As I said in my Around the world in rosé blog, I'm a great admirer of the wines from Sacha Lichine's d'Esclans estate in Côtes de Provence, including Whispering Angel, which technically isn’t an estate wine because the grapes are partly sourced from outside the Château’s own 44ha of vineyards (hence the label Cave d'Esclans, not Château). I've been following the estate more or less since the beginning and each year's wines seem to be better than the last. When, 12 years ago, Lichine bought the estate near the Gorge de Pennafort 25km NW of coastal Fréjus, it was with the intention of making the best rosé in the world. A bold aim at a time when few winemakers, beyond the confines of rosé-dominant regions such as Provence and Tavel, took pink wine remotely seriously and an era when the white wine market in France was still notably larger than the rosé market. It would be hard now to argue that Lichine has not achieved his goal. Not only that but, in raising the bar with the quality of his own wines, he has transformed perceptions and production of rosé globally.
One of his first steps in 2006 was to enlist oenologist Patrick Léon, ex-Chateau Mouton Rothschild and MD of the whole Baron Philippe de Rothschild empire. He is still consultant oenologist, although it’s his son Bertrand Léon who is now technical director. Cellar master Jean-Claude Neu came to d’Esclans, newly graduated in viticulture and oenology, at the beginning.
From the start old vines were critical. The oldest Grenache, the predominant variety, is now over 90 years, with the oldest vines lying at the highest elevations. The second variety is Rolle (aka Vermentino) and there are small amounts of Cinsault, Merlot, Mourvèdre, Syrah, and Tibouren. Burgundian cellar techniques were the other key to Château d'Esclans: fermentation and ageing in French oak barrels (new and second-year, 600-litres) and Burgundian-style bâtonnage for 10 months for Les Clans and Garrus, partial oak fermentation for Rock Angel and bâtonnage for Whispering Angel.
This year's releases are 2017 for Whispering Angel and Rock Angel and 2016 for Les Clans and Garrus. My notes are below but, for those who have no appetite for tasting notes, I just emphasise how delicious, polished and ground-breaking the wines are. Tasting the 2016 Garrus, I could see myself mistaking it for a great white Burgundy in a blind tasting, although as it matures it may take on some of the character of red Burgundy, as previous vintages have done.
Cave d'Esclans Whispering Angel 2017, Cotes de Provence
Floral perfume, cherry, pomegranate and orange zest on the palate, delicately succulent with the signature silky suppleness and ocean-spray fresh finish. 13.5%
£16.65–£22.95, widely stocked, including Hennings, Exel Wines, Slurp, Divine Fine Wines, Hedonism, Waitrose and Majestic
Château d'Esclans Rock Angel 2017, Cotes de Provence
Slightly more structured and richer textured than Whispering Angel, with a deeper mineral note base note and youthful bitter-orange streak. 14.0%.
£23.50,–£30.50, Divine Fine Wines, House of Townend, Hedonism
Château d'Esclans Les Clans 2016, Cotes de Provence
Very pale salmon. Nose of exotic spices, sweet orange, peach, lemon and vanilla, and a savoury-sweet murmur of red Burgundy, yet rivetingly fresh. The palate is ample, succulent, almost opulent at first, but then it draws in, finer-boned and long. There’s a concentration and intensity, but it’s effortless. Outstanding. The second half of the bottle was even better the next day. 14.0%
No single-bottle retailer yet, but £720 for 12 in bond, BI Wine
Château d'Esclans Garrus 2016, Cotes de Provence
Very, very pale. Nose of citrus, spring flowers, vanilla and spice. On the palate, cream, sweet citrus, apricot and red summer berries. A little more luscious, creamy and intense than Les Clans, with sweet, toasty length. Very long with a bright, citrus finish, but nothing remotely sharp in it. Burgundian in shape and flavour: I could see myself mistaking it for a great white Burgundy in a blind tasting (a truly blind tasting where I couldn't see the colour), although as they’ve matured some previous vintages of Garrus have taken on some of the character of red Burgundy. Outstanding. The second half of the bottle enjoyed just as much the next day. 14.0%
No single-bottle retailer yet, but £380 per jeroboam (3l), Millesima
Photographs by Joanna Simon