I admit that I have always had doubts about rosé, where the compromises you have to make to get the color right sometimes seem to be at the expense of flavor. I could understand the position of the sommelier at a Michelin-starred London restaurant, who when I said I was going to visit producers in Provence, commented “Rosé is not wine.” The tricky thing is that you make rosé more or less like a white wine, but from black grapes. Can you really make an interesting wine from black grapes if you’re constrained by needing to harvest earlier (to maintain freshness), so the grapes don’t reach the ripeness levels they would have for making red wine?
For my palate, rosé should avoid showing overt red berry notes and should be savory, perhaps even slightly saline. That is probably why in general I don’t much favor rosés made from Grenache, which basically accounts for most of French production, from Provence, Languedoc, and the Rhône. Nor do I like the slightly sickly quality of most rosé from the Loire, which is required to have 10 g/l residual sugar. (I am inclined to think it’s a bit of a waste to use Cabernet to make sweet rosé.) My preference in rosé tends to be for Sancerre, coming from Pinot Noir, and at its best showing an elegant minerality. (One of the best rosés I have had was declassified from the Clos des Lambrays in Burgundy.)
The movement towards producing “premium” rosés in Provence seems to be in the right direction as I find they usually tend to show less red berry fruits and more savory minerality. (I’m not convinced, however, by the move towards defining sub-appellations for the Côtes de Provence on the basis of terroir, as so far differences in the wines seem to relate more to vinification than to terroir. I will be very interested if anyone demonstrates terroir in rosé.)
Château d’Esclans is at the extreme end of the move towards premium rosé. I tasted all four of its cuvées this week. Whispering Angel, of course, has taken the world of rosé by storm, although actually it comes mostly from purchased grapes. Even though it’s the entry level, I think it has a very good balance of fruity to savory elements, giving it some flavor interest. Moving to the chateau wine, which goes further into the premium class, the balance shift a little more in the savory direction. With the two super-premium cuvées, Les Clans and Garrus, there’s a real sense of underlying structure. Tasting the 2011, Les Clans is now just right, but Garrus has a slightly phenolic or even tannic impression suggesting that it actually needs a little more time.
I asked owner Sasha Lichine what makes the difference between the cuvées: terroir? yields? grape varieties? vinification? “All the wines start out in the same way. Temperature is brought down to about 8 °C with dry ice, the wine goes into closed presses under nitrogen, and as soon as juice comes out it is tasted and assigned to one of the four cuvées. The wines come 90% from free run juice, with the rest from pressing, so there is essentially no maceration. The cold system is the key,” Sasha explains. “What used to happen in Provence was that people were picking too early and then macerating to get the color out. We manage to pick a bit later and riper.”
All the wines are dominated by Grenache, but there’s a small change in other varieties going up the ladder. There’s also a change in vinification: Whispering Angel spends a short period in cuve, Château d’Esclans spends six months in cuve and wood, and Les Clans and Garrus spend ten months maturing half in cuves and half in old demi-muids (600 liter casks) with frequent battonage. You can see the extra richness that comes from the battonage.
There are some differences in sources–Garrus tends to come from the oldest vines–but the basic difference between cuvées is selection. “For the first vintage of Garrus we just creamed off the best three barrels, and then for Les Clans we creamed off again,” Sasha recollects. What’s the intended difference in style? “As you go up the ladder, the wine fills your mouth more, you should not necessarily taste the wood, the wine should keep its freshness, and by Garrus you should get tiny tannins.” The change along the range is a striking demonstration that rosé is not necessarily just rosé, but that it can have distinctive character and (to some extent) ageworthiness. As this is unprecedented for rosé, it’s hard to judge how softening with time will play out against development of flavor, but at a rough guess I would be inclined to drink Whispering Angel and Château d’Esclans when they are released, Les Clans about three years after the vintage, and Garrus about five years after. The relative prices of the cuvées more or less indicate their relationship. When Sasha purchased Château d’Esclans in 2006, he was quoted as saying his aim was “to make the best rosé in the world.” Whether Garrus is the best rosé in the world is debatable, of course, but it is probably the most expensive.