Ruby in the Provence crown: The Bandol Story

Bandol

Provence is rosé — at least that is what all the statistics tell you. With 90% of the combined production of the appellations, Côtes de Provence, Coteaux d’Aix and Coteaux Varois being pink, the red and white wines are barely noticed. However, Bandol AOP is regarded as the centre of Provence red production, although even there, over 70% of the production is rosé (produced mostly by the cooperatives) and only a fifth of all the wine made is red. Still, wine is not just statistics, it also includes the heart and soul of the winemaker, and most producers, especially those of Bandol, light up when you mention their red wines.

Bandol on the map of Provence in the south of France

Located on the rolling hills behind the small Mediterranean port of Bandol, between the naval port city of Toulon and the massive commercial port of Marseille, the region has always had a ready market for its wines and oil. Italian sailors and engineers were pensioned off with small plots of lands where they terraced the hillsides with dry stone walls. Wines sold through the port of Bandol had a big “B” branded on the ends of the barrels.

Today, Bandol is regarded as the French home of the variety Mourvèdre, but its history starts in Spain, where it is known as Monastrell. Legend has it that pilgrims returning from Santiago de Compostela brought vine cuttings as souvenirs. Landing at the port of St Gilles, in the Camargue region of the Rhône delta, their Monastrell vines were planted and did well. Known as le plant de St Gilles, its wines were a favourite at the papal court in Avignon in the 14th century.

The wines of Bandol were not so very different to those of the rest of Provence until the early 20th century. Small growers and cooperatives made up the majority of production, with a small number of wealthy family estates leading the way in terms of quality. Throughout the 1930s these large estate owners campaigned for the setting up of the appellation which was created in 1941. Their aim was to promote high quality Bandol based on Mourvèdre, with great ageing ability to make it comparable to the reds of Bordeaux, Burgundy, Côte-Rôtie, Hermitage or Châteauneuf du Pape.

Among the estate owners were Contesse Arlette Portalis of Château Pradeaux, Marquis de Pissy (who would go on to create Domaine de Frégate), the Tempiers of Domaine Tempier, Dr André Roethlisberger, a Swiss owner of Château Milhière (which no longer exists) and Marquis Dutheil de la Rochère of Château Ste Anne,

Ancient Mourvèdre vines. The grape has its origins in Spain’s Mediterranean region

The big problem was that after phylloxera, Mourvèdre practically disappeared. By 1943 there were only two producers with any serious plantings. Léonie Tempier and son-inlaw Lucien Peyraud sourced new Mourvèdre cuttings from Château de Beaucastel in Châteauneuf du Pape. By 1947 they were able to stipulate in the appellation rules that a 10% minimum of Mourvèdre was required. The percentage crept up throughout the 1970s, reaching 50% in 1980, at which time Carignan was still allowed as a primary grape variety, and Pinot Noir even as a secondary one! It was only in 1989 that the appellation’s rules took their current form.

Bandol received additional fame when, in 1954, the Hollywood star Marlon Brando was for a while engaged to a young girl from Bandol. Paul Bunan, inspired by the romantic story, dreamed of settling in the area. When he and his family arrived in France in 1961 from Oran in Algeria, they moved straight to Bandol and bought their first wine estate. The beauty of the area attracted others. The Hocquard family from Paris bought their Tour de la Bon estate in 1968, originally as a family home before moving into wine production. The Achille family created Le Galantin in 1970 and in 1978 Catherine and Henri de Saint Victor bought the estate of Pibarnon.

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The appellation of Bandol covers 1,614 hectares on an amphitheatre made up of hills and valleys, with a patchwork of clay and limestone soils, rising up to the highest vineyards of Domaine de la Bégude in the northwest. Vineyard parcels tend to be small, nestling on terraced hillsides, surrounded by forests and, unsurprisingly, hand harvesting is obligatory. This is not a region of large scale mechanisation.

The red wines of Bandol at this time were big and tannic, the result of long maceration and heavily pressed, followed by obligatory ageing for 18 months in barrels to mellow the tannins. Tasting notes of Bandol in the 1980s are full of comments indicating that at least a decade was required for the powerful tannins to mellow.

Despite the saying that Mourvèdre needs to have its feet in the sea and its head in the sun, almost no estates have coastal vineyards, but most have a view of the sea. With global warming, an increasing number of Mourvèdre plantings can be found in other Provence regions, away from the sea, but few have yet to achieve the power and depth of the wines from Bandol.

Terrace vineyards located on the rolling hills behind the small Mediterranean port of Bandol

Divided between 69 estates and 300 grape growers working for three cooperatives, the number of small estates are growing, as producers leave the cooperative to produce their own wines, increasing the diversity of styles. Although the minimum amount of Mourvèdre is 50% of the blend, most wines have much more; its resilience to climate change making it increasingly attractive.
Maceration is reduced and producers are playing around with different size barrels as well as old and new oak.

The current trend is for red wines which have both power and fresh elegance, and are drinkable in youth (although they do go through a moody teenager phase after a few years) but still have great ageing ability.

Nevertheless, these reds are not for quick and easy quaffing. They benefit from decanting and a slower, more relaxed moment in time. With age the primary spice and black fruit notes evolve into more complex notes of black olives, dried thyme and oregano.

Economics always plays a role in the development of wine styles. Wines which are released young fit the current trend for lighter, summer reds, and have led to some producers stepping out of the appellation with IGP Mont Caume or IGP Var to produce unoaked reds. Provence-style rosés do exist, but the more full bodied rosés are better. Even these wines improve after at least a year of ageing which shows off Mourvèdre well. There is even a growing demand for white wine.

The reds, however, remain the heart and soul of the region, with a large number of old museum vintages lying in cellars, and still tasting magnificently, a part of the living history of the appellation, and well worth seeking out.

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