by Chuck Ferrin (The Fifth Drink)
Tasting the Wines of Chateau D’Esclans
I’ve seen it with my own eyes—the rose train full steam ahead. People ask me for “rose” every day. They don’t talk of “rose wine” or “blush”; often no particular brand is specified or even known. They just know they want rose. Dry and serious, still or sparkling,America has a new love affair with pink. Like it or not, we’re all in the Rose Renaissance.
To be fair, Europe has been loving and guzzling rose for thousands of years. Many European wine regions specialize in rose, and France even has Tavel, a region in the Rhone Valley that can only make rose by law. Yet, dry rose has only recently had a coming out party in the United States, because pink long meant White Zinfandel–the sweet, tart juice that dominated our sugar-coated world since the 1970’s.
White Zinfandel isn’t a bad drink; it just has a limited window of appreciation. Once you’ve tried one, you pretty much know what to expect from the rest. Dry rose, on the other hand, can become truly special in the hands of a thoughtful winemaker.
And no American city is more suited to welcome in this new age of rose appreciation than Miami. At the forefront of this salmon sea change, resident rapper Rick Ross has reinvented himself as Rick Rose, wisely intuiting that rose champagne now holds the conch as the de rigueur club and party juice.
This rose fascination makes perfect sense if you live in Miami, because this town takes to pink like a Sonny Crockett blazer. Our sky transforms to a neon pink hue with every sunset, our trees and bushes are often flushed with pink blossoms and many of our buildings are painted in a rosy hue. If I turned on 790 The Ticket and heard that Stephen Ross had changed his name to Steve Rose and added pink to the Dolphins ensemble of teal and coral, I would take their reporting seriously (this is, after all, a city that named their football stadium after an underwear brand).
In truth, the thing that makes Miami a Rose Kind of Town is the weather and the food. Warm weather and rose go together like horses and hay, because it’s just too hot and humid for red wine all the time. In addition, Miami’s Caribbean and Latin American cuisine is often rich and spicy, which is challenging to pair with reds but rather easy for rose. And while white wine may work well in both instances, just like Albert Goldman’s socks, you need a touch of color now and then.
With that in mind, I’m going to make a rather bold statement: I can’t think of any wines more relevant to Miami than the roses of Chateau d’Esclans. While few critics are willing to stack any rose side-by-side with a First Growth Bordeaux or Grand Cru Burgundy, Chateau d’Esclans still occupies a uniquely prestigious category. While we do have the great sparkling roses of Champagne, there are no other premium still roses, so for the time being, Chateau d’Esclans is the undisputed king of its own proclaimed hill.
Miami loves premium, because status is distinctly relevant in a town full of newcomers. I t’s not so much a matter of snobbery, but more that people here need to feel like they are maintaining a basic standard of quality. Johnnie Walker Black and Veuve Cliquot immediately come to mind. Regardless of whether you like those brands or not, they are accepted symbols of good taste in every house, hotel and restaurant in the 305 area code. Most Miami residents are transplants, either from another state or another country, so lacking a common background, we try to create a new one that starts right here in Miami-Dade County. Readily identifiable brands that still taste good are important. People will know how much you spent on a bottle, and many times, that goes a long way to being accepted.
Alexis Lichine was the kind of guy who had an acute understanding of that need, because he lived the Big City immigrant experience. Originally from Moscow, he immigrated to the United States as a young man, and then later to France where he fought the good fight in World War II. After the war was over, he helped rebuild France’s wine industry and in the process made some good connections that helped him put together a wine portfolio, establish an estate bottling system in Burgundy, purchase the famous Chateau Lascombes in Bordeaux and publish several encyclopedic books on French wine. Rick Rose calls this every day hustling.
His son, Sacha, is equally the hustler. In his father’s mold, he can’t be satisfied with just one job title, or even three or four, so his many guises have included wine tour guide, sommelier, sales rep, distributor and negociant. Relying on his genetic gift for sensing wine trends, he purchased the historic Chateau d’Esclans estate in 2006 and set out to create the entirely new category of premium rose.
