An hour or so’s coach ride towards the coast between Cannes and St Tropez brought us to Chateau d’Esclans. Sacha Lichine, a scion of the family who own (among other properties) Chateau Prieure Lichine in Bordeaux, identified in 2006 that there was a role for Provence in the growing interest in the USA in rosé wine. Not quite single-handedly he has put Provence rosé firmly on the international wine map with the Whispering Angel brand, now the US’s best selling Appellation Controlée wine.
Serious house envy started early on in the day as we walked past Sacha’s house – not open to the public, but with stunning views across the vineyards towards the Med.
Luckily, our host, Christian, was up to the task of keeping us focused on the true purpose of our visit, and he gave us a marvellous exposition of the estate’s history, its current leading role making premium rosé wines, and led us on a tour of some of the most advanced technology I’ve seen in a winery.
On a rather contradictory note, the first thing we passed was the mobile bottling line – a truck which was merrily bottling away at the back of the winery. D’Esclans produces many millions of bottles each year, so I assumed this must be for some special very small volume line but Christian said no, of all the investments d’Esclans is making, the bottling line comes last – though one is to be added at some point in the current phase of building works.
Christian first showed us the optical grape sorter, which after hand sorting of the bunches, and destalking, ensures that any individual berries that are unripe or otherwise faulty are spat out. Worth coming back at harvest to see I feel!
We walked past the huge pneumatic presses, and then another first, above our heads, amid the stainless steel tanks, were the huge bags which hold the nitrogen used in the presses while they are not in use during harvest. The final ‘new was the ‘umbilical cord’ as Christian described it, that kept the top of the range Garrus wine cool during barrel fermentation.
Our tasting of the d’Esclans range was an education in great rosé. We started with flagship Whispering Angel, grown on the clay soil of the valley, made both from d’Esclans and bought in grapes.
Despite the huge quantities in which it is made, this is a classy wine! A fresh alpine strawberry with icing sugar nose, with great acidity in perfect balance with some serious fruit on the palate. What a start!
Rock Angel, made from grapes grown in the valley, but with more first press juice and half spending time in 2-3 year old oak barrels, was a more serious wine – a bit more restrained on the nose, but greater structure, still good acidity but a lovely creamy feel.
And on to the serious stuff – €99/bottle for Garrus, grown at the very top of the neighbouring slopes, the fruit from 80 year old vines. It was truly lovely, delicate, beautiful red fruit, a hint of minerality and perfect match of fruit, acidity and tannin. We tasted the 2016, and I wish I had a few hundred euros spare to buy some bottles to bring home.
I had expected not to ‘like’ d’Esclans, because it was so big and so commercial. But Christian’s entertaining delivery charmed me, and the wine was so good that I came away quite the fan. Like a champagne house, they are dedicated to producing high quality wine with a consistent style, and need the scale to do so – blending the grape varieties in different combinations depending on the outcome of the growing season. And to have achieved this huge scale in just over 10 years is truly amazing.
If our morning had been an education in branding, the afternoon at Mirabeau en Provence was a masterclass. Stephen and Jeany Cronk took their family from Teddington (round the corner from us) to Cotignac at about the same time Sacha Lichine was setting up d’Esclans. Their three children went to the local school, Jeany set about renovating the house and Stephen started his campaign to become a winemaker.
In a very entertaining presentation Stephen shared their story with us, and we all recognised what great advice he had been given – focus on which of the “v’s” of wine you are good at – la viticulture (grape growing), la vinification (wine making) or la vente (sales). Stephen is without doubt a salesman. He won a listing in Waitrose without showing them a wine, and has built his business with them up to four wines listed in 600 stores, without a vineyard or a winery. He did this by charming the best producers he could find to supply him their best wines (at the best prices), and employing a genius winemaker (Nathalie) who, like the winemakers at d’Esclans, understood what people like in rosé wine, and how to blend wines from each year’s harvest to come up with very high quality consistent styles.
The first two “v’s” covered, Stephen has undertaken a relentless mission to get Mirabeau wines in the right place at the right time internationally. They are listed in some of the top hotels in the world, you can drink them at Goodwood races, and they have been judged (and judged to be very good) in all the top wine competitions and by many of the top wine writers, including Robert Parker. Stephen took particular delight in the fact that his wines regularly get more points than the far bigger and more famous names in Provence rosé, and his International Wine Challenge Trophy was in clear view.
And as with the best modern brands, Mirabeau can be discovered even without a glass in one’s hand. Jeany has led the efforts on social media, including 300 films on YouTube (Stephen’s lesson in how to open a bottle of wine without a corkscrew has been viewed nearly 12 million times!), and much liked Facebook and Instagram pages. Jeanny’s great taste in home design has won them coverage in major interiors magazines – look out for next month’s Homes & Gardens in the UK, and their lovely vaulted office/shop/tasting room in the centre of Cotignac held some of the pretty things that she sells.
So, after all this emphasis on brands, without a step into the vineyard or a the chance to step over hoses in a winery, were we treated to a tasting of soul-less pink drink? Of course not. On the terrace above their premises we had a lovely simple lunch (see picture at top) accompanied by their wines – the rosés all readily available in the UK. Note I have given up talking about blends – Cinsault, Syrah, Grenache all go into the blends, and the rosé wines we tasted were from 2017.
Mirabeau Classic had a lovely cherry/raspberry nose, with a good structure, the creaminess overcoming the dryness – this is a classic Provence rosé.
Pure was more restrained, with herbaceous notes on the nose, richer and more structured on the palate, Étoile was richer still. And with our pudding we had their fizz, La Folie, which they make using the charmant method (used for prosecco) – secondary fermentation takes place in tank. Very dry with a soft mousse, perfect for a hot Provence afternoon.
My favourite wine of the afternoon was La Falaise red. Made in partnership with Sylvan, the winemaker at Richeaume who we had visited yesterday, we tasted the 2014 (we’d tasted Richeaume’s comparable wine from the 2015 vintage), and it was super – a friendly nose with dark plums and berries and great balance of fruit and tannin.
It’s a good sign when nobody wants to leave a tasting, but the Cronks and their lovely staff had work to do, so Tim ushered us out and we boarded the bus and were back in Aix by 5.30pm. Our relatively light lunch meant we had room for some dinner, and I’m looking forward to hearing about what everyone got up to.