Wine Spectator – June 30, 2014

SUPERSTAR ROSÉ – by Robert Camuto

The inside story of Chateau Miraval, the Provence estate where Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie pursue their wine-making dreams.

One of the biggest wine stories in recent memory comes in the form of a squat Burgundy-shaped bottle of Rosé from Provence. Not just any rosé, but one that arises from the winemaking passions of Hollywood’s most famous celebrity couple–Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. For Pitt, 50, a two-time Academy Award-nominee for best actor in a leading role and a longtime wine lover, the Miraval rosé is the culmination of a dream. “We became impassioned with this place, which coul produce it own wine, its own food, and become a place where artists could congregate and share ideas,” Pitt told Wine Spectator. After renting Miraval for several years, he and Jolie bought the property in 2012 for an estimated $60 million.

As the new owners released their first wine from Chateau Miraval last year, made in partnership with the Perrin family of Chateau de Beaucastel fame, the media took note in a way it rarely does for wine. News reports flashed around the globe as the wine was offered on a pre-arrival basis.

Fortunately, the wine’s quality matched the hype. The debut bottling, the Jolie-Pitt & Perrin Cotes de Provence Rosé Miraval 2012, rated an outstanding 90 points on Wine Spectator’s 100-point scale and ranked among the Top 100 of 2013. The recently released 2013, a blend of Cinsault, Grenache, Syrah and Rolle, is a fine second effort (89 points, $30. 16,000 cases made). Wine Spectator senior editor James Molesworth describes the wine as light, pure and steely in style, showing rose petals and strawberry flavors, with white cherry notes, followed by savory and stony hints on the finish.

Initially, Pitt and Jolie wern’t looking to become winemakers. “Truthfully, we were originally just looking for a European base for our family, so we could get to the other parts of the world we were interested in, and a place where our kids could run free and not be subjected to the celebrity of Hollywood,” Pitt says. “Then we disovered Miraval, and the idea grew.”

Soon after inking the purchase, Pitt turned to the Perrins, one of the Rhone Valley’s leading wine families, to help guide the estate. Pitt was introduced to the family through a mutual friend–American high-end furniture designer Frank Pollaro, who is both a collaborator in Pitt’s modern furniture collection and a longtime fan of Perrin wines, as is Pitt himself.

“I was looking for someone I could learn from and who would be interested in drawing on the strengths of Provence and the terroir of Miraval,” Pitt explains. “The Rhone Valley is on a similar latitude and altitude to our property. And it has a similar climate to where we are positioned. When you look at the Rhone Valley and its great winemakers, Chateau de Beaucastel and the Perrin family were not just at the top of our list, but make some of our favourite wines. Fortunately, [they] were interested in working with us as well.”

A visit to Miraval convinced Marc Perrin, general manager of the Famille Perrin wine company, and other family members about the site. “Miraval is its own valley, with exposures in all directions,” enthuses Perrin, 43, shouting over the engine of a two-seat off-road vehicle as he bounces it over an ancient road that cuts through Miraval’s vineyards. “There are few estates in the world that have their own valley. A winemaker could never own this, unless it was in the family for something like 20 generations.”

The Perrins quickly became smitten with Miraval–and its potential to produce great rosé, white and red wines. They were drawn by its breezy and relatively cool microclimate, its well-drained limestone-clay soils and the organically cultivated vineyards. What’s more, with only about 90 acres under vine–less than 8 percent of the estate–there is plenty of room to do what the Perrins do best: find great terroirs and develop them for great wines.

The Perrins, top producers in the Southern Rhone who make myriad wines but are perhaps best-known for their flagship Chateauneuf-du-Pape estate of Beaucastel, insisted from the beginning that Miraval’s business be a 50-50 venture between them and the Jolie-Pitts. “It really is a partnership between two families–the Perrins and the Jolie-Pitts,” says Marc Perrin.

The Jolie-Pitts and the Perrins share a commitment to quality. “For better or worse, given my compulsive nature, if we are going to be in the wine business, let’s make the best wine we can,” Pitt says. “I looked at the operation, which was absolutely fine if you are making wine for your friends and neighbours. But I would see our [delivery] car pull up, load two cases of wine to drive them two hours away, and be gone half a day. The business model didn’t make sense to me. So I asked the question, ‘Why can’t we make a world-class wine in Provence?’ Let’s approach it like a film, and let’s make something we can be proud of and all people can enjoy?”

The Perrins quickly modernized Miraval’s rosé vinification, while also more than doubling the rosé production, from the approximately 5,800 cases produced by the estate’s previous owner in 2011 to 16,000 cases of the Jolie-Pitt & Perrin 2013 released earlier this year. They achieved this partly by limiting the production of red wines, partly by ensuring a healthier crop through better vineyard management, and partly by buying organically grown grapes destined for rosé (about 30 percent of what is used in the blend) from Miraval’s neighbors.

