An in depth look at Bandol (I)

Bandol is considered as the only region where Mourvèdre reaches its full potential, thanks to its sun-drenched terroir. Mourvèdre, a late ripening grape variety, needs as much sun as it can get, but can at the same time be prone to drought stress, making is not always easy to find the right conditions. Bandol however, is perfect: 3,000 hours of sunshine, clay soils that retain water, cooling ocean breezes and shelter provided by an amphitheater formed by the Gros Cerveau in the south, Sainte-Baume to the North and Caume to the East. This does not mean however that it is a uniform region: clay and limestone around Le Castellet, sand and limestone around Sainte Anne d’Evenos (where Dupuy de Lôme makes fantastic wines, or red clay near Ollioulles (home of Terrebrune, which I’ll talk about down the road), all these soil types lead to unique wines.

At its core, Mourvèdre is all about fruit. It may be hidden by layers of game, spice, wood or meat but when you peel these away with time, there is a brimming, shiny core of juicy plums and freshly picked blackberries. Vinification can go a long way in constructing these layers, or it can help to bring the fruit out in a much more direct way. In Bandol, they clearly take the long way around and the best estates can strike just the right balance between structure and nuance.

So if it is fruit you’re after, more often than not you need to be patient. Youthful Bandol may sometimes be deceptively fruity on the nose, but I think that it is the other grape varieties luring you in only to smack you against a wall of tannic power for being foolish enough to tackle the wine too soon. The higher the percentage of Mourvèdre, the rawer the wine, almost begrudging you for stirring it from its slumber and knowing how much Mourvèdre was use can generally help you along in discovering when you can start approaching a wine.

Take the wines of the Bunan family for instance. Paul and Pierre Bunan entered the wine business in the sixties, and the family has since expanded it tobecome one of the largest independent producers of Bandol, yet not without continuously focusing on quality and character. They actually own two estates: Domaine Bunan up in the hills near La Cadière d’Azur (almost pure clay), and La Rouvière on the way up to Castellet (chalk and limestone running through). Aside from soil composition, the blend of the two wines differs slightly, but vinification is the same.

A comparison of 2013 proved to be enlightening: Bunan Moulin de Costes (70% Mourvèdre, 20% Cinsault, 10% Syrah) is black olives, red berries and black cherries with the tannins giving a nudge but not dominating, versus Chateau de la Rouvière, (90% Mourvèdre, 10% Syrah) which goes more on game, cloves and liquorice with a tight impression on the palate. The Moulin de Costes was the more approachable one, but that does not mean that it would not benefit from additional ageing, as proven by the 2002 I enjoyed a few weeks ago: blackcurrant, plum, olives and a bit of dust, yet juicy and fleshed out on the palate.

Of course, Mourvèdre is not the only factor in the blend that accounts for a wine’s character and attitude in its youth. Grenache can play quite the important role as well, as it does not have the compact structure that necessarily requires a lot of time to get ready. I had the pleasure of enjoying Jean-Pierre Gaussen’s 2008 (70% Mourvèdre, 30% Grenache) on two separate occasions over the summer, and the wine delivered on both. A little bit of reduction and stink that blows off, followed by liquorice, coffee, even a bit of chocolate. The palate is quite fleshed out, with juicy yet elegant fruit impressions. Tannins are present, but integrated and as a whole the wine has hit a high point on its maturity curve, great for yielding to temptation already, but equally rewarding for those who will be able to wait.

There is not a lot of Carignan planted in Bandol but what is there possesses the best quality you can find in the grape variety: age. Young Carignan has too much of everything: acidity, sugar (alcohol) and tannins, but as the vines grow older and yields go down, the true qualities surface, and a delightful combination of Middle-Eastern spices and earthiness is formed. There are only a couple of producers who still maintain the vines and actually use it in their blends, and my favorite by far is La Tour du Bon, run by the lovely Agnes Henry.

In vintages where yields are ok and where there is enough material to create a good entry level Bandol, a separate cuvee ‘Saint Ferréol’ containing only the best Mourvèdre and what little Carignan there is will be produced as well. If it’s not possible, the Carignan will find its way into the entry Bandol as was the case n 2002 or 2015 for example. Like Mourvèdre, Carignan is a variety that needs to go through a calm phase, so it should not come as a surprise that the wines need a lot of time.

The 1998 Saint Ferréol (85% Mourvèdre, 15% Carignan) has just hit its prime: liquorice, cinnamon and a hint of nutmeg, followed by cherries and blueberries. Focused, more straight in character than most Bandol on the palate, with well-integrated tannins and generous fleshy fruit, only to end on a note of freshness, with everything being simply so incredibly balanced. A wine that will stay at its peak for at least another five years!

Now with all that talk on the red wines of Bandol, I forewent an economic reality: 73% of all wine produced is rosé (based on 2016). These are however not the pale and bland wines that have become so ubiquitous in the Provence, but wines of character, maturity and intensity. I love the ripe, succulent strawberries and pomegranate seeds that you can encounter in any decent Bandol rosé, combined with a whiff of garrigue. Add a rather tight acidity and a firm structure on the palate, and it should come as no surprise that particularly in their youth, these are food wines. 

When it comes to rosé, Mourvèdre often plays second fiddle to Cinsault or (in increasingly rare cases, Grenache). Cinsault is a seriously underestimated variety, and its combination of earthiness with deliciously crunchy red fruit harmonizes perfectly with the structure and firmness that Mourvèdre brings to the table. Domaine Bunan’s