By Michael Apstein
Sacha Lichine’s upbringing in Bordeaux explains to me why his rosés from Provence are so stunning. Of course, it helps that Lichine’s consulting enologist, Patrick Léon, was, for almost 20 years, the Managing Director in charge of the vineyards and winemaking for all of Baron Philippe de Rothschild’s properties, including Château Mouton Rothschild.
It’s not that Lichine was just born in Bordeaux. His upbringing put Bordeaux in his heart and soul. I wouldn’t be surprised if, supposing you put a needle in his veins, you found red Bordeaux instead of blood. His father, Alexis, was well connected and a larger-than-life fixture in the Bordeaux wine trade. The rest of the close-knit trade was shocked–perhaps even horrified—when he opened third-growth Château Prieuré-Lichine in the 1960s to visitors and tourists and allowed them to taste the wines.
Alexis had purchased the run-down property (at that time called Château Prieuré-Cantenac) in 1951, renovated it, upgraded the vineyards, and renamed it. Through Alexis Lichine’s many books and his wine importing company, he was responsible, in large measure, for introducing the wines of Bordeaux to an American population eager to learn about them after World War II.
Sacha was raised at Château Prieuré-Lichine, which lies just north of the city of Bordeaux in the commune of Margaux. He worked in the vineyard during the summers as a kid before moving to the U.S. for his university education. While in the U.S., he was never far from the wine industry, working as a sommelier at the late, great Anthony’s Pier 4 in Boston, and also for a large wine distributor, Southern Wine and Spirits. He returned to Bordeaux in 1987, at the age of 27, to manage Château Prieuré-Lichine and continued to upgrade it until he sold it in 1999.
He had been looking for a property in Provence since 1994 because, as he puts it, “The weather’s lousy in Bordeaux. The rain gets to you.” He felt there was “an untapped category” in dry rosé, a category which he believes is “here to stay.” He compares the difference between high-quality dry Côtes du Provence rosé and the rest of the “pink stuff” to the difference between Champagne and sparkling wine. Finally, in 2006, Lichine acquired Château d’Esclans in Provence.
Changing the Face of Rosé
Château d’Esclans, located in the South of France about 15 miles north of St. Tropez in the heart of the Côtes du Provence appellation, comprises about 650 acres, about 100 of which are planted with the usual Mediterranean varieties. Grenache accounts for 75 percent of the plantings–Lichine is particularly proud of their 10 acres of 80-year old Grenache–while Vermentino, (a.k.a. Rolle), which Sacha says, “fills out the middle and adds a roundness,” occupies 20 percent of the vineyards. Cinsault, Mourvèdre, Syrah, Tibouren round out the blend for the rosés. Lichine is emphatic that Grenache is the key, imparting fruitiness and verve. Syrah, for him, can be “candied” and inelegant. He’s seeks restraint and elegance in his rosés.
Like many other top French producers, Lichine produces two remarkable lines of rosé, an estate bottling and a négociant bottling, whose labels are superficially almost identical, potentially creating confusion. Château d’Esclans is the label for their three estate wines from their own vineyards, including those 80-year Grenache vines (Château d’Esclans priced at $40, Les Clans at $60, and Garrus at $100). Given Lichine’s and Léon’s experience and contacts, it’s not surprising that they also buy grapes and produce one of the most engaging–and well-priced–rosés I’ve tasted recently, Whispering Angel (priced at $20), under their Caves d’Esclans label.
Lichine emphasizes that the key to quality lies in “watching the details,” which is undoubtedly true, and likely results from his Bordeaux heritage. Still, I think there’s more than just that behind the outstanding quality of these wines–an 800-pound gorilla in the room you, if you will. To understand the gorilla, you need to understand how most rosé is made.
Most Rosé Is a Leftover
Most rosé is a by-product of what the French call saignée, literally, “bleeding,” a technique used to beef-up red wines. Winemakers use this technique to make a bigger, bolder red. The rosé is merely a by-product, essentially a left over. The focus remains on the quality of the red wine, not the rosé. With the saignée method, the winemaker removes a portion of juice, which has become pink after a day or two of fermentation, concentrating the remaining red wine by increasing the ratio of grape skins to liquid. The pink juice finishes fermentation apart from the skins, and voilà, a rosé is born. While there’s nothing wrong with this process, the primary purpose of bleeding is to enhance what’s left–to make a better red wine.
Rosé and Nothing But Rosé
Since Lichine’s focus is on high quality rosé, every decision in the vineyard–from pruning to deciding when to harvest–and every decision at the winery (from the use of stainless steel tanks versus oak barrels) is based on making the best possible rosé. His rosés are certainly not a by-product of red wine production. This laser-like focus on rosé is not unique to Lichine. Indeed, in Tavel, an appellation just west of Avignon, regulations permit production solely of rosé. Nonetheless, Lichine thinks that the Côtes du Provence area is a superior locale by comparison to Tavel and is capable of producing more elegant wines.
Formula for Quality
Lichine’s focus on quality starts in the vineyard by picking ripe, but not over-ripe grapes, often harvesting later than his neighbors. He believes that many other producers harvest too early because they are afraid of getting too much color in their rosés. The result, in his mind, is under-ripe grapes that lack flavor.
He’s not fearful that riper grapes will impart too much color because his second compulsion is to always keep the grapes and fermenting juice cold by harvesting at night, sometimes putting dry ice in the small crates, and reducing the temperature during fermentation even when the wine is fermenting in barrel.
Perhaps most importantly, he wants to avoid any oxidation of the juice to maintain freshness and verve in the wine. To that end, he doesn’t macerate (let the juice and skins sit together) but prefers instead to use free-run juice, which explains why his rosés, especially the upper end ones, are so pale. He believes the combination of a later harvest, keeping everything cold, and using free run juice produces a wine with both intensity and elegance.
The first time I tasted Caves d’Esclans Whispering Angel several years ago, I realized this represented a different class of rosé. It had complexity and length. In short, it was real wine. The 2013 ($20), a mixture of estate and purchased grapes, is beautifully floral, redolent of fresh strawberries, with great length and plenty of depth to accompany the most flavorful summertime fare. (91).
The 2012 Chateau d’Esclans ($40), a blend of Grenache, Rolle and Syrah from the estate, though paler–indeed, barely pink–is weightier, longer and more elegant. (93 points, by my evaluation).
A portion of the 2012 Les Clans ($60), a blend of old-vine Grenache and Rolle, is fermented in large, 600-liter, barrels and treated as if it were Burgundy, undergoing bâttonage (stirring the lees) to increase complexity. Paler still, it is a captivating wine that draws you in slowly and prevents you from leaving. It’s testimony to the heights rosé can achieve when done meticulously. (95 points).
Garrus is a “yacht” wine, in a sense. Lichine relates that a yacht builder wanted dimensions of the 3-liter bottle because a customer wanted a custom built refrigerator on board. A blend of 80-year old Grenache and Rolle, the barely colored 2012 Garrus ($100) has weight, but no heaviness, stone fruit flavors and an appealing hint of bitterness in the finish that reminds me of a high-end white Rhône wine. (94 points).
With these wines, it is now abundantly clear that Lichine, along with his consulting winemaker Léon, has begun to change our perception of rosé.