Wine News Provence Rosé Producer Looks Beyond Britain

Provence Rosé Producer Looks Beyond Britain

Few things scream Provence more than pale rosé wine and lavender fields.
© Fotolia | Few things scream Provence more than pale rosé wine and lavender fields.
A British rosé producer in Provence hopes, post-Brexit, France doesn't send him home.
By W. Blake Gray | Posted Tuesday, 29-Dec-2020

As Great Britain careens out of the European Union like a drunk at a bar after closing time, British expats in the EU are suddenly wondering if they can keep living as they have been.

Stephen Cronk, owner of Mirabeau winery in Provence, said his children find his predicament amusing, and perhaps turnabout for him dragging them out of England 12 years ago for an uncertain future in the south of France, where none of them spoke the language.

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"My wife is German and my kids are all laughing because they've got German passports," Cronk told Wine-Searcher. "They laugh because I might get sent home. They seem happy about it."

Cronk got a Carte de Séjour (residence permit) last year, so he hopes he can stay full-time, but he says, "I might have to take (French) citizenship if there's no deal and there isn't a dual arrangement."

It's an interesting development in the journey of a man whose path from working for a telecom company in London to owning a winery in France has been fairly well covered in the British press. In April, the magazine My French Country Home did a lengthy feature on Jeany and Stephen Cronk, mentioning their latest project, Domaine Mirabeau, a country estate where the Cronks plan to both live (French law permitting) and make their first estate rosés.

Up to now they have made rosés from wines purchased from co-ops and other farmers. There's still plenty of good wine to be found in Provence this way, which is what Cronk was counting on when he got his first major placement. Cronk sold a truckload of wine to the UK supermarket Waitrose before he actually had any wine to sell.

"My sister did the same thing with baby food in (UK supermarket) Sainsbury's," Cronk told Wine-Searcher. "She went in with the packaging and said, 'If I make this would you buy it?' I did the same thing, I said, 'We're going to make rosé wine and we're going to use social media to sell it.' They said, 'OK, go get the wine and we'll try it.'"

This was in 2008, before the rosé boom, so Cronk thought it would be easy.

"I had a directory of wine estates in the area," Cronk said. "I highlighted every estate of more than 40 hectares. I was cold-calling them and saying, 'Do you have any grapes or wine you could sell me? And they all said, 'Why would I do that?' I was so frustrated at the end of the day, I threw the directory across the room. Then I told myself that selling is making that one more phone call."

He got lucky: he reached a farmer who speaks English. He was able to buy some rosé and he was off and running.

Nowadays, with rosé fashionable on both sides of the Atlantic, Cronk's decision in 2008 to make pink wine instead of red or white seems like good business. But that isn't why they picked Provence.

"Rosé was our tipple of choice when my wife and I were living in London," Cronk said. "It was at that time still quite seasonal. We got very lucky with the timing. We thought last year Provence rosé in the UK had peaked, but this year it's up 25 percent. I'm very happy we chose this area. I was in the wine trade early in my career. I used to really hate the wine snobs. One thing I like about rosé is you can't really snob it up."

Cronk doesn't make the Mirabeau wines but does have strong opinions about how he wants them to be.

"Color is really important," Cronk said. "It's the only wine that people are buying with their eyes. If it's too dark, people don't like that. They've often been taught that darker rosé is sweeter rosé. They're told they shouldn't drink sweet rosé, you should drink pale rosé, and pale rosé is going to be dry. We haven't got the Syrah to give it that very rich red color. We're using Grenache and Cinsault, which keeps it light. We might put a bit of Rolle (Vermentino) in there."

Mirabeau Pure Provence rosé is considered the estate's flagship wine.
© Mirabeau | Mirabeau Pure Provence rosé is considered the estate's flagship wine.

Mirabeau's high-end "Etoile" Côtes de Provence rosé 2019 is so pale that it's almost a white wine; it's elegant and understated, with notes of citrus pith and red berry. The midrange Mirabeau "Pure" Côtes de Provence rosé 2019 is much more forward, with juicy notes of peach and citrus and a hint of red berry on the finish. I liked both of these wines, and Mirabeau also makes pink gin, which I found to be a pretty shade of pink.

"There's a broad spectrum of rosé wines," Cronk said. "We try to have rosé for all occasions, with dinner or for having without food."

This is the first year that Mirabeau has made wine from its new estate vineyards. Cronk hopes that these wines become the new top of the portfolio.

"We're not trying to own all our production," Cronk said. "It's about having a vineyard for Mirabeau to see what we can do with the wine. We decided to take the best fruit, and we've fermented some of it in oak. My winemaker asked me today, 'How much do you want to make?' I said, 'That's not the right question. The question is, how good can we get it?' We might try to raise the glass ceiling for rosé, though we're not trying to be Burgundy. It's about grape selection. It's about time on lees. And it's about oak. We're experimenting with three 4-liter barrels from three forests. One barrel created a much more attractive wine than the other barrels have. We're on that journey. But we're blending with lots from stainless steel. We want complexity. We don't want oakiness. We want a wine that's going to have some more interesting components, more structure, but we don't want an oaky wine. It's very easy for oak to get overpowering for rosé."

Of course, just as Mirabeau begins ramping up its ambitions, Brexit has thrown a wrench into its plans. Starting with that sale to Waitrose, Mirabeau has done very well in the UK market, which now accounts for 40 percent of its sales.

"We've taken on some sales guys in France. We're trying to de-British it," Cronk said. "Forty percent is too much focus on that market. Also I'm not sure what's going to happen with the currency, after Brexit. We're also planning to focus more on the US."

Mirabeau's rosés are under 14 percent alcohol – that's important to Cronk – which means they could be subject to a punitive 25 percent tariff in the US because of the US-EU trade war. But Cronk found a work-around: rather than bottle the wines in France, he ships them to the US and bottles them in New York, so no tariffs.

"There are a few New York-based bottlers who have done very well based on the tariff," Cronk said. "We had shipped before to the States in a flexi tank. If it's shipped in the right time of year, we see no degradation in quality. It's like a massive bag-in-box. The bag is completely empty and has no oxygen in it. It bulks up with liquid. It's only a couple weeks on the (ocean). And then bottling at the destination. It happens a lot in the UK."

Cronk said that if France doesn't force him to leave, he doesn't plan to move back to the UK. He said he's surprised by how little his neighbors care about Brexit, though he said if he lived in a fishing village it might be different.

"I feel more and more at home here," he said. "And the UK feels more and more like an island and becoming farther away from Europe. I actually feel more European, though I still feel very English. I want to stay here.

"Our children didn't have any context (in 2008) for why mommy and daddy wanted to take them away from their friends, and chucked them through the door of the schoolhouse here. We learned some French on the way down from Flight of the Conchords, like 'baguette' and 'soup du jour.' It was really painful for them and they made it really painful for us. They would be bawling their eyes out for hours. But now they're gabbing away to each other in French. I hope they'll be happy about that later in life."

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