It's that time again. The August 2020 edition of Decanter (www.decanter.com) is upon us.
Robert Parker (Jnr) is a knowledgeable and influential fella in the wine world, I grant you, but it's not really one of my favourite Decanter covers. Give me the morning mist rising from a Serralunga vineyard - or a Riojan sunset - over this one any day.
We'll not be focusing too much on the works, view and opinions of Mr Parker. Rather, we are all about the main (=only) panel review this month, which is Provence Rosé. And, naturally, we've the big noises in/from that panel test.
We'll be back with the full story in just a moment.
The wines featured this month in Decanter - and that we list - appear at the foot of this page. The reviews for each wine (where we've been able to show them) appear on each product page.
Let's just get this out of the way...
Decanter readers and Exel customers will doubtless recall that this Rosé Review is far from rare. The last two August editions have trained their focus on non-Provence rosé (2018) and Provence rosé (2019) <and, on each occasion, we offered the the top dog>.
The very keen-of memory may also recall that we spend a few paragraphs each August dispelling the ever-hard-to shake shibboleth regarding rosé. That is, the one that baldly states that All Rosé is Rubbish. Even - perhaps especially - among serious wine fans, it can be hard to get away from this view.
We're not going to (much) retread that ground. Those articles linked above much cover the topic. That view is understandable, to a degree: there's a lot of impression-damaging poor rosé out there, just as the heaps of bad Cava and Chianti drag those categories down. But there is also plenty of poor red and white out there, and very few will say that all white or red wine is rubbish. Least of all Mr Parker.
It comes down to how it's made, in part, as this fine article explains.
Even then, that's only part of the story: it's quite possible to make a bad rosé with a superior method, and vice versa. Indeed, quite why the world is so set against blending grapes to produce rosé, when it's de rigeur - nay essential - for good Bordeaux and Rioja (red and white) and perfectly allowed for rosé Champagne(!), I will never quite grasp. That said, the much-favoured pressurage direct method (see that article link above) is most at home in Provence, and lies behind some part of Provence's dominance of quality rosé-making.
The more major part lies in this: it's what Provence does. Maybe it was once, but (only?) in Provence, rosé is not a side-issue, afterthought or by-product, as it remains (perhaps understandably) in Rioja, Bordeaux, Ribera, Languedoc, the Loire, Tuscany and many such others. Rather - with the possible exception of the great reds of Bandol - rosé is Provence's raison d'être. The grand vin of most upper-end Provence producers is a rosé; indeed, many have all manner of additional, lower rosé tiers, rather than rosé merely being the lowest level. The effort, the love, the dedication ... in Provence, these are invariably channelled to towards the Pink Stuff.
Provence rosé - the basics
Provence is split into 8 appellations, totalling a little under 30,000 hectares of vineyard (half that of Rioja, for comparison) and around 700 domaines. Of these, Côtes de Provence, the huge area out to the east, accounts for more than two-thirds of both that area and those producers. It is something of a mishmash, a catch-all zone, featuring a very wide spectrum of producres and quality levels. Bandol remains, overall, even for rosé, the most respected of the appellations (excluding, perhaps, the micro-AOC of Palette and the famed Chateau Simone).
photo courtesy of Decanter, www.decanter.com
Cotes de Provence has a rather curious, historically-determined cru classé system (à la Bordeaux). As Decanter rather well explain it, "There are 18 estates in the Côtes de Provence classed as cru classé – a designation created in 1955, as much as 22 years before the appellation itself – their reputation based on history rather than commonality of terroir". We'll be encountering that again in a moment.
Grapes can be almost anything; they do, however, need to be red to get around that whole taboo of blending for colour. Which means, largely, Grenache, Cinsault and Syrah, with Cab Sauv and Mourvedre getting a look in where they fare well.
Provence rosés tend to be dry, in keeping with the modern idiom of white wine. That said, a few (although, to be clear, not those featured below) can push towarrds 5-10 g/litre of residual sugar and off-dry country, for a point of difference and to satisfy some markets (largely Asia).