In addition, the Jolie-Pitt & Perrin label has just released a fresh, rich-tasting Coteaux Varois en Provence White Miraval 2012 (88, $34), made mostly from the roll grape (as Vermentino is known in the south of France). Next up are Syrah-based reds, expected to be released in 2016.

“There is a rosé boom, and throughout the world, when people think of premium rosé, they think of Provence,” says Perrin. “But the drawback is that the area is not seen as producing top reds and whites.”

Perrin and Pitt say they hope to help change that perception by showing what the local terroir can achieve with red wine–at this point, the estate’s weakest link.

“What really interests me now are the reds,” Pitt says. “It’s generally believed that Provence is not capable of producing a fine red. Yet I’m inspired by the vision of Peter Fischer [of Provence’s Chateau Revelette] and the work of Jeremy Seysses [of Burgundy’s Domaine Dujac] or the Delorme family of Domaine de la Mordorée. I, with Marc and Pierre [Perrin], would like to create a wine which utilizes the best attributes of our terroir, and outside the restrictions of the AOC, like what the Italians achieved with their super Tuscans. We envision a superb Provence red. A super Provence. Give us seven years.”

Miraval lies nestled outside the tiny, medieval town of Correns (pop. 830), about 50 miles easy of Aix-en-Proevence. The property’s gated entry road winds some 2.5 miles, through stands of green oaks and Mediterranean pines, Provençal garrigue, olive groves and vineyards up to 45 years old, ending in the center of an isolated east-west valley. Prior to its sale to Pitt and Jolie, the estate, where winemaking history dates to its days as a monastery in the 13th century, had been revived most recently by an American businessman more than 20 years ago, his local team focusing on high-end white wines along with red cuvées and a solid rosé called Pink Floyd.

The heart of Miraval is a farm hamlet with several buildings dating to the early 15th century–a time when the property was taken over by an Italian noble family who presided over it for the next four centuries. Layers of history are visible everywhere. Roman-era aqueducts traverse nearby vineyards along the valley floor, filling a small lake and moat. There is a Roman cemetery nearby and a hidden, medieval escape tunnel that leads from the farmhouse to a nearby forrest. A 35-room manor house built in the 18th century is flanked by stone barns, stables and a chapel, all added at different times. Not leasy, onetime owner Joseph Lombot, the inventor of reinforced concrete, added a blocklike winery building, still in use, in 1850.

In 1970, French jazz pianist Jacques Loussier bough Miraval and converted an old water storage tower into a recording studio, used over time by musicians ranging from AC/DC to The Cranberries, and where Pink Floyd recorded songs for its album The wall. The studio, with its massive soundboard, remains intact; Pitt and Jolie use it for movie voice-overs.

By the early 1990s, however, the estate had fallen into decline, and no wine had been produced for most of a decade. Then in 1993, American businessman and wine lover Tom Bove (who made his fortune in water treatment patents in Switzerland) convinced his family to buy Miraval.

“I had an urge to bring it back,” says Bove, now 70. Bove began with “50 acres of really bad vines,” and replanted most all of them. He more than doubled the size of Miraval by buying up neighboring properties, converted the estate to organic agriculture, and renovated Lombot’s 19th-century winery with its concrete fermenting tanks. His team also cleared and restored abandoned terraces (built by convicts from Toulon in the early 1800s) for olive tree cultivation, and the estate began producing olive oil (still sold mostly locally) at a nearby mill.

In the sale to Jolie and Pitt, Bove kept about 250 acres of the 1,200-plus-acre property for himself (including about 17 aces of vines leased the past two years to Miraval) and will begin making rosé, red and white under the Mira Luna label beginning with the 2014 harvest.

On a bright and cloudless day earlier this year, Miravals empty main house is undergoing a major renovation. A nearby hillside has been planted with some 1,500 small oak trees to encourage future truffle cultivation. Estate manager Gary Bradbury, an Englishman with a shaved head and the muscular build of a pub bouncer, leads a guest northwest of the house, where a team of workers is rebuilding stone terraces that had been overgrown with forest. The work is slow and painstaking, as stones excavated on site are hand-chiseled and then laid precisely into tall, 4-foot-thick walls stretching for hundred of yards.

It was on a walk in 2012, Bradbury recounts, that “the boss”–as he calls Pitt–notices the stone ruins of some centuries-old terraces and was inspired to clear the 7 acres of hillside. “We spent days out here,” Bradbury says with a grin. “The two of us with chainsaws.” When completed, the terraces will be planted with a traditional Provençal polyculture of olive trees and grapevines.

“I am a farmer now,” Pitt says. “I love learning about the land and which field is most suitable for which grape, the drama of September and October: Are we picking today? Where are the sugar levels? How is the acidity? Is it going to rain? It’s been a schooling for me. In the off months, I enjoy cleaning the forest and walking the land. It’s very peaceful and the anthithesis of the drive, the want, the need to get ahead indicative of life in Hollywood. I’m instantly reminded what quiet sounds like.”

