Chapa said. “The opposite of that is the white zin and blush wines that have some sweetness to them. Ross are great food wines and afternoon wines, because they don’t have that sweetness to them.”
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At the Club Culinaire picnic, a 2009 Chteau d’Esclans Ctes de Provence Ros was a stellar example of that crisp, dry essence. “Whispering Angel” delicately unfolds in a blossom of berries and juicy peaches that yield to a chalky aspect imparted by the dense, clay slopes of the terroir.
Another “of the misconceptions about Provenal ross is that people sometimes think pink wine is cheap wine,” Chapa said. “They’re not understanding that there can be high-quality ross.”
Indeed, ros winemakers have worked hard to divest their product of that unserious image as the bottle to reach for only when temperatures are high and expectations (and budgets) are low.
Chteau L’Afrique’s 2009 Ctes de Provence Ros is a pink darling; Earthy and grounded at first whiff, with a buttery-smooth richness that hints at a blended Grenache dominance.
Ros is made from red grapes; It’s often light in color, because winemakers leave the clear juice in contact with the dark grape skins for a brief amount of time.
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In 2009, there was a movement by certain European regions to allow ross to be made by blending red and white wines. As worldwide demand for ross was growing, the move would have opened the door for additional export markets for Italian and Spanish producers with surpluses of wine. Chapa said such blended wines — essentially red wine diluted with white — would be affordable but low-quality.
The French government and the Provence Wine Council stood against the European Commission initiative and in favor of preserving the centuries-old maceration process for ros, and the traditional standards prevailed.
This production method means ross are individually complex wines with unique flavor profiles — influenced by the blend of grapes and the vineyard characteristics — captured in every vintage.
In accordance, my final tasting at the Club Culinaire picnic was a 2009 Chteau Saint-Martin Cru Classe Grande Reserve, a most expressive, citrusy ros with a bold bouquet and a fresh, languorous finish.
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