Finally, to age: There's a general thinking that rosé needs drinking up young, and that a vintage that isn't the last calendar year means you're into a wine already in decline. But, again, as with whites, it really depends what it is: after all, top Alsace Riesling and IGT Pinot Grigio are different beasts on that count (and, indeed, many others). Many better Provence rosés are exposed to oxidative winemaking (eg ageing in old oak), bestowing them with both a more gastronomic/food-friendly nature and some unexpected longevity.
The panel revew
Not before time, you might argue, we turn to what the panel revealed.
A whopping 178 wines went under the microscope. <That's a lot for any Decanter panel. I quite like a good rosé , me, but I'm glad I wasn't a judge of that little lot>.
Of those, although the judges were impressed with the tasting overall, only 37 (~20%) cleared 90 points. Of those, 4 were rated Outstanding (95+ points) and one even hit the rare and heady heights of Exceptional (98+ points) <NB: there are typically only around half a dozen such highly-rated wines in Decanter panels in any given year>.
We offer one of the Outstandings and the Exceptional (albeit this one only in limited amounts): both are from the same producer.
The top wines
That producer is Clos Cibonne. They are situated in Le Pradet, between Toulon and Hyères. That's in that mishmash appellation, Côtes de Provence. What's more, they are one of those 18 crus classes, a distinction won by Cibonne back its its initial heyday.
Everything is different about Cibonne. Not for them, standard grape varieties or standard winemaking. They are all about the unusual red grape of Tibouren (so unusual, it even fails to feature in Oz Clark's mega-compendium, the excellent Grapes & Wines). Jancis describes it (to the extent that she does) as, "a Provençal rarity making earthy rosés with a genuine scent of the garrigue, the herby scrub of southern France". We gave it a whirl by trying Cibonne's red (see below) and, for us, in that format, it emerges as something of, we would say, "a Mediterranean Pinot Noir, with a hint of Gamay and/or something a bit Tuscan".
Cibonne then take their Tibouren (+10% Grenache) and go all old-school with it. After harvest, the wines are fermented in stainless steel, blended and then (and this is 'the thing') it is aged under fleurette (= a thin veil of yeast; this is very similar that is encountered in fino sherry and Manzanilla, the flor yeast) for 12 months in 100-year-old (ie very used), 1,500-litre old oak foudres.
The result is a unique (or, at least, very unusual) style of rosé, and it's one that's taken the Decanter panel (and, perhaps more sceptically, us too) by storm.
Let's do the 'mere' 95-point Outstanding first. It's £22.50 from us (you won't find that elsewhere). That's no giveway rosé, we know, but you are into something quite unusual and special here. It's Cibonne's Cuvée Tradition Tibouren rosé 2018. Beyond what what's written above on what the grape is and how Cibonne handle it, there's no additional trickery to reveal.
Here it is, with its Decanter review:
You get the picture. Decanter really rather liked it.
It was also subjected to the Exel test, just yesterday, at a (single-household) Pretty Perfect Perthshire Picnic by the Tay (inc cheese, pork pie, fish paté, etc). The colour is definitely unusual - it really is a most unusual salmon-y orange. I'd expected the oak ageing/holding to add some greater oxidative hint to the nose and palate, but it is quite the opposite (the fleurette does that). It bursts with fruit; we 'got' the orange, apricot and peach (especially) and some of the dried/crystallised fruits. We didn't really get much red fruit angle here (unusual for a rosé). We also didn't get the kerosene hit (that's definitely fanciful!), the cumin or the phenolic finish (though it is definitely long and intense, especially for a rosé).
I'd also take issue with that Drink window, too. There's definitely more longevity in this wine than just 2021. That feels like a bit of Copy-and-Paste at Decanter.
