Sacha Lichine, son of the famous Alexis Lichine, told me we should be stocking his Chateau d’Esclans Provence Rose, now the region’s most exclusive and expensive rose when I saw him at Vinexpo in Hong Kong.
I agreed that it was a good idea, but wasn’t sure if people would be happy to pay in between £20-£30 a bottle for his pink nectar. However, when I tasted the wines with him I was blown away by the quality, re-inforcing the experience that our wine buyer Robin Kick had the previous year when she visted Sacha in Provence. We decided to do an offer on them and I was proved very wrong as they sold extremely well. So well infact we have already shipped more for stock. I was very amused to see the following article about Sacha in the Wine Spectator who awarded his roses high scores.
Sacha Lichine has found his place in the wine world, and the view isn’t bad. His Château d’Esclans is a sprawling four-story, 19th-century manor surrounded by nearly 700 acres of land, including pine and oak woods and more than 100 acres of vineyards. From a hilltop plot of gnarled, old vines, the sea is a thin blue line in the distance.
That Lichine has bought a handsome wine estate is hardly surprising. Now 48, he is the son of the late Alexis Lichine, one of the 20th century’s most influential figures in French wine. At one point, the Lichines owned two prestigious Bordeaux properties: the second-growth Château Lascombes and the fourth-growth Château Prieuré-Lichine, known as Prieuré-Cantenac before Lichine’s father appended his own name.
But Lichine’s latest moves have raised eyebrows. After his father’s death, he sold Prieuré-Lichine in 1999 (Lascombes had been sold when Sacha was a boy). Leaving Bordeaux behind, he has installed himself amid the Mediterranean playgrounds of Côtes de Provence. To make matters worse, Lichine is making a style of wine that many in the French establishment dismiss altogether: rosé.
But not just any Provence rosé. A modest little quaffing wine would not be true to his larger-than-life heritage. After years of searching to make his mark, Lichine has set his sights on producing the best-and most expensive-rosé in the world.
“Rosé has always been cheap, cheerful and drunk on the beach with ice,” says Lichine, holding a glass of rose petal-colored liquid to the morning light filtering into the small modern winery tucked around back of the château. “We said, ‘Let’s make a real wine.’ People looked at me as if I were totally out of my mind.”
So far, the gamble is paying off. Two wines from 2006, his debut vintage, earned outstanding scores from Wine Spectator, and last summer, bottles of his top cuvée, priced at more than $100, were de rigueur on superyachts in the nearby ports of Cannes and St.-Tropez.
“Sacha wanted to do something on his own,” says Lichine’s longtime friend Alfred Tesseron of Bordeaux’s Château Pontet-Canet. “On the one hand, he always admired his father; on the other hand, he wanted to be himself.”
Château d’Esclans, outside the winegrowing village of La Motte, is nestled between two mountain ranges, and overlooks a valley that descends toward the Mediterranean. The château itself, which had fallen into disrepair before Lichine renovated it, had once belonged to a line of local counts who fashioned it as an 1800s Tuscan-style farmhouse with its own chapel and fountains channeling spring water from the red stone hills.
For more than a decade before Lichine’s arrival, d’Esclans belonged to a Swedish pension fund that didn’t fuss much with the wine. “We weren’t sure at first if rosé made from Grenache could be grand,” says Lichine. “It had never been done before. We wanted to push it to the extreme-to treat it like a great Burgundian wine.”
To make a real wine worthy of the price tag-and to grab a share of the high-end rosé market dominated by Provence’s Domaines Ott (now controlled by the Louis Roederer Champagne house)-Lichine recruited an old family friend, Patrick Léon, who’d recently retired from his position as chief winemaker at Château Mouton-Rothschild.
On a clear day in Provence, Lichine and Léon are together at d’Esclans-a rare crossing of paths for Lichine, who is based in Chicago, and Léon, who lives in Fronsac, near Bordeaux.
For Léon-65, dapper, silver-haired and classically French-the collaboration at d’Esclans provides a way to stay young: as he puts it, to “avoid staying home and painting the shutters chez moi.”
For Lichine, with the style of a preppy turned jet-setter (a pair of dark sunglasses perched in his longish combed-back hair and a well-tailored blazer buttoned around a belly that has ballooned in middle age), d’Esclans is a personal statement.
What they have developed is a line of rosés combining Burgundian winemaking techniques with Studio 54 marketing.
For the first vintage, 2006, d’Esclans made four rosés. Garrus (90 points on Wine Spectator’s 100-point scale, $105) and Les Clans (91, $75) were both made from free-run juice fermented in 500-liter Burgundy oak barrels (demi-muids) and include grapes from a vineyard containing 80-year-old Grenache. The Garrus rosé is a blend of that single-plot Grenache with a small percentage of Rolle. Les Clans is a blend of estate Grenache, Rolle and Syrah. The regular Château d’Esclans (89, $40) is a blend of four varietals partially fermented in barrels. Whispering Angel, made from both estate-grown and purchased grapes, is fermented in stainless-steel tanks. (For reviews of the current release 2007s, see page 208.)
From the start, Léon was excited by the technological challenge. Making a great rosé, he figured, would mean extracting maximum richness from ripe Grenache-but without much color. “These are two things that are usually contradictory,” Léon explains, his eyes shining.
Léon and Lichine developed a rigorous system of temperature control to keep the grapes, juice and wine chilled at every step of the process. It starts during harvest with dry ice sticks in pickers’ baskets, then continues in the winery where grapes are chilled for a short maceration before the free-run and pressing.
