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Anson on Thursday: Miraval and the fight for Provence

The discreet carving of Miraval onto a stone plaque and a security guard standing alongside a low metal gate are all that mark the entrance to what has become one of the most famous and fought over rosé wine producers in the world - helped along by Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, of course.

If known at all three years earlier, Miraval was perhaps more renowned for its recording studio that attracted artists from UB40 to The Cure and Pink Floyd, rather than its Provence rosé wines.

It’s easy to ascribe the success of Miraval to the two famous names attached to it. They don’t come much bigger that Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, and their celebrity is clearly not lost on the locals. I’m honestly not making this up when I tell you that the guard asked me to repeat my name at the front gate. ‘Aniston?’. ‘No, Anson.’

He ushered me on, instantly professional, and I wondered if I’d misheard. Or if was simply more proof that there is no one, any where, who doesn’t know their back story. Driving on up the narrow and extremely long drive, it was easy to see that among the many attractions of the estate is its privacy. With 700 hectares set across two private valleys, we pass rows of olive trees, dense oak forests, opens stretches of lavender, clutches of rosemary and thyme, a good-sized lake with canoes parked up alongside, and a series of hillside terraces; some that seem to date back for centuries and others that are freshly dug, with men working on assembling traditional dry-stone walls. There are several ‘No photography’ signs but they seem unnecessary here, so remote and hidden are the valleys, despite being set just a few kilometers from the pretty market town of Brignoles.

It was the remoteness, and the wild splendor of this place, that attracted the Perrin family to Miraval also, as co-investors and producers of the wine.

I’m here with Marc Perrin, and after parking up we head over to a row of two- and four-seater quad bikes and climb onboard one particularly low-slung, sturdy example. I am warned that things are about to get very dusty. Black was maybe not the best choice of outfit, as bits of dolomitic limestone, clay, and slate quickly start to cling, and I am soon a walking advert for the terroir of Miraval.

‘In many ways the challenges here remind me of when we first arrived at Tablas Creek in California at the end of the 1980s,’ Perrin is telling me as we head out to the furthest part of the second valley, climbing up from 350 meters to 520 meters through dense scrubland. ‘There we had to create the vineyard from scratch, choose the best sites, based on our belief in the quality of the soils and what they would bring. And there also a partnership (with the Haas family) allowed for long-term investment’.

The same belief in the long-term is being displayed here. There were vines planted at Miraval (it’s likely some vines have grown in this spot since Roman times, and a Roman road lies underneath parts of the track we are taking) when the Jolie-Pitt-Perrin team arrived, but many were in the lowest part of the valley, on land easiest to plant. Since 2012, the Burgundy-based microbiologists Claude and Lydia Bourguignon – who also worked with the Perrins at Beaucastel – have been sampling soils across the entire 700 hectares.

We stop at one of them, where a natural cirque is already evident beneath steep hillside covered with wild rosemary, thyme and unforgiving brambles. As with much of Miraval, a ring of oak trees sits on the horizon. This is where they plan to plant more white grapes over the next few years, notably rolle. A little further down the valley, barely accessible even on our quad, is a narrow ravine that will one day contain syrah and pinot noir grapes.

‘We are at the most northerly part of Provence here,’ says Perrin, his enthusiasm clear in his broad smile as we pick our way past boulders and trees stumps, abandoning the vehicle to get a closer look at the planting sites. ‘With the altitude and the shape of the valley there is always a cooling breeze, and I am convinced there are some excellent soils for varieties that we normally associate with the northern Rhone, even Burgundy. There is so much possibility here – it’s impossible to find unexplored terroir like this in the Rhone any more’.

For now, Miraval produces only 20,000 bottles of white, made from rolle and grenache blanc, and half that of red. The new plantings will lie outside the AOC Côtes de Provence or AOC Coteaux Varois that are used for the estate wines, so will be bottled as Vins de France (leading to the idea of Super Provence wines that follow the Super Tuscans in style, although all Cabernet Sauvignon was recently pulled up as up the land was deemed unsuitable). ‘We are looking at terroir not names’ Perrin says firmly.

These are long term plans, realisable slowly over the next five to ten years, but for now the dominant style is rosé – today 500,000 bottles against 200,000 back in 2012. And it is here that Miraval is in the front line of the war that seems to be brewing between traditional Provence styles and the new (that label again) Super Rosés. Or more simply Posh Pinks.

It was inevitable, perhaps. Sacha Lichine at Château D’Esclans saw it first – or rather saw how much further the potential that had already been grasped by Domaines Ott’s Clos Mireille, Domaine de Romauresq, Chateau Sainte Roseline and the rest of the 23 cru classés de Provence could go.

It’s hard to believe that the four wines from D’Esclans – with top cuvée Garrus clocking in at £72 in the UK market – were launched with the 2006 vintage, so close to ten years ago now. And inevitably when the potential was grasped, others followed.

‘The more expensive they go, the more whispering they become,’ said one traditional-style producer, bemoaning the ultra-pale, light extraction touch seen in – I can only assume his choice of words was deliberate – Whispering Angel from Lichine and others like it.

Another complaint seems to be the volume produced, and specifically the sourcing of grapes from outside the vineyards themselves. Miraval now works with around ten outside producers, not all of whom are organic as they are at the estate itself (although they are in conversion Perrin tells me), and Whispering Angel similarly sources non-estate grapes for its one million bottles.

The third charge leveled at Miraval and others like it – that they are made in the winery, not the vineyard. Here Perrin is unapologetic. He ensures the cinsault, grenache and rolle varieties undergo a gentle direct press to release the juice, while the ‘saignée’ method is used for syrah – so running off the juice after a longer skin contact – but only on grapes picked earlier than for the red wine, specifically for rosé. The wine is then almost entirely vinified in temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks to emphasise pure fruit flavours, with just a small amount (5%) in barrel with lees stirring to encourage a touch more depth and roundness in the mouthfeel.

‘Making rosé is like being a patisserie chef,’ says Perrin, ‘everything has to be measured out perfectly from beginning to end, it all has to be extremely precise, much more than for a red or even a white. The results depend on terroir and technique. The aim is for minerality and subtle intensity of flavours, and paying careful attention in the winery is non-negotiable’.

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