Miraval’s vineyards overlap two southeast France wine appellations. Most of the estate lies in the sprawling Cotes de Provence (est. 1977), which extends to the Mediterranean Sea and its chich resorts such as St. Tropez. To the west, a smaller portion of the estate lies in the decade-old, more mountainous Coteaux Varois en Provenc, which is more continental in climate.

Both of these appellations are dominated by southeast France’s most famous wine, rosé, demand for which is booming. “Overall, Provence is the perfect spot for rosé,” Perrin says, standing in a vineyard of short-pruned Grenache vineyards on a valley floor.

He points out the land countours and the gently rising slopes a few hundred yards away. Grapes destined for rosé and red wine are concentrated in the soils on the valley floor, which have higher mixes of clay. The poorer, more limestone-dominated soils of the surrounding slopes and ravines are preferred for mineral-laced whites made from Rolle and Grenache Blanc. “In rosé you don’t mind a little bit of richness in the soil,” Perrin says, “because you like the soundness and rich charachter in the wine.”

Miraval’s single bottling of rosé, blende from about 50 percent Grenache, 40 percent Cinsault and 5 percent each of Rolle and Syrah, is far and away the estate’s main wine, now dawrfing the annual production of both white wine (about 2,600 cases) and red (about 1,600).

In 2012, before their first harvest together, Perrin says he brought a varied selection of southern France rosés to Miraval to taste with Jolie and Pitt and so determine a stule for Miraval. With the tasting, Perrin says, came agreement. “Many rosés are just light,” he says. “Our idea was that it also had to be juicy and fleshy and fresh.”

Making a complex rosé is as much about winemaking as it is terroir. The challenge of Provence rosé is to extract delicate aromas and complexity in a wine whose ideal color is the palest of pinks. “To make a rosé that balances aromas, freshness, acidity, with the right color is not easy,” Perrin explains. “It has to be done with coll temperatures, and limiting contact with oxygen.” To achieve those goals, the Perrins introduced changes such as a new soft inert gas press to seal-off air contact, and they pulled rosé production out of the old winery.

All Miraval wines, including the rosé, had previously been fermented in concrete vats, still used for a small portion of the estate’s white wine and also suitable for the reds. But in 2012, in a farm building previously used for wine storage, the Perrins installed Miraval’s first modern steel tanks for fermenting 95 percent of the rosé and most of the white wine.

About 5 percent of the rosé blend is gleaned from Syrah grapes by way of the saignée method. In this technique, grape must used for red wine is “bled” after limited skin contact. The resulting light-colored juice is fermented in used barriques, which “bring complexity and flesh to the wine,” according to Perrin.

After fermentation, all wines are transported to Famille Perrin’s state-of-the-art modern winery in Orange, about 100 miles away, for maturation, blending and bottling. There are no plans, for now, to build a new winery at Miraval. Perrin is quick to point out that Miraval is a work in progress, based on experimentation. Looking to future plantings, he says the focus will be on red wine, which he believes has great potential here.

Pitt and Jolie inherited plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon, representing about 10 percent of current production. But the Perrins intend to uproot those vines and replace them with other varieties. “Cabernet doesn’t work here,” Perrin insists, noting that it has difficulty ripening and can produce vegetal flavors. For reds, he is looking to plant four or five exceptional plots in Miraval’s hills. “There we can make something of depth, intensity and balance.”

To make his point, Perrin drives the Rhino off-road buggy up a stepp, southern-exposed to a plot of about 5 aces now covered with oaks and garrigue. Here, about 1,500 feetup, there is constant wind. The slope lies between Miraval’s two appellations but is part of neither–meaning that any wine produced from grapes here would be labeled as generic Vin de France.

“We believe the best terroirs [at Miraval] are outside the appellations,” Perrins says, bending to pick up a stone from a carpet of limestone fragments on the soil. “Limestone is the signature of France in wine,” he says. “It makes the difference between wines that are all fruit and wines that are complex.”

Perrin speaks in general terms about a future red that may take another decade to realize. He speculates that it will taste “more northern than southern in character,” and that the partnership will explore planting a range of wine grapes from Syrah to Cabernet Franc to forgotten local heirloom varieties.

Driving back to the hamlet of Miraval, Perrin stops the buggy to point out another spot being considered for a red wine vineyard–a forested, high-altitude slope where ancient terraces lie long abandoned. “Look,” he says. “We have all this playground here to work with. We just have to plant it.”

How Miraval will be planted and what it will produce is an open question that both the new owners and their wine partners are willing to answer one step at a time. “There is a prevalent spirit of creativity here, and it is our goal to continue in that spirit,” Pitt says. “What comes out of it, I can’t say yet, but we want to be true to that spirit.”