CHÂTEAU D’ESCLANS GIVES OENOPHILES A REASON TO SEE THE WORLD THROUGH ROSE-COLORED GLASSES.
By Maria C. Hunt
Only a few years ago, inquiries about a person’s favorite style of wine were met almost exclusively with answers falling into one of two categories: red or white. Until recently, rose was the wine in the middle, and all but forgotten when it came to discussions of fine wines. On top of all of this, the pink elixir has not enjoyed a long history of being taken seriously.
Rose’s somewhat tainted reputation isn’t entirely warranted. A good rose starts with quality grapes like pinot noir, grenache or cabernet franc. The grapes are carefully handled in the winery to capture the delicate aromas and flavors of fruits, herbs and earth inherent in each. And for discerning wine drinkers, the rose style hints at the depth found in a red wine, but it’s also refreshingly bright and typically served chilled, like a white varietal.
Sacha Lichine, born into a pedigreed wine family that summered in France, knew that rose, as a category, deserved more. “To make rose good takes a tremendous amount more effort than it does to make a red or white wine grand,” Lichine says. “We embarked on this thing to see if rose could be grand.”
Sacha Lichine learned the winemaking business from his father, Alexis.
Working with master winemaker Patrick Léon, Lichine launched the Château d’Esclans label in 2006 with a quartet of rose wines. Ranging from the fresh and playful Whispering Angel to the impressive Garrus made with fruit that comes from 80-year-old grenache vines, Château d’Esclans roses are made with the same care once reserved only for fine Bordeaux—and they’re giving serious wine drinkers a reason to think pink.
“Château d’Esclans is a masterpiece in Sacha’s repertoire,” says Christie Dufault, a sommelier and instructor at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in California’s Napa Valley. “It’s set the highest standard for graceful, elegant roses.”
The wines are even winning accolades from international critics like Jancis Robinson, who wrote, in a 2012 article on her favorite roses, “Ever since tasting their 2006s, I have admired the groundbreaking wines of Sacha Lichine’s Château d’Esclans in the hills of Provence, which seem to have lifted the game for all.”
When the weather gets warm, many people instinctually reach for rose. It’s especially appealing in places with a year-round Mediterranean climate or a permanent holiday aesthetic, like the Hamptons or Cape Cod. In California, it might be Robert Sinskey Vineyards’ Vin Gris of Pinot Noir; in Spain, many sip the vivid geranium Parés Baltà Ros de Pacs to cool off. In Cape Town, South Africa, meanwhile, people savor the Seven Sisters rose made from pinotage.
While every region loves its own rose best, the wines that are considered the gold standard come from Provence in the south of France. Provencal rose is dry, delicate and as inviting as a summer’s day. Made from a blend of cinsault, grenache, syrah and mourvèdre, these pale, salmon pink wines taste of soft red fruits, minerals and herbs.
Before Château d’Esclans, the most notable Provencal roses included a pair from the Bandol wine region: Domaines Ott, owned by Louis Roederer Champagne, and family-owned Domaine Tempier. Other than the two, most roses were not considered among the highest caliber of wines. The lowered perception meant that wineries could only charge so much for the beverage.
Château d’Esclans’ wine barrels feature internal cooling systems that prevent oxidization.
While roses require the same high-quality red fruit—such as pinot noir, syrah or cabernet franc grapes—as might go into a red wine, many were still considered casual wines, forcing wineries to place them at a lower price point than red wines made from the same grapes. Such disregard may also be attributed to rose’s pink color, which can be associated with fun, frivolity and femininity.
“The public perception of rose is that it’s inexpensive, or that it should be inexpensive,” says Jeff Morgan, co-owner of Covenant Wines, who makes his own rose and frequently touts the style in his books on wine. “Why? Because there is a residual perception still in American minds that rose and inexpensive white zinfandel are comparable. They are not.”
Still, dry rose is slowly shedding the sticky-sweet baggage left over from the popularity of the sweet Portuguese wines Mateus and Lancers in the 1960s and white zinfandel from the 1980s. By 2005, Lichine and Léon knew the time was right for a rose of substance to make its debut.
“Americans’ understanding of the wines has evolved a lot in the past 40 years,” Léon says. “America has evolved qualitatively and [collectively] drinks more sophisticated wines today than before—less sweet wines, more dry wines, less white zin and more red.”
