By Celia Strong
When it comes to our wines, many of us like what we like and we are perfectly comfortable with a wine that shouts at us. After all, most American wines are big and bold and fruit-forward and can have funny names with brightly colored labels. What’s the point of a subtle wine that whispers to us? It’s not like a subtle wine would help calm us down after a bad day at work — not that a big, bold one would either — but subtle is not what we’re drinking for. We’re drinking for the flavor of our wine, the social part of drinking with someone else, the enjoyment that comes from the alcohol, from being home, etc.
But, as many experienced wine drinkers have discovered, nice, subtle wines can be part of a lifestyle that itself is healthier and more relaxing. So, maybe, just maybe, a nice wine that whispers to us might be worth trying? Let’s see.
We travel this week to the Mediterranean coast of southern France to an area called Provence that is located just south of the Alps; the first Roman province outside of Italy. (The Roman name for Provence was “provincia nostra,” meaning “our province.”)
For 26,00 years wine has been made here — since 600 BC when the ancient Greeks founded the city of Marseilles. Through the centuries, each of the cultures that controlled the area — Greeks to Romans to Gauls to Catalans and Savoyards — was active in viticulture, or vine growing, and winemaking. And each culture brought different ideas and experiences and grape varieties into the area. Today, over half of the wine produced in Provence is rosé.
Provence has a classic Mediterranean climate with mild winters, really warm summers and little rainfall. The vines get more than 3,000 hours of sunshine each year — twice as much as the grapes need to ripen. The strong mistral winds from offshore, cooling off the vineyards, save the grapes from getting too ripe. In some spots, the vineyards are planted on south-facing hillsides so that the hill behind them helps support the vines from too strong winds coming off the water.
The most successful grapes here are less delicate and later ripening varieties. Mourvèdre is the main grape variety of the whole of Provence, for rosé and red wines. Grenache and Cinsault are often blended with the Mourvèdre. Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah have gained popularity, in some cases, in recent years. (Some growers think of these two newer varieties as suspicious attempts at a more global acceptance of their wines.) Other significant red grapes are Braquet, Calitor, Folle and Tibouren. Most of the white varieties here are from the Rhône — Bourboulenc, Clairette, Grenache Blanc, Marsanne and Viognier.
Most well-made Provençal wines have flavors that include lavender, rosemary and thyme, which are all herbs that grow abundantly here and are used in the cooking. (For anyone with a bit of aromatherapy in their lives, we know that lavender is relaxing. So, if a wine has lavender in its aromas or flavors, is it relaxing?) And, food-wise, don’t forget garlic and olive oil!
The rosé wines of Provence are often considered the best of the pinks — bone dry, crisp and refreshing. Rosé wines are made from dark-skinned grapes that are crushed and the juice is allowed to sit with the skins for about one to three days. (Red wines, by contrast, can sit with their skins for two or three weeks.) Historically, the first rosé wine was probably not very different from early red wines. The pressing was not as intense as now, red and white varieties were pressed together, diluting the color of the finished wine, especially centuries ago when lighter, fruitier wines were liked better.
After World War II, two pink wines that were slightly sweet and slightly fizzy from Portugal became very popular. Do Mateus and Lancers sound familiar? In California, in the late 1970’s, Blush Cabernet, and followed eventually by White Zinfandel, were developed. Again, slightly sweet wines. The dry rosé wines that we drink now came later. Partly as a response to too many red grapes in some vintages, dry wines were better sellers and making dry rosé was better than not using some of your grapes at all. The flavors and aromas that come in rosé wines are a result of the grape varieties used and the exact method of getting the rosé color — all of which is very scientific and complicated. Things like how many volatile thiols, how many esters, anthocyanins, phenolics, acetate levels, can all affect the color and flavor of rosé wines, in case you were wondering.
So, here we go to our Provence winery: Chateau d’Esclans. This estate is located 15 and a half miles northwest of the ancient Roman city of Frejus on the Mediterranean coast. During Gaulist times the site was a lookout point to spot intruders in boats coming into the bay at Frejus.
The cellar of the current chateau, part of the original building, is the oldest in the region. In 1201, the Comte de Provence gave the chateau to Gérard de Villeneuve. Tuscan villa design inspired the current chateau’s style that was built in the mid-19th century. After 1201, the property changed owners several times until 2006, when it was acquired by Sacha Lichine as Chateau d’Esclans. It now has 108 acres of vineyards. The primary grape grown on the property is Grenache, followed by Vermentino (a white grape), Cinsault, Merlot, Mourvèdre, Syrah and Tibouren. The winery is known for its old Grenache vines which make more flavorful wines than younger vines. The chateau makes four different rosé wines.
Our featured wine this week is Whispering Angel — named for the 19th century Whispering Angel Chapel that has two cherubs on the wall behind its statue of the Whispering Angel. (The two cherubs are in the background of the wine’s label too.) Whispering Angel is a blend of Grenache, Rolle, Cinsault, Syrah and Tibouren. The grapes are harvested only in the morning, to keep them cooler. They are sorted manually, three separate times. Then they are macerated close to 45 degrees Fahrenheit to extract all the aromas possible and vinified in stainless steel tanks at controlled temperatures. There is no wood contact for this wine so that its flavors are young and fresh.
This wine is the palest of pinks — just a whisper of color — with a firm texture, flavors of pink grapefruit and strawberries, a hint of minerality and a snap of acidity on the finish. If any wine is going to whisper to us, this is it. So listen to it closely. It will relax you and make you happy and taste good too.
Enjoy this epitome of Provence rosé for only $23.97.