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Anson on Thursday: Whispering Angel and the new rosé

Jane Anson picks up the trail of Sacha Lichine's move to Provence - and how rosé has been re-defined...

Sacha Lichine, Whispering Angel and 10 years of the wine that redefined rosé

When Sacha Lichine handed over the keys to Château Prieuré Lichine in 1999, he was still very much Alexis Lichine’s son, famed for throwing parties at his Margaux estate where you just might have found Michael Caine and Charlton Heston among the guests (one particularly impressive 1990 bash, apparently). That was always going to seem out of place in the buttoned-up Médoc. But in Provence? It’s just another Tuesday night.

Just one reason, perhaps, why Lichine has more than grown into his tiny corner of paradise just outside the Provençal village of La Motte where in 2006 he bought a 19th-century manor for €13 million surrounded by 650 acres of parkland, forest and gnarled old vines.

‘It’s certainly easier to have a little fun being a Provence rosé producer,’ Sacha Lichine tells me a few days ago, with a smile that is clearly visible down the phone line.

I say tiny, but in fact his corner of paradise is more like an ever-burgeoning fiefdom. Lichine bought Château d’Esclans as just another struggling Provencal estate with a beautiful view. Much of its 100 acres of vines was sent to neighbouring winemakers. A year later, he released 160,000 bottles of the first vintage of a cleverly-named rosé, Whispering Angel.

The headlines went to Garrus, the estate’s finest rosé that was treated with kid gloves, used only 80-year-old Grenache vines, was aged in Burgundy barrels and became the most expensive example of the style to date, retailing at close to US$100. But it was Whispering Angel that would explode. This year, production for the 2016 vintage is expected to be 4.6 million bottles, made by grapes bought in from a full 500 hectares of surrounding vines. Lichine is in the process of buying a production facility in La Motte to ensure that number can go even higher.

It seems somehow appropriate that we are talking while Lichine is sat on a plane in Boston taxiing down the runway on the way to Miami. America has been the engine of his success. Right from the start, he knew that repositioning rosé meant looking beyond the traditional local, holiday-makers’ market (or at least moving it onto yachts). Today the château wines are 92% exported, compared to around 16% for Provence as a whole (itself a four-fold increase over the past decade). In the States, where 800,000 cases of Provence rosé are imported annually, Lichine’s wines account for 20% of all Provence rosé sold and 25% of its value. Whispering Angel is a wine that is now referred to as ‘Hampton’s Water’ – a moniker that started in 2014 when New York Post’s Page Six gossip column ran a tongue-in-cheek piece at the end of August exposing that rosé was running ‘dangerously low’ in the Hamptons, ‘because the summer hordes have been tirelessly swilling all season long’. Not for nothing has it been said that Chateau d’Esclans that hasn’t just ridden the wave of the rosé boom, it is the wave.

To put this into perspective, I went back to the notes from my first visit to Chateau d’Esclans back in early 2007, just before the inaugural vintage release. It was clear then and even clearer now that Lichine had identified a gap in the market. He told me that it had taken six years to find the right property after becoming interesting in this particular style of wine back in 2001. In the end he returned to a château that he had first turned down buying in 1994.

‘Rosé is booming all over the world; it seems like the perfect time to see if we can make a serious version,’ he said at the time, adding, ‘the world doesn’t need another red wine, but this is a real chance to make an impact. And there has to be something to challenge Domaine d’Ott’.

Anthony Russell of Quantum Vintners, who sells Whispering Angel in the UK market, is clear as to the source of their success. ‘They simply understand the category better than most, because rosé is a wine whose audience connects with having fun. Chateau d’Esclans is now a huge commercial enterprise but still very much connected to pleasure’. He points to their regular use of oversized formats as a key indicator of positioning their wines as part of a celebratory lifestyle. ‘Most regions make you order special formats in advance. I can think of no other producer outside of Champagne that so routinely provides this service as Château d’Esclans’.