A Grand Plan
Lichine seems to have been born to become a great winemaker. His father, Alexis Lichine, was a world-renowned wine writer, salesman and importer who helped convince wineries to start disclosing the grape name on their labels. Alexis Lichine later became part owner of Château Lascombes, the famous winery in the Margaux appellation of Bordeaux, and established his own winery, Château Prieuré-Lichine, also in the Margaux appellation.
World-renowned wine writer, salesman and importer Alexis Lichine samples wines.
When Alexis Lichine died at age 76, Sacha, who had grown up between New York and France, took over his father’s chateau at age 27. He knew the business from working as a sommelier in Boston and studying the way his father made friends and sold wine.
But he also knew he needed to do more.
“I started thinking in 1994 of making something a bit different,” Lichine says. “The leaders in red wines have been there for 300 years, and so I wasn’t going to make much of a difference in those categories.”
Lichine’s story of how he created one of the most popular—and luxurious—roses on the market starts auspiciously with the phrase: “Well, I had sold my vineyard in Bordeaux in 1999.”
He spent eight years searching for the right piece of land in Provence, touring more than 30 estates. None moved him more than a 750-acre property nestled in the hills about 30 minutes north of St. Tropez. He first saw it in 1994, when a rose estate would have been an insane investment. But by 2004, it made more sense. At that time, it was a vacation property for employees of a Swedish pension fund, and Lichine had to extricate the lease.
He needed a technician, so he reached out to his father’s friend and former co-worker, Léon. By all accounts, Léon is quite unassuming for an oenologist whose resume includes long stints with Baron Philippe de Rothschild, in which he helped to establish the technical processes in both the vineyard and winery for Château Mouton Rothschild in Bordeaux and Opus One in Napa Valley.
“Sacha has the same passion as his father concerning quality,” Léon says. “He is making no compromise to obtain the best. At the same time, Sacha is a great PR person who knows the market so well.”
With the money from the sale of his Bordeaux property, Lichine designed the ideal rose winery.
“One of the things that makes [Château d’Esclans] unique is that they devoted an entire winery just to the production of rose,” says Debbie Zachareas, a sommelier and co-owner of Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant in San Francisco and Oxbow Cheese & Wine Merchant in Napa. “Cost was no object to create a winemaking facility that was devoted to putting out the best rose in all different price points.”
The grapes at Château d’Esclans are all handpicked and packed into crates along with dry ice to keep the fruit from prematurely fermenting in the field. Lichine installed a million-euro cooling system in the winery that brings the temperature down to 7-8 degrees Celsius, since excessive heat can cause rose wines to oxidize.
San Francisco-based Jean-Luc Hitta, the French wine specialist for Southern Wine & Spirits, says Château d’Esclans offers technology that few wineries can match.
“There’s a cooling system inside each barrel,” Hitta explains. “And an imaging system scans every single grape for skin tannin and sugar. Sacha and Patrick are perfectionists.”
Most roses don’t experience much wood contact, but Lichine and Léon aimed to create different strains of wine with varying levels of richness, texture and age—a goal that motivated them to experiment. “I said, ‘Let’s try to barrel ferment it a bit … and see what happens,’ ” Lichine adds.
Because of the investment in the winery and grapes, the wines needed to sell at a higher price point than a typical rose. The idea was shocking, but Lichine says the wines sold themselves once people tasted them.
“The success of this brand is [due to marketing it] my father’s way,” Lichine says. “You go out, and shake hands, and make friends and sell wine. We went from city to city and place to place.”
A charcuterie plate paired with a Château d’Esclans rose at Oxbow Cheese & Wine Merchant in Napa, Calif.
The resulting quartet of wines—Garrus, Les Clans, Château d’Esclans and Whispering Angel—is making people take notice of rose. In addition, the bottles are selling at prices that would have been unheard of for rose as little as five years ago, making it possible for other wineries to charge a premium price for their own fine roses.
“Château d’Esclans has elevated the presence of rose wines everywhere,” Dufault says.
Rose is finally having its moment. But even though he’s shown that pink wine can have gravitas, Lichine insists drinking it should still be fun.
“Half of the market is [people on] yachts in the Mediterranean,” Lichine says. “If there’s one place to drink rose, it’s the back of your own yacht.” M
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