The intriguing pink wines from southern France seem like they have always been with us. But it took some bold pioneers to bring them to our shores.
Château d’Esclans, home of Whispering Angel, is nestled in the heart of the Provence region.
Sometime this summer, if it hasn’t happened already, you will be gazing out over a twinkling marina, or across an elegant garden party, and you will take a sip of the cool pink wine in your glass, and you will think to yourself, “This tastes really good.”
You should pause, then, and thank Sacha Lichine. Raise a glass to the man. Because before he and a small group of dedicated wine professionals came along, you’d likely have been drinking a thin sauvignon blanc, or (shudder) a light beer or maybe even a flabby Chardonnay supplemented with an ice cube.
Perhaps more than anyone else, Lichine, son of the late pioneering French wine ambassador Alexis Lichine, is responsible for the rosé revolution of the past 15 years or so. It was a grassroots effort, if carrying duffel bags full of wine to the swankest boîtes in Miami and Nantucket can be called that, and it essentially forged a new category of summer pleasure. “We created a product that was quite unique because, initially, rosé in France was kind of dark and juicy, almost syrupy,” he says. “I think everyone has sort of begun to realize that Provence rosés are the benchmark.”
The beautifully restored 19th-century Château d’Esclans is easily reached from the Mediterranean coast.
Bordeaux born, Lichine has done almost everything there is to do in the wine business. He grew up working on his family’s former properties and, subsequently, served as a sommelier and distributor, and even lead luxury wine tours. Today Lichine owns Château d’Esclans, producer of the enormously popular Whispering Angel rosé and its more rarefied siblings Rock Angel; Les Clans; and, above all, Garrus, produced from 90-year-old vines atop a hillside on the property. Made in very limited quantities, Garrus is the only rosé offered as part of the Grand Tour events put on by Wine Spectator. In many ways, this exquisite wine is the genesis of the brand. When he started out in 2006, Lichine engaged Patrick Léon, a friend of his father, to help him with his audacious mission to “make rosé grand.” (Léon passed away last December.)
“Sacha’s vision with Patrick was to produce the best rosés in the world,” says Paul Chevalier, national fine wine director for Shaw-Ross International Importers, which handles d’Esclans wines. “Patrick had been with Château Mouton Rothschild for something like 20 years and had been part of the original startup when Baron Philippe and Robert Mondavi got together to create Opus One. So what happened was Whispering Angel became the engine—but it wasn’t planned that way.”
Today, Whispering Angel is in more than 100 countries and, with its siblings, can be found on the lists of elevated establishments in (among numerous other destinations) St.Tropez, St. Barts, Hong Kong and Tokyo—not to mention all across the U.S. Rosé continues to boom as a wine category in the U.S., and of the 2 million cases of Provence rosé sold last year, Whispering Angel accounted for more than 20 percent. The scale creates a touch of irony, given that the origin of the project was highly personal.
“Something for my taste is what I produced,” Lichine says. “Something precise, well-made, crisp, with a lot of flavor and ripe acidities. I’m very happy to have done it because I’m much happier drinking rosé than a huge cabernet at 15 percent alcohol that makes your teeth black.”
Sacha Lichine, proprietor of Whispering Angel, was born and raised in Bordeaux.
When well-heeled daydreamers daydream of chucking it all and moving to the south of France, what they really mean, more specifically, is Provence. They may not know it, but, in fact, what they are thinking of is Whispering Angel’s home base—Château d’Esclans.
“It’s a magnificent place,” Lichine says, “one of the most beautiful vineyards and properties that I’ve ever seen.” When he bought the estate in 2006, he says, “it was in terrible condition, but the vineyards were extraordinary.” Now offering a capacious visitors’ center, the chateau, built in the mid-19th century, sits 45 minutes from St-Tropez, 40 minutes from Cannes and a 20-minute ride from the glorious lavender fields of the region. The ancient Roman port of Fréjus is about 15 miles away.
The entire property comprises 659 acres, of which 108 are planted. The main varietal is grenache, with a healthy complement of vermentino. It’s a worthy detour, if a vacation should take you that way. But as much as he appreciates the place and its natural beauty, the wines remain Lichine’s focus. “I think the 2017 Garrus, after 12 years of making it, is probably the best one we’ve ever made,” he says. “It just gets better every year.”
Photography by: Photos courtesy of Château d’Esclans