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