Happily picking up the bill was Sacha Lichine, master of Château d’Esclans and creator of four rosé wines that have stood the perceptions of oenophiles on their head.
As long ago as 2008, the magazine Wine Spectator – the wine drinker’s bible – described Lichine’s wines as “the world’s most exclusive rosés”.
For decades, rosés have been considered cheap and not for the serious drinker (and, because of the pink colour, not something that real men would touch with a three-metre disinfected bargepole).
Mateus from Portugal was probably the most recognisable because of its chubby bottle, which turned up on restaurant tables everywhere in the 1970s, with a candle stuck in it.
It earned a certain cachet when Jimi Hendrix was pictured slugging it straight from the bottle, but apart from that the main reason people bought it was for the bottle rather than the contents.
Recently, however, a new wave of rosé drinking has swept the world. Some very fine wines are being made, and restaurants from the French Riviera to New York serve as many as eight or nine rosés, not just by the bottle but by the glass.
Lichine was in a swanky New York restaurant recently and expressed surprise at the range of rosés available. The staff were nonplussed. “Where the hell have you been?” one asked.
Lichine’s timing has been impeccable. The son of a much admired Bordeaux winemaker (“He knew a lot and he was a hard taskmaster”), Lichine realised that he would have difficulty doing anything in that region that would truly stand out, and so sold the family’s Château Prieure de Lichine and began a near decade-long search for something different.
After eight years and having looked at 32 properties, he shelled out €40 million (B1.6 billion) for the Château d’Esclans in Provence. The Château came with 300 hectares of chalky-clay slopes, much of it planted with vines, including 80-year-old Grenache and more recently added Rolle grapes.
“Their potential was quite extraordinary,” Lichine recalls. And so it has been; these two form the basis of his four remarkable rosés.
The other significant ingredient was Patrick Leon, an old friend who had worked with the Lichine family in the ’70s and then for Baron Philippe de Rothschild for 20 years.
Lichine knew where his future lay. “I said to him, “We’re going to make rosé.” He said, “D’accord.”
The trend at the time – and still now – was for rosés to be pale in colour – the paler the better. The colour comes from the skin, so to achieve a paler rosé, most wine-makers were picking the grapes early.
Lichine and Leon felt this was the wrong way to go about things. They wanted to use the ripe fruit for a much fuller flavour. “But how do you pick the ripe fruit yet keep most of the colour out? What we did was pick the grapes then pack them in dry ice to stop the skin bleeding into the juice.
“We spent close to €1 million (B40 million) on cooling systems. We use a little bit of press but basically it’s free-run juice. There is no maceration.” The wine is fermented very slowly for at least four months in cooled Burgundy barrels. Bâtonage adds to the flavour.
A decision was made early on to create not one, but four rosés. “One product is not interesting for distributors,” Lichine explains. From the first vintage, all four – Whispering Angel, Château d’Esclans, Le Clans and Garrus – have received highly favourable reviews.
Output has grown from 120,000 bottles in the first year to 780,000 this year, and Lichine’s rosés are now sold – and often sell out – in 57 countries.
For now, the winemaker says he has no plans for anything new. He and Leon and the team are still learning. “Little by little, we’ve found that rosé’s are the most difficult to make. The vintages are getting better; as you understand it better, the wine gets better.
“It’s rewarding intellectually, though not yet financially.”
The big financial rewards can’t be far off. The rich have taken his rosés to their hearts. “We knew we were having a success when a yacht designer called up to ask us for the dimensions of the three-litre bottle so he could design the fridge on a yacht to accommodate it.”
Nor did rosé suffer from the recent global financial crisis. “Champagne sales went down 20-25 per cent but rosé sales went up.” Partly this was a function of price – US$200 a bottle for good Champagne against US$50 for fine rosé – but the additional element, Lichine says, was that rosé has the same “festive connotation” as Champagne.
Now Lichine is driving hard to bring the rosé wave to Asia. He currently bases himself in Singapore, which he considers the most sophisticated wine market in the region, and also a convenient geographic location from which to visit target markets such as Langkawi, Malaysia, Indonesia and Phuket.
As a potential market, the 180 guests at Andara for the launch certainly seemed to like the product. Between them they swilled down 110 litres of rosé from Château d’Esclans.
What would his father have thought of all this? Lichine smiles. “He would probably have criticisms.”