The Whispering Angels

There’s no doubt the marketing of Provence’s rosé wines is slick, the implied St Tropez lifestyle, fancy bottles and jewel-like colour of the wines all contributing to their outstanding success in recent decades. Of course, the quality of the wines is generally high too, but if there is any accusation that could be levelled at the category, it is of a certain ‘sameness’. So many of the £10 examples that crowd UK shelves each summer look good, taste good, but are pretty much indistinguishable from each other.

Sacha LichineThere are exceptions, and consistently excelling in terms of fruit refinement and precision is Whispering Angel, a brand of Château d’Esclans and its owner, Sacha Lichine. Born in Bordeaux to a famous wine family (owners of Châteaux Prieuré Lichine and Lascombes) Sacha Lichine was educated in the USA and worked in various aspects of the wine industry there, as well as working with his father Alexis Lichine in their French businesses.

When Alexis died in 1999, Sacha began his search for a Provence estate which, in 2006, brought him to the large but somewhat neglected Château d’Esclans. Sacha says he saw “strong developmental opportunities,” for the Château and its wines to become “more serious from a production standpoint in addition to being served and consumed more broadly.”  The ambition was furthered in 2019, when LVMH purchased a 55% stake in Château d’Esclans to help develop and pursue ‘premiumization’ of the  portfolio.

Whispering Angel is not the only Provence rosé from Château d’Esclans however. In all there are six within the portfolio, the five wines tasted here, plus ‘The Palm’, their entry level rosé which I have tasted previously.

Château d’Esclans

One of the selling points for Sacha Lichine must have been the beautiful château itself, with its rolling hillsides of vineyard and forest, lying northeast of St. Tropez. Over the years 70% of the vineyards have been replanted, but not the 100-year-old Grenache that is the source of the extraordinary, barrel-fermented Garrus cuvée. The estate’s second-line grape is the white Vermentino (or Rolle) but also Cinsault, Merlot, Mourvèdre, Syrah, and the local speciality variety, Tibouren.

Bertrand Léon and Jean-Claude Neu are the technical and winemaking team here, Bertrand succeeding his father, Patrick, as Technical Director since 2011 and Jean-Claude on-board since the beginning. Harvesting takes place from sunrise to noon to avoid the heat of the day and, at the cellar, fruit is sorted manually, before going through a second layer of optical sorting – a computer-controlled system that ensures only grapes with the right physical characteristics of shape, size, colour and condition make the grade.

Whispering Angel is made in stainless steel from a combination of estate fruit and fruit from trusted local growers. Stepping up the pyramid of wines, Rock Angel is partly barrel-fermented in large oak and, like Whispering Angel, made from Grenache, Cinsault and Vermentino. The Château d’Esclans cuvée also sees partial barrel-fermentation, but Cinsault is not used in this or the top two wines, Les Clans and Garrus, both of which are entirely fermented and aged in oak.

Though few and far between, there are other barrel-fermented rosé wines, including some Provence wines, but Esclans has arguably created a new category of rosé, treating it very much like a fine white Burgundy for example, with ancient vines, careful fruit selection, and vinification and elevage in barrels to create intense wines that also retain delicacy and balance. A £100 bottle of rosé is always going to elicit some scepticism (especially among those who have not tasted it), but to my mind Esclans is stretching the boundaries for rosé wine, with a legitimate claim to making the world’s finest.

The Wines

I tasted the four top wines of Château d’Esclans from the fine 2019 vintage, plus the brand new 2020 release of Whispering Angel.

(2021) Pale peach in colour, this 2020 wine very youthful with some pear drop character that will subside, a little cherry note and soft red berry fruits. On the palate Whispering Angel's trademark combination of elegant, cool precision with very easy-going, open and attractive fruitiness. Nicely textured, the raspberry fruit and edge of acidity is ripe but bone dry,  and there's a hint of stony minerality adding to the sophistication of the finish.
(2021) Partially barrel fermented in large oak barrels, Rock Angel is made from Grenache, Cinsault and Rolle. A slightly deeper, peachier colour than the other wines tasted here, and a peachier fruit character too: aromatically some floral character, orange and that peach down softness. There's substance on the palate here: yes, there is charming stone fruit and light strawberry character, but a bit of grip too, the barrel component, keen acidity and a touch of tannin even giving real gastronomic credentials. For me the (comparatively) meatiest of the Esclans line-up, but just delicious.
(2021) This is Esclans estate wine, no cuvée name except 'Château d’Esclans', made from Grenache and Rolle, partly vinified in demi-muids (600-litre big barrels). There's a white peppery, stony character here, taut with lemon zest and cool Asian pear fruit aromas, the oak transparent. In the mouth the texture is creamy (the barrel ageing and lees stirring no doubt helping with that) and the fruit is bright, a little red apple but mostly a dry redcurrant, a hint of peach, then zipping, saline acidity to extend the finish.
(2021) The blend here is old vine Grenache, Vermentino and Syrah, a selection of fruit, with fermentation and 10 months ageing in 600-litre barrels, new and second use. It immediately gives an impression of cool precision on the nose, a little lemon and lemon bon-bon note, yes some small, taut red berries, but intense, salty and mineral like a slatey dry Riesling in some ways, the oak more or less imperceptable in the aroma. In the mouth there's a sweetness to the fruit, a little dusting of icing sugar over frozen red berries, just giving up their juiciness, but again this is ultra-cool and elegant. The oak adds a creaminess, as much to the texture as the flavour, and the poise and effortless elegance extends and clarifies into a long, long finish. Superb, and though different from Garrus, for me giving more or less equal pleasure.
(2021) Garrus is made from a single vineyard of nearly 100 year-old Grenache vines, blended with a little Rolle (Vermentino), and fermented in new and second-use French oak barrels of 600-litres, where it is aged for a further 10 months with batonnage. The colour is still delicate and appealing, but the nose is intriguing: the herbs and light floral and summer fruit scents are there, but it seems deeper, it seems as though it is a rosé that is holding something in reserve and not putting it all there from the start. In the mouth it is bone dry, and though there's a hint of passion fruit and even mango, that is soon tempered and calmed by a serious bit of structure, salts and lemon acids yes, but also an intensity of small red berries from cranberry to redcurrant, the concentration seeming to build in the mouth. It's a wine that plays mind-games with you, seeming like a typically fresh, floral and herb-strewn Provence pink one minute, perhaps a delicate and feminine Pinot Noir the next, and yet with the texture and balance of a fine white wine. Truly something exceptional and will cellar positively too.

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