Before SACHA LICHINE, serving rosé was regarded as frightfully infra dig. GERRIE LIM meets the man who’s made quaffing pink almost de rigueur.
HE REMEMBERS THE fateful day in 2006 when he decided to forsake the rich reds of Château Prieuré-Lichine, the Bordeaux estate in Margaux that Sacha Lichine inherited from his famous father, for the pale pinks of a wine often thought inferior – and, worse still, from an estate located in the South of France, in La Motte en Provence. The naysayers had their knives out, of course, but they now have reason to recant, for his wines have suddenly become a new lifestyle accoutrement and the libation of choice on many a private jet and pleasure craft.
Such has been the saga of Sacha Alexis Lichine, 51, wine entrepreneur and son of the legendary wine writer-turned-wine merchant Alexis Lichine, that fabled raconteur and former owner of Château Lascombes who’d been no small influence on one Robert M Parker Jr (who as a young wine acolyte had learned from Alexis Lichine’s Encyclopaedia of Wines and Spirits and the earlier Wines of France). Born Bordelais but bred in New York and Boston, Sacha Lichine splits his time between his beloved Provençal winery, Château d’Esclans, and his new family domicile in Singapore, from where he commutes to Hong Kong and China to continue expounding the gospel according to rosé.
For that’s his bailiwick, since Château d’Esclans is a rosé specialist, known in particular for four wines in ascending order of repute: Whispering Angel (650,000 bottles a year; a deceptively complex blend of Grenache, Cinsault, Vermentino, Syrah, Carignan, Mourvèdre and the Provençal grape Tibouren), Château d’Esclans (100,000 bottles; Grenache, Vermentino, Syrah, Cinsault and Tibouren), Les Clans (20,000 to 25,000 bottles; Grenache/Vermentino, from 50- to 70-year old vines) and Garrus (20,000 to 25,000 bottles, Grenache/Vermentino, but from 80-year-old vines).
“Rosé,” he says, “is technically much harder to make than white or red.” His trade secret lies in spraying dry ice onto the grapes after picking to cool them down, simultaneously avoiding oxidation and restraining the reddish colouration, hence the fascinating array of pinks in the resulting wines.
The parent company, Domaines Sacha Lichine, also makes an “introductory rosé” called Le Poussin Rosé, a Grenache/Cinsault blend from Camargue in the Languedoc-Roussillon region, but it’s in the main cellars in Côtes de Provence where Lichine hatches his plans with partner-in-wine Patrick Léon, himself a living legend in oenology circles (not least for being the former managing director of the Baron Philippe de Rothschild wine group), making what he calls “the first ageable rosés”, vintage pinkish wines that improve with time while defying easy categorisation, collectively emblematic of his own career.
I’m interested in your tenacity as a person in the wine business, since we all know that many people don’t take rosé very seriously.
No, they don’t. You know, I’m originally from Bordeaux and was lucky enough to have been born into a wine family, and I traded in Bordeaux for this, to find this in Provence. I had sold my property in Bordeaux in 1999 and it took me eight years and 32 properties that I looked at. When people in Bordeaux found out I was leaving to buy a vineyard in Provence, they thought I was absolutely out of my mind.
Why did you acquire Château d’Esclans in 2006?
Because I felt that something was about to happen with rosé. I felt that the category was going to boom, even though there was no leadership at the time and the wines then were not being taken seriously. There was this whole lifestyle trend that was about to begin, by people with yachts in the Mediterranean – I mean, the best place to drink rosé is in the back of your own yacht. Mr [Roman] Abramovich has my wine, Garrus, on board his yachts, and so does Sir Philip Green of Topshop. Half of Garrus is now drunk by that demographic.
But why not keep doing wine in Bordeaux anyway? Your father sold Château Lascombes in 1971, but you could have bought it back.
Well, I wanted to. I didn’t have the money at the time. But I knew I wanted to build a brand. The interesting thing is, I got to Provence and I saw this 750-acre [304-hectare] property, which is absolutely magnificent, more beautiful than anything I’d ever seen in Bordeaux, so I enlisted the help of Patrick Léon, who for 23 years had made Mouton Rothschild and Opus One and all the rest, and I said let’s do this venture together. I told him we should make something that we feel like drinking. In the event that we can’t sell it, that way at least we’ll enjoy drinking it!