<our tasting: also of the Tradition red, see below. Stemless glasses used owing to high winds and a wobbly table.>
In sum, it's a great and unusual rosé. As stated above, spending £20+ on a rosé is not for everyone. I would suggest two things, however:
All of which takes us to Cibonne's Exceptional 98-pointer. Normally, such a wine would be the main focus of one of these blogs. And there's little doubting that this is an epic wine. But, if you want Exceptional, it'll need paying for this time. It's a £47 bottle of rosé (and markedly more from other stockists), so the fanfare is a little more muted than for some Exceptionals. But we also know just how much some Exel customers just have to try these very-top-scorers.
We've never seen an Exceptional rosé (under panel test) before, and have often wondered what one would look like. And now we know:
It's Cibonne's Cuvée (Hommage à Marius). It's a 2017, reflecting that the winemaking and élevage has taken an extra year to get it here. Those 24 months in the big foudres are part of the story of how it differs from the Tradition. Much more comes down to it being made with only the best grapes from the best plots, the best pressings, a super-slow fermentation, the best barrels, the most care etc. Whether all of that justifies a doubling of the price, we'll leave to others to decide. Much of the pricing comes down to scarcity, supply-and-demand: only a couple of barrels of this are produced, it is a rare beast indeed.
We can repeat some of the above review in bold italics - "concentrated, complex, richly textured", "delicious and deeply flavoured" - that sort of thing, but the review again does the job; it's quite emphatic as to what a fine wine this is. We'll confess we've not tried 'The Marius': it's still on the way over from Toulon, and, in any event, a bottle we drink is one we can't let you take. Just for once, there's no Exel wisdom (or otherwise) or artful photos of the Marius.
Also, while we're here, we'd just mention Cibonne's Cuvée Tradition Tibouren red (2019). This, we did taste, as per the picnic photos. This, we really liked, all marketing aside. It's not in Decanter. And for sure, it'll never feature in a Decanter panel review of Tibouren, given that it's famously about the only red Tibouren made. We're offering it at £22.50, the same as the Tradition rosé. It's very attractive: Gamay, Pinot Noir and Sangiovese fans will all find something here curiously familiar. Yes, the inevitable herby/heathery garrigue hints are here, and they really work in this lighter style of wine (personally, I feel they get lost in Mourvedre and Syrah).
There aren't many reviews for this oddball, although Jancis Robinson (herself, see www.JancisRobinson.com) in 2016 gave the 2014 vintage 16.5 points (a fine score for her) and commented "Warm bricks on the nose. Red spices. And masses of rose-scented fruit. Tannins quite noticeable, but a real mouthful of fruit with a strong personality. Fascinating! Tastes as though there will be quite a future for this wine", and wrote "very fragrant indeed. Sweet, flattering fruit but in very gentle register – rather like roses in aroma. Then real freshness and great light tannin balance on the finish. Lovely wine. Real charm. It doesn’t taste anything like as strong as 14%. Very pretty. Though certainly not insistent. It could easily be overlooked" of the 2011 in 2013, again rating it at 16.5/20.
Availability and delivery
We have a small stock (36 bottles) of the Tradition rosé ariving on Wednesday or Thursday (1st/2nd July). These will be used, first-come-first served, for the first orders we receive.
The rest of the Cibonne wines arrive on the 13th July (give or take a day). We'll speed these away to you as soon as we have them.
Please note on the Exceptional Marius: we only have a very few cases. We're limiting these to 3 bottles per customer. If you'd like more, take what you can now, and please email us on email@example.com to let us know how many more you seek! We will do what we can; promises, though, we cannot make.
We (deliberately) don't offer many of the other scoring Provence rosés. Experience shows that, in the face of a 95-pointer, nobody really wants the 90- and 91-pointers.
We do, however, make mention of the Domaine La Suffrene Bandol rosé Tradition 2018. The 2019 of that wine is rated in this panel (91 points) ("Enriching blackcurrant, floral and fresh thyme aromas; glossy and slick with mouthwatering orange peel acidity and a succulent texture"). And we can offer you the 2019, if you'd really like it (send us an email or give us a call). But we really offer the 2018, winner of a Best in Show at last year's DWWAs (repeating the performance of the 2017 vintage at DWWA18). This rosé benefits from a little time in bottle, and we respectfully recommend the slightly older vintage.