The key element of their cru wines is in the fermenting room, which is filled with dozens of Burgundy barrels. “It is unique in the world,” claims Léon, pointing to the cooling tubes, which are usually used in steel vats. By placing these tubes in barrels and keeping temperatures on the 48Â° F to 60Â° F range, fermentation slows to a snail’s pace-taking up to four months and increasing aromas and complexity in the process.
Not all the work is done in the winery. Lichine has planted (or replanted) about a third of his vineyard area in the past two years, while installing Israeli-designed drip irrigation. (Vineyard irrigation, generally prohibited in French appellations, is allowed only with permission during long dry spells.) Lichine and Léon also replaced machine harvests with handpicking and fastidious grape sorting. The diverse plots produce 70 micro-vinifications to create the four wines.
Frank Fantino, the estate’s 40-year-old technical manager, grew up nearby. Before Lichine took him on, he grew table grapes on land leased from d’Esclans. Recalling the “generic wine” previously produced by d’Esclans and other local producers, Fantino adds, “In my family, we always drank red. Rosé was for summer, for tourists.”
D’Esclans may still be going to tourists, but Lichine has tapped the high end of the trade. “When I first showed people the prices,” Lichine recalls, “they said, ‘You’re out of your mind.’ ” But Lichine strategically placed the wines in venues where price wouldn’t be an object-from Hotel Byblos in St.-Tropez to Hotel de Paris in Monaco.
“We made only 2,000 bottles of Garrus, and that went to a lot of yacht owners who wanted something no one else had,” he says. “Then in winter, those yacht owners went to the Caribbean, and we were suddenly getting calls from Antigua and St. Barths, but it was all gone.”
“Sacha could have turned out to be a bad boy. Instead he turned out to be a good man,” Léon says during an all-truffle lunch at the legendary Restaurant Bruno, in the nearby town of Lorgues.
Léon has known Lichine since 1972, when he went to work for Sacha’s father, the Russian-born wine author and U.S. importer who added his family name to what became Château Prieuré-Lichine. Sacha, who was born in Margaux and moved to New York with his mother at the age of 4, spent vacations with his father at the château.
“When you are the son of a man like Alexis, it is very difficult to make your way,” Léon continues, after Lichine has stepped outside to smoke. As a teenager, Lichine attended a pair of East Coast boarding schools, and after graduation, he started a company that took groups of wealthy Americans on wine tours in France. Around the same time, he started-then quit-business management school in Boston.
In his early 20s, he started his own import company, Sacha A. Lichine Estates Selections. Then in a 1984 lawsuit, Lichine was barred by a federal court from using his family name to sell wine. Twenty years earlier, his father had sold Alexis Lichine & Co. to a British brewing company. With the sale went the use of the name Lichine, and ALC accused Sacha of trademark infringement. (In 2001, after years of wrangling, Lichine recovered the right to use his name after suing ALC’s current owners, Groupe Pernod Ricard in a French court.) Stymied, Sacha drifted and partied, working for wine importers on both coasts.
“Then one day [in 1987], I got a call from my father’s lawyer,” Lichine recalls. “He said, ‘It’s time to come home.'”
At 27, Sacha took charge of Prieuré-Lichine, where his father died two years later. He spent 12 years at the helm of the fourth-growth, and is credited with improving the wine quality while he worked through money problems.
“I was left with a property that was fairly indebted,” he says. “Between inheritance taxes and problems at the château, I had to fight to keep what was given to me.”
Finally, in 1999, he sold it. “There was not much more I could do with Prieuré,” he says, “and, to be honest, in Bordeaux it rains all the time.”
Alain Moses, a Bordeaux négociant who has worked with both Lichines, remembers Sacha as more relaxed and open than his father-and than other château owners. “He was so different from other people here, many château owners didn’t care for him,” Moses says. “A lot of people thought he was completely crazy to sell Prieuré, just as they thought he was completely crazy to buy in Provence.”
In the years since the sale, Lichine has primarily worked as a bottler and distributor of wines made by others. In addition to his négociant business selling Bordeaux futures, he affixes his name to a playful line of inexpensive “New World-style wines made in France,” with names such as Le Coq Rouge and Diablo.
But, Lichine says, “I realized I needed a property to give legitimacy to my other products.”
For years, Lichine shopped for an estate across the south of France. In fact, Lichine had first visited d’Esclans when it had previously came up for sale in 1994-when he owned Prieuré-Lichine but was short on cash. “At the time, I ran away from d’Esclans,” he says. “It was in such terrible condition, I was afraid of losing my shirt.”
Now at home in the château, in a freshly refurbished drawing room with rich fabric walls and plush furnishings, Lichine is surrounded by photographs of his family-his five children from two marriages, and his current wife, Mathilde, with whom he lives in Chicago when he is not at d’Esclans or in Bordeaux or on the road.
Lichine has kept mementos of his father, including half a century’s worth of news clippings. He opens a scrapbook to a 1976 newspaper article referring to his father as “the pope of wine.”
“I’m the son of the pope,” Lichine says, laughing. “I’ve always had big shoes to fill.” Yet Lichine now seems a man who is comfortable with himself. And despite the big shoes he inherited-or perhaps because of them-he professes to dislike all pretense, particularly when it comes to wine.
“We in the wine business are pleasure merchants,” he says. “And when pleasure happens, it should happen. You shouldn’t have to talk about it.”
Based in France, Robert Camuto writes about wine, culture and travel. He is the author of the forthcoming book Corkscrewed: Adventures in the New French Wine Country