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Andrew Jefford October 2010 column

What’s the rarest gold of all? In the Decanter World Wine Awards, it’s pink gold.

We tasted our way through almost 11,000 samples from every last paddock of planet wine during the judging week. The freshly garlanded Gold-medal-winning wines are elevated to a communal table so that judges from other panels can take a sniff and a taste. Sparkling wine and Champagne fight their corner; whites are plentiful; reds copious. But rosé?

In the course of seven years, there has only been one from the panels I’ve chaired. Are we judges pinkist? Just what does a pink wine have to do to climb that podium table?

After this year’s competition, the puzzle still mentally smouldering, I headed for Côtes de Provence, the source of our one emblematic pink Gold from a few years ago; indeed, the region’s production is now 86% pink. If great rosé wine can be found anywhere, it should be here.

There are two reasons why rosé wine may not be great: the first is that it’s usually a cheaper wine from an area whose most ambitious wines are either white or red. That means lesser vineyards, bigger yields, and potentially inattentive winemaking. The second reason is that rosé wines are often sweetish, despite being made from standard rather than naturally rich musts. In other words, they are commercially sweet, and not sweet by vocation: rarely a good recipe for quality.

In Côtes de Provence, neither applies. The wines must contain less than 4g/l of sugar to qualify for the AC. They are all dry, therefore, although some will be more roundly dry than others. Secondly, most of the best vineyards in Côtes de Provence are used for rosé: it’s the main show, not a support act. Rosé consequently gets maximum winemaking focus there; in fact, the region even boasts a Centre for Research and Experiment on Rosé Wine, with six full-time researchers.

The final hurdle along the path to pink glory is stylistic. Great rosé, colour aside, is formidably unshowy. It is a brilliant essay in finesse and restraint. It is lovely quietness in wine, vinified. It is discretion and disposition, not force and flamboyance.

This, of course, makes it both exceptionally difficult to make well, and difficult, too, to appreciate via the conventional apparatus of wine criticism. I’ve taken too long to understand this. The most stupid sentences in my book The New France, I’m afraid, are those relating to Provence rosé. The best wines now strike me as magnificent and original, and if there is such a thing as pink-wine terroir, then you’ll find it in the vineyards of the Argens valley, around Mont-Ste-Victoire or (most scenically beautiful of all) close to the shore between Hyères and Le Lavandou. There, decked terraces of schist and sandy clay nourish a cascade of vineyards and pine forests: the salad in a sunlit blue sandwich of sky and sea.

Sacha Lichine has thrown down the pink gauntlet with a hussar’s panache at Château d’Esclans. Having purchased the property in an indifferent state in 2006 from the pension fund of the Swedish Match company, he’s set about making ‘the greatest rosé in the world’ with startling energy and single-mindedness. It’s not the ambitious superlative which matters so much as Lichine’s determination, via investment in labour and equipment, to make the rosé at d’Esclans with as much care and attention as a Bordeaux super-second. And then to package (and price) the wines accordingly.

D’Esclans has changed the context of expectation for Provence rosé. This is the best chance pink wine has ever had. The Roederer holding in Domaines Ott and JCB chairman Sir Anthony Bamford’s investments at Chateau Léoube have meant that those properties are also run in a way which makes quality the only consideration. There are other wealthy owners (like Sylvain Massa at Font du Broc and Bernard Teillaud at Ste-Roseline) lavishing their estates with investment for quality, too.

The results are seductive, almost addictive. Not homogenous, either. Lichine has been innovative in basing the d’Esclans blends on Grenache and the white variety Rolle (Vermentino in its native Italy): the peaches and wild strawberries are thus thickened by a textured, almondy mid-palate.

At Léoube, the talented Romain Ott uses Grenache with Cinsault complemented by a little Syrah (Léoube) or Cabernet (Le Secret de Léoube), wild yeast and full malolactic to give a seamless palate which contrives to be simultaneously intense yet languid, with an iodine edge to the peaches this time.

At Domaines Ott, meanwhile, free-run juice is ‘retroubled’ with filtered settlings and given a warmer-than-usual fermentation, lending extra articulacy to the lacy Clos Mireille and the earthier, rounded Château de Selle. There are dozens more, though. A new fine wine is being born. And it’s pink.

Written by Andrew Jefford

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