But I understand people are drinking it, especially in the United States.
Yes, we sell 7,000 cases a year in Miami alone. That’s where we started, in the US, because a lot of this is about lifestyle. We wanted to get into places like the Delano and the W and Prime 112, because Miami has become the stopover for South Americans and a lot of Europeans – a lot of the people who are in the Côte d’Azur in the summertime, they go to Miami or they go to the Caribbean via Miami. It’s a fun place to go to eat and drink, and we’ve been hugely successful with this because it’s an attitude thing. They say there’s nothing more powerful than an idea that’s come of age, and we hit the rosé market just at the right period of time. Côtes de Provence to rosé is a bit like what champagne is to sparkling wine.
At the time you began with this in 2006, Château d’Esclans already existed, right?
Yes, it had been owned by a Swedish pension fund, a company called Swedish Match – they made chewing tobacco and they also made matches. I saw it for the first time in 1994. It was for sale, so I went to see it. It was a big risk, because it was a fairly large investment. At the time, I was still living in Bordeaux and I thought that, between the amount of work to be done and having to try and sell rosé, I’m definitely going to go belly-up. You know the old joke – the best way to have a small fortune in the wine business is to start with a big fortune.
On that note, can you talk about your father? He was such a figure of wine legend because of his influence on Robert Parker and how he even coined the term “varietal”.
Yes, my father created it with [business partner Frank] Schoonmaker; he created American wines under American names. Well, you know, those are big shoes to fill. My father created this fantastic reputation and reputations are very hard to acquire and very easy to destroy. He was born in Russia and he was an extraordinary man, but a very difficult and quite demanding individual. I have a tremendous amount of respect for him but he was a terrible father, in the sense that he was very hard on me. But it was a tremendous education for me, too – by just hanging around him, you would meet everybody.
Tell me about your early life. You worked for your father, didn’t you?
Yes, I did. I grew up in New York, went to school up in New England and did college in Boston. I went to Boston University and worked as a sommelier at a place called Anthony’s Pier 4 in Boston, which was the second-largest wine account in the country – we did 8,000 bottles of wine a month. The main thing my father did for me was, he gave me the best piece of advice. He told me: “Don’t join a trend. Set a trend.” Because we want to make a difference, we want to make rosé grand. We’re selling something that’s made with passion.
But surely you can love something without making it your business or work?
I was looking for an opportunity in this industry to make a difference. I didn’t want to make another red wine and compete with Guigal in the Rhône Valley, you know. The idea was to do four different rosés at four different prices. It’s a champagne marketing approach – Garrus is like the original Dom Pérignon, Les Clans is like the Brut Impérial, Château d’Esclans is like the Brut Non-Vintage, and Whispering Angel is the original White Star that Moët & Chandon made. If you make one product, you’ll interest fewer people than if you have a lineage of four different ones. Getting people to spend money on Garrus, that happens mostly in the Mediterranean and in Russia, but I think it can happen in China – we just got into Hainan business jets, with Garrus – they have 35 or 40 business jets now and we’re getting in there.
Nevertheless, how can you convince people it’s worth considering as a serious wine?
It’s all about paleness of colour. These are the only bottles in the wine business that are white besides Sauternes, so colour is extremely important. It’s also funny how this is driven by women. This was initially put on the map by English women, who would come to the South of France and love the fact that it’s pretty in pink and that it begins a bit white and finishes a bit red. And it’s something you can drink before, during and after a meal, and it doesn’t blacken your teeth. You have to remember that rosé once had a terrible connotation, in the days of Mateus and Lancers, where it was thought of as cheap and Portuguese. And White Zinfandel in the United States didn’t help. But rosé champagne has helped us tremendously, as a category. Rosé champagne, 25 years ago, nobody knew anything about it and now it’s more expensive than regular white champagne and many people prefer it.
No disrespect to you and those Hainan private jets, but are you aware of the perception in China that red wine must somehow be better?
Yes, of course – the idea is to get men to drink rosé. I’ve had couples come to me and the men say, “You know, I never wanted to touch this stuff but she keeps bringing it home and she keeps making me drink it and finally, I did and I found it delicious and I can’t get enough of it myself!” There you go, that’s what happens, and that’s why we want to get through to the women – because they exert influence on the men. We know that!