Decanting the meteoric rise of Whispering Angel
It has been observed that there is something Falstaffian about Sacha Lichine, the man who can be reasonably credited with reinventing the largely snubbed rosé wine and sparking a peachy-toned revolution.
He is the embodiment of l’art de recevoir (that generous French spirit of hospitality which he considers to be a vital force in good business practice) and was born into wine royalty as the son of Alexis Lichine, the Russian wine mogul and entrepreneur.
Now stocked in the Gentleman’s Journal Shop, his exquisite creation has the Christened name of Whispering Angel, but has earned itself the nickname ‘Hampton’s Water’ due to the insatiable thirst of wealthy partygoers and soaring sales in America. It’s worth setting these gleefully decadent associations to one side, though (at least for now): because Lichine remains as unabashed and unpretentious as the pink wine we all love to love.
As recently as a decade ago, rosé was synonymous with syrupy sweet, fuschia-toned hen party fuel — a wine for people who didn’t appreciate wine and, in particular, a wine for women.
Today, though, things are very different. In the past couple of years, you’d have been hard pressed to find a bar terrace that didn’t play host to several clusters of wine glasses sweating in the sunshine and filled with pink; and this summer is bound to be the crowning glory of rosé’s increasing monopoly over all other summer wines. After these long, dark days spent staring at the walls of our own homes, we’re all longing for the uninhibited, celebratory jubilance that this summer will bring: and a good rosé is nothing less than softly fragranced joy in one delicate glass.
And, presumably, we’re all used to that familiar feeling of scrolling through Instagram and being greeted with a shimmering glass of rosé that’s been snapped on an iPhone, and shared online as a representation of instantly recognisable pleasure. Look harder, and you’ll notice that – contrary to opinions dating back to just a few years ago – the wine is not a sickening shade of bright pink. Chances are, it’s not being enjoyed by a woman, either.
This seismic shift in the Western consumption of rosé might have seemed unprecedented, even impossible, to most people in the early 2000s — but then, Sacha Lichine is not like most people.
It is difficult to extract rosé’s meteoric rise from Lichine’s empire, the heart of which operates from his idyllic vineyards in Provence — and nigh-on-impossible to separate it from the man behind the alchemy.
“This is a connoisseur whose first memory of being drunk came at aged five, on the occasion of his father’s wedding to the Hollywood actress Arlene Dahl…”
This is a connoisseur whose first memory of being drunk came aged five, on the occasion of his father’s wedding to the Hollywood actress Arlene Dahl – so it is perhaps no surprise that he was destined for an extraordinary life. But this is not a story of a golden handshake or a path carved out by the hefty legacy of a familial dynasty.
Sacha’s business philosophy is “no risk, no reward”, and in the aftermath of his father’s death, he made the decision to relocate from Bordeaux to Provence: a move considered suicidal by many of those in his circle.
Drawing its name from the cherubic angels whose heads gracefully touch above an altar at the chapel on his property, Whispering Angel was the first of Sacha’s Provence rosés.
In a marked departure from the strategy of his father, Sacha opted to make his a négociant wine, produced by purchasing grapes from multiple vineyards and thus allowing for the fruit to be picked when at its most ripe.
This was the first in a long line of Sacha’s bold business decisions: all of which would ultimately prove instrumental in the brand’s success, and would also overhaul any outdated codes of viticulture.
Frustrated with the snobbishness he had known within the Bordeaux wine industry, Lichine opted for a notably anglicised name for his first rosé — with the contemporary (and pronounceable) English label serving as an equaliser across consumer cultures.
“The first vintage of 2006 Whispering Angel saw a production of 130,000 bottles — by 2017, that figure was in excess of 6 million…”
Another smart move, when one considers the astronomical success of Chateau d’Esclans wines in America, where well over half of the total production of Whispering Angel alone is exported.
In another counter-cultural move, Lichine stuck to an inclusive price bracket when creating his pink wines and as a result, one can enjoy an entry level premium rosé (Whispering Angel), up to super premium rosés Château d’Esclans Rock Angel, Les Clans and Gorrus.
