JANE ANSON'S BLOG The best rosé of the summer

A few weeks ago (seems hard to believe in this grey September), I visited Chateau d’Esclans in the gorgeous village of La Motte en Provence.
I had been last year also, and was writing an update for Gourmet Traveller Wine on the self-billed ‘world’s most expensive rosé’, owned by the larger-than-life Sacha Lichine. There’s a Bordeaux connection here, as he is the son of Alexis Lichine, and used to own Chateau Prieuré-Lichine in Margaux (and, reportedly, used to hold the wildest parties in the Médoc).
The sons of the Bordeaux wine establishment tend to have a pretty clear career path ahead of them: namely taking over the family estate and dedicating themselves to the joys of terroir, tradition and cabernet sauvignon. So there must have been a few raised eyebrows when Sacha chose instead to sell up, move to sunny Provence and try his hand at a picnic wine.

‘For a while now, the world of red wine has been overcrowded,’ Sacha Lichine told me, looking rather pleased with his decision as he stood outside of his extremely large and handsome Tuscan-style property in the dazzling sunshine of an August day in the south of France. ‘I looked around and saw the gap in the market lay with rosé, which was becoming more and more popular but which lacked any truly star names. I already knew that Provence makes the best rosé in the world. So I set out to make the best rosé in Provence.’
Lichine had a clear plan in mind: what if you applied the same rules for making a top class Burgundy white to a rosé? First, he selected a vineyard that was run down but possessed a wonderful location, excellent terroir and row upon row of 80-year old Grenache vines, then enlisted the help of a master, ex Chateau Mouton Rothschild winemaker Patrick Leon.
‘Perhaps the most important aspect of our winemaking is temperature control,’ says Lichine. This begins in the vineyard, where sticks of dry ice are placed in the small trays of grapes at harvest time, and continues throughout the process. A key element is fermentation, which takes place in 600-litre Burgundian wood barrels (demi-muids, slightly larger this year than last to reduce the impact of oak on the final wine). Each one has individual temperature control, using cooling pipes more usually seen in large-scale vats that keep the wine temperature between 10 and 14ºC, and means fermentation can take up to three or four months. ‘It’s risky of course (yeasts, for example, have to be specially inoculated to deal with the cold), but it means preserving the delicate, subtle flavours we are looking for.’
The end result is a range of four wines, all Côtes de Provence, that redefine the taste profile of a rosé. The entry level begins with Whispering Angel, followed by Chateau d’Esclans, then Les Clans and finally Garrus, the top cuvée made in tiny quantities of 2,000 bottles from purely free-run juice of the oldest Grenache vines. All are that barely-there salmon pink that signify a great Provencal rosé, and mix delicacy with a surprising depth of flavour and length on the palate. Lichine believes that Les Clans and Garrus will age for up to five years, unheard of in this style of wine.
And the prices? ‘When we first discussed our pricing strategy, people thought we were crazy. But we have invested heavily in this wine, and are creating an entirely new type of rosé for a new market.’ This means wines that start out at EUR15 and end up, with Garrus, at EUR80, more than double the closest competitor in Domaine Ott. But it seems to have worked – the entire first harvest has sold out, and the wines are now staples on the super-yachts that regularly arrive in St Tropez, Nice and Monaco.
‘It’s not just about the lifestyle. I spend my days doing what my father did – pounding the pavement, shaking hands, putting a name to the bottle. But this has been one of the easiest sells of my career, because all you have to do is pop the cork.’
I have been serving all four wines (okay, mainly Whispering Angel) at various barbeques and dinners over the summer, and they have never failed to go down well with friends. My personal favourite is the Les Clans, and I’m pleased to report I still have one bottle left in the fridge…