Chateau d’Esclans is located in Provence, and has had a wine cellar of some form since 1201 C.E., about the same time that the Tequesta Indians were enjoying grilled manatee on the shores of Biscayne Bay. The chateau was named after its location in the Valley of the Clans, and if there’s any name more gangster than that, I’ve never heard it. Over the centuries, the property changed hands many times, but it has always retained substantial plots of old vineyards, particularly of the Grenache and Rolle varietals.
Grenache works particularly well in rose production, because it offers substantial flavor without excessive tannin or pigmentation. Rolle, a white grape known as Vermentino in Italy, is used to lighten the color of a rose and provide aromatics as well as an herbaceous complexity.
These are the twisted vines that Sacha saw when he toured the estate, pondering the financial risk of his gambit. At that time, the chateau was owned by a Swedish pension fund that sold most of their grapes in bulk, likely destined for wines with notes of regret and the hint of an overnight stint in the county jail. But the history and the great old vines were there, so he took a chance and rode the pony.
Chateau d’Esclans now produces arguably the world’s most famous still roses. I had chance to taste through their flight at the Wine Depot & Bistro 555 in Miami Beach, and these are my impressions:
Whispering Angel, $18-$20: Clever name, seductive packaging. This introduction to Chateau d’Esclans is made to pay the bills. It reminds me of the other Provence roses I’ve tasted. Light in color, dry, brisk acidity, appealing body and texture. Nothing fancy here, but it’s not meant to be. I am reminded of strawberries and raspberries with a hint of citrus and herbs. A solid effort. People will buy this wine because it has distinct branding and a decided air of sophistication, but it gets better from here, so wine drinkers stay tuned.
Esclans, $30-$35: Partial oak fermentation. Things start to pick up a little bit, and I’m hopeful. The complexity of the older vines is apparent, though the presence of the oak is still subtle. A trade up from Whispering Angel, and still very food friendly.
Les Clans, $65-$70: Everything completely changes gear with this wine. The oak is noticeable, shocking even. The creamy texture from the battonage is also marked. Battonage is a process where a wine is left to mature with its lees, dead yeast cells, and stirred periodically. This is mainly done to give the wine added texture and viscosity. It’s necessary here to give a compliment to the oak, which would be intrusive without being checked by the wine’s heavier body. I’m surprised because most rose has no trace of oak, so it’s amazing how well it works here.
Garrus $80-$100: Only six barrels made per year. This is the king of the flight, and it shows. A rose so complex, I’d rather have it for contemplation than simple sipping. The oak is abundant, but not offensive, and the body is extraordinarily dense without being overworked. Again, I have nothing I can compare this to. The producers suggest White Burgundy, but even that’s like jai-alai to tennis. Sure, they’re played on a court with a bouncing ball, but the comparison mostly stops there. I’m not sure how I would even score this wine, but I can say that it is an amazingly intriguing experience, and one that I hope to have again someday.
So after all that, the million dollar question is this—are the Chateau d’Esclans roses worth their hefty price tag? For Les Clans and Garrus, hell yes, especially if you live in Miami. These wines are meant to be elusive and prestigious. These are roses for a special occasion, not every day drinking.
Some premium categories in Miami are virtual. People spend extra money on a product just because there’s no better alternative (that’s right, Santa Margherita, I’m looking at you). This is not the case with Chateau d’Esclans. A Miami wine drinker should make an effort, at least once in his or her lifetime, to try these roses, because they are incomparable. Maybe someday there will be other roses produced where no expense is spared—old vines, grapes handled with kid gloves, laser-like precision in the fermentation process, battonage on the lees, skillful application of oak barrels.
But Chateau d’Esclans will always be the first, and it that sense, they have created a benchmark wine that demands respect and attention. Let your people know, because drinking rose champagne in the club is not enough. Rick Rose already did that. It’s time to get with The Clans and come correct.