A risky strategy, perhaps, but one which would serve him incredibly well: as the statistics attest. The first vintage of 2006 Whispering Angel saw a production of 130,000 bottles — by 2017, that figure was in excess of 6 million.
Lichine credits his enormous success in part to his insightful knowledge of the wine production process from grape to bottle. Starting out at a young age, he has worked in some capacity at every level of the business — from the vineyards, to the cellars, to labelling wine bottles and working as a sommelier in America.
He also grew up between Manhattan and Bordeaux, with a foot firmly placed in each culture.
This fostered an understanding of how the production that takes place in Margaux comes to be appreciated and drunk in the bars of New York. The result has been a perfectly-cultivated universal appeal, with Château d’Esclans rosés earning a global reach in over 100 countries. Another undeniable factor in his juggernaut success is the working partnership between Sacha and Patrick Léon, former head winemaker at Château Mouton Rothschild.
Their combined expertise has resulted in a selection of wines which not only look beautiful, but consistently win awards and rave reviews from even the toughest industry critics.
And then, of course, there is the colour. Lichine recognised that the shade of his rosé was of critical importance since, beside sauternes, it is the only wine which is bottled in clear glass. Throughout the production process, methods are used which ensure that minimal skin contact and cold temperature are maintained — all to create that desired paleness of colour.
“With Instagram has come the chance to observe the drinking world through rosé-tinted glasses…”
Herein lies the not-so-secret ingredient for building the ultimate rosé brand: ensure that your wine is of such a beautiful ballet-slipper hue that partakers will be pulling out their phones and uploading photos of their drink, to announce and celebrate their indulgence before an online audience.
This online celebration is all the more likely to occur in a post-lockdown world. After a long period of ‘Instagram photo dumps’ – the increasing trend of uploading a group of uncurated, unrelated photos which presumably stemmed from a desire to document the small things, in the absence of the big things – our feeds are destined to be filled with the kind of joyful, decadent ebullience that rosé lends itself to so expertly.
Lichine has also made the refreshing decision to embrace experimental, new-age marketing in order to accomplish his communication objectives. He has partnered with events like Coachella and, in doing so, filled millions of screens with photos of his wine: often in the fists of young, attractive festival-goers.
With the Age of Instagram, too, has come the chance to observe the drinking world through rosé-tinted glasses.
“Slogans like #brosé and #roséallday have served to make rosé synonymous today with shared pleasure and unapologetic enjoyment…”
This has provided the kind of hashtags you find yourself saying out loud (and instantly regretting). Slogans like #brosé and #roséallday have served to make rosé synonymous today with shared pleasure and unapologetic enjoyment – two happy phenomenons that will be hotly pursued when the world opens up again.
For Lichine, the huge surge in the popularity of rosé comes as no surprise – and he doesn’t worry about the future. With the unique distinction of starting white and finishing red, rosé can be a perfect light aperitif, or equally well suited as a pairing to an impressive range of foods.
All of this helps to fuel the idea that it really can be enjoyed at any time of day, and at any time of year. Considering this, and hearing Sacha talk about his creation, it becomes hard to believe that rosé was ever thought of as a less desirable drink than its white and red counterparts.
Finally, too, rosé seems to be breaking free of those irritating and unhelpful gender stereotypes. It seems to me that the rosé renaissance can be attributed to the distinctive way of life that a delicate pink wine bottle seems to promise — a way of life that cares little about gender. Lichine recognises this, describing his rosé as having a “festive” character and appeal.
He’s right, of course. Everyone can pinpoint a tangible memory where a glass of rosé toasted an anniversary, a wedding, or the final evening of a summer holiday. A sip of rosé is a very singular portal to another time, like the scent of a former lover’s perfume or a song that defines a teenage summer.
It is unabashed, celebratory and seemingly able to colour-match any given sunset. Perhaps just as importantly, it’s now an unspoiled symbol of fun and frivolity – and, truly, we’ve never needed such a symbol more.
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