In 2011, a homemade cocktail from Southern France took the rest of the country by storm. In this land of wine, it must have seemed a daring decision: just in time for summer, Maison Castel, a world-renowned Bordelaise wine producer, took a risk and released Very Pamp, a bottled cocktail of rosé wine mixed with grapefruit juice. And though they could never have known it at the time, this simple regional specialty would go on to become a national favorite.
Wine cocktails have long been mixed at home in the South of France, made-to-order at parties, cookouts, and other day-long summer extravaganzas. The tipples, lighter in alcohol than wine or a traditional mixed drink, could be enjoyed all day long in the sunshine. While the Basques preferred kalimotxo, a mix of red wine and Coca-Cola, and the Catalans were more adept at sangria, those on the French Côte d’Azur have opted for rosé pamplemousse (grapefruit in French), and it was this pink, slightly tart drink that took off through the rest of the hexagon, in bottled form.
Something about the combination struck a chord. The youthful pink hue? The lighter alcohol content? The refreshing flavor? Whatever it was, it had the French convinced: Sales of grapefruit rosé increased 125 percent from March 2012 to March 2013, and 22 million liters of flavored wine were sold in that year alone.
Didier Perruche, owner of La Chopine, a wine store in the Loire Valley, over 500 miles from Nice, scored his first shipment of grapefruit rosé in 2011. "They were like personalized kirs," Perruche describes, referencing the famous French aperitif combining white wine and blackcurrant liqueur. "I think that’s how it started. They would make themselves grapefruit rosé the same way that we would make a white wine-cassis, a kir, in the North."
In 2012, following the success of Maison Castel's bottled grapefruit rosé, other winemakers jumped on the bandwagon, producing not only their own versions of grapefruit rosé, but also other flavored wines like lime- or Mirabelle plum-flavored white, and sour cherry-flavored red. None, however, came close to the success of the original. Something about rosé wine, perennially associated with summer weather, and slightly tart grapefruit, made the apéritif—less alcoholic than most—the new go-to for pre-dinner drinks, from Nice to Paris, booting out simple rosé wine, kirs, and even cocktails.
"[Winemakers are] still releasing new flavors," says Perruche: strawberry, raspberry, even a 7.5 ABV (alcohol by volume) version of the classic kir. "But I find them a bit less festive."
Most of the grapefruit rosés sold today are made with "natural flavors" and "fruit extracts," a far cry from Provence's homemade cocktails built of bottled or boxed rosé and fresh grapefruit juice. There are, however, exceptions, like the winemakers from Château Poulvère, near Bordeaux.
"It was my daughter, really, who said, ‘Dad, why don’t we do a large-scale project like this?’" explains Francis Borderie, Poulvère's fourth generation winemaker. "At the beginning, I was reticent because I’m a winemaker, so I don’t love making mixes. But in the end, I fell for her idea, with one condition: I wanted it to be, first and foremost, a real wine."
In May 2012, Poulvère launched Twenty Wine (a play on French homophones vingt which means 20, and vin which means wine), an AOP wine at 11.5 ABV, flavored with Monin fruit syrup.
Twenty Wine started its line with three flavors: grapefruit rosé, peach white, and white chocolate white, then added cherry red, rose petal rosé, and gingerbread red the following year. All wines retail under $10. The dry base wines—sauvignon blanc for the white; merlot and cabernet sauvignon for the rosé; and merlot, cabernet sauvignon, and cabernet franc for the red—are AOP Bergérac wines that bring flavors and aromas of their own to the cocktail. "The most important thing is that there be a good balance between the wine and the syrup," says Borderie. In this case, 90 percent wine to 10 percent syrup.
Borderie didn’t intend to commercialize his flavored wines outside of France—aside from in China, where the sour cherry red wine sells well—until one of his American importers asked for a sample pallet to sell. In Miami, Borderie's grapefruit rosé, followed by his peach white, will launch in wine shops next month, not under the Twenty Wine name (the humor of which is somewhat lost in English), but rather under the brand Raleuses. The 2016 season will be an opportunity to see if this wine can enchant American palates as much as French ones.
But a handful of grapefruit-flavored rosé wines have already become available in the U.S.—Meadowsweet Rosé, a brand commercialized by French wine giant Nicolas in 2011; Ruby Red Rosé with Grapefruit, released in 2015; and ABV Fine Wine & Spirits' Pulse, flavored with both grapefruit and peach, also in 2015. But all of those wines are made with "natural flavors" and aromas, as opposed to fruit syrups.
To get the true effect of the Southern French cocktail, try to track down Borderie’s wine. "When you taste it, at the beginning, you have the flavor of the grapefruit," he says. "But after, on the palate, you get the aromas of the wine. You still find the wine. And that’s what we wanted."
Editor: Kat Odell