It hasn’t all been smooth. Lichine has been reported to the local fraud office for claiming Whispering Angel comes from the chateau vines (‘which we never have’) and been subject to numerous claims that he is stealing market share from his neighbours. And the rise of the category threatens to swamp everything in its wake – just this week writer Jon Bonné suggested that the specific pale-as-air style of rosé that Whispering Angel encapsulates (although he named plenty of other producers but not them) the ‘new Beaujolais Nouveau’ and suggested that its success has caused producers to become complacent, unwilling to explore the potential of the area for other styles of wine. I would agree wholeheartedly that there are pockets of Provence that should be far more widely celebrated – Cassis whites and Bandol reds spring immediately to my mind and tastebuds – but complaining about the success of Provence rosé is a bit like moaning about Champagne being known only for its sparkling wines. Is there something wrong with having a speciality provided that you are doing it well? And it can be easy to forget that just 10 years ago, nobody would have claimed that rosé was a saturated market. There is, inevitably, a question over how long can they keep expanding and maintain quality, but for now, it sounds dangerously close to success to me.

The Wines

Chateau D’Esclans Cuvée Déesse Astrée AOC Côte de Provence blanc 2014

The low acidity combined with a herbal, saline, almost bitter finish takes you immediately down to the south of France. This could easily be a Rhone white. Full of personality, imbued with the hot sunshine of a garrigue-streaked horizon, this uses the little-heralded rolle grape (the local name for vermentino) that also appears in the rosé. A honeyed texture, with rich lemon rind and apricot flesh at its core. 90.

Whispering Angel AOC Côtes de Provence 2015

From the very beginning (ex Mouton Rothschild) winemaker Patrick Léon crafted a lighter style of rosé, and this very much errs on the side of being fresh, clean, mineral with a white peach expression. The style has been very closely maintained over the past 10 years, even as the grape sourcing has grown exponentially. This is unoaked, vinified in stainless steel tanks, kept chilled at every stage of the process. From a blend of Grenache, Rolle, Cinsault and Syrah, all hand-harvested. Easy to see why this works so well. 91.

Château d’Esclans Rock Angel AOC Côtes de Provence 2015

From Rock Angel onwards these are produced 100% from estate grapes (some now leased but still worked entirely by the chateau). When this launched, I found this to be the heaviest wine of the range, but today find it the most improved with more clear personality than the Whispering Angel today. A pale, barely-there pink, with a pure, youthful nose that is both fresh yet intense on the palate. Citrus-rinsed redcurrant fruits from both Grenache and Rolle, with no noticeable oak, although it is aged in 600 litre barrels. 92.

Château d’Esclans Les Clans AOC Côtes de Provence 2014

At this point the price point jumps up, and we move to 90% free run juice and 10% first pressing from old vines of Grenache and Rolle, with a hint of Syrah. This is where you start seeing the comparison with a good white Burgundy – for me not so much a Meursault but a Pernand-Vergelesses. The intensity is also ramped up at this point, although again the oak adds no noticeable flavour, instead a brioche-hinted weight, clear persistency and a wet-stone silky power. I would say from experience that Les Clans doesn’t age as well as you might wish, and in that it doesn’t escape the reality of being a rosé, but for the first few years of its life, this may just be my favourite wine of the range 95.

Château d’Esclans Garrus AOC Côtes de Provence 2014

Here we get the full contingency of the 80+ year old Grenache vines, with a touch still of Rolle. For both Garrus and Les Clans, cooling tubes are placed directly into the barrels, ensuring everything slows down, taking up to four months and increasing complexity along the way. On the palate is slate, stone, a beautiful finesse and the barest hint of creamy lemon and burnished red fruits that have been deepened by a year of barrel fermentation and ageing. A beautiful salinity on the finish really takes this wine into totally moreish territory. Is the score too high for a rosé? Not if you are measuring it on the sheer pleasure that it gives. 97.

Château d’Esclans cuvee Déesse Red 2012

It may be telling that the marketing-savvy Lichine has not increased production of his red over the past 10 years, even though this is a lovely wine providing a rich example of silky dark fruits and garrigue-scented spice that keeps the house element of emphasising pleasure. Made from a blend of Syrah and Mouvèdre with ten months of barrel ageing. 90

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