Every once in a while there comes a time when a particular grape, wine region, or style of wine achieves esteem and popularity due to the efforts of a single brand or vintner. It may be marketing muscle, a bold idea or simply the tenacity of a maker that leads the grape, the wine style or the region to be viewed in a new light.
One example was Cloudy Bay. Winemaker Kevin Judd and Australian vintner David Hohnen introduced palates around the planet to the grassy, fruit forward wines from Marlborough, New Zealand, when they created the brand. New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc became a sensation and the wine led to New Zealand becoming a major wine exporter.
In the 1980s and ’90s, French wine merchant George Duboeuf made Beaujolais a household word when he turned the French tradition of racing the freshest Beaujolais from the vineyards to Paris into a global event. Duboeuf placed his wines on the Concorde supersonic jet, getting them to New York and hosting extravagant parties to celebrate their arrival. The campaign boosted sales and recognition of what was previously a simple vin ordinare.
And then there was Piero Antinori, who bucked 600 years of family tradition by blending wines using Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc grapes in defiance of Italian wine law. Tignanello’s success not only changed the rules for Italian wines, it created a new category of wines called “Super-Tuscans” that have been a boon for the region.
And now, the wine of the moment is Rosé. While the explosion of Rosé is surely the result of myriad factors, the efforts of Sacha Lichine and the wines he makes in Provence at Château d’Esclans must be acknowledged in any discussion about its increasing popularity.
Rosé consumption in the U.S. has spiraled over the last half-decade, with much of the growth coming from overseas. According to the trade organization Wines of Provence, the Nielson research organization that tracks such things, “U.S. retail sales of imported Rosé wine priced above $12 a bottle grew by 23% on dollars and 28% on volume in 2012. This represents a growth rate more than 15 times that of total retail table wine sales.” The U.S. is the No. 2 Rosé market in the world, trailing only France. And this trend is not expected to wither soon.
Sacha Lichine is a Bordeaux-born, New York City-bred, wine savant. The son of the late Alexis Lichine, one of the most influential wine writers and importers of the last century, Sacha has done just about everything there is to do in the wine business. His career has seen him work as a sommelier in Boston (Anthony’s Pier 4), run a Bordeaux house (Château Prieuré Lichine), and open a negociant business (Borvin), selling the best of Bordeaux wines.
But in 2006 he took a southeasterly turn and, like Hohnen, Duboeuf and Antinori before him, chose a different track, one that would have a profound effect on a region and a wine style.
Sacha purchased and restored a rundown estate about 30 minutes from St. Tropez that was blessed with 80-year-old Grenache vines and began to meticulously make high-end Rosé that bucked the current conventions of the wine style. He produced premium products and began selling them with prices to match. Working with Patrick Leon, a legendary Bordeaux winemaker who worked with Baron Phillipe de Rothschild for two decades, Sacha has created a line of world-class wines and diligently marketed them to a high-end clientele.
At the low end of the price spectrum is the Whispering Angel label, which sells for around $20 a bottle and has become a darling of America’s finest restaurants’ “by the glass” offerings this summer. The 2011 vintage received a 90-point rating from the Wine Spectator and, according to the Spectator, U.S. imports of Whispering Angel rose to 42,000 cases from 33,000 last year. You can taste Whispering Angel at The Little Nell and the Ajax Tavern. At the high end is a wine called “Garrus,” which sells for around $100 a bottle, making it reportedly the highest priced Rosé in the world.
Over the last half-dozen years, Paul Chevalier, the National Fine Wine Director for the importer Shaw-Ross, has been coming to the Aspen Food & Wine Classic and pouring the wines of Chateau d’Esclcans. “When we first started, no one knew Whispering Angel or even what Rosé was,” Paul remembered as he poured me a glass for the sixth straight year. “People would hear Rosé and think, ‘White Zinfandel’ or ‘Mateus’ (a Portuguese Rosé popular in the 1970s). Now, because of Sacha’s vision, making wines of quality and pouring them at significant events and influential restaurants, it has become a significant wine.”
There is little doubt that the emergence of Rosé to a place of stature in today’s world of wine owes a debt to the contributions and vision of Sacha Lichine and Château d’Esclans.
Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass with his wife, Linda, and a black Lab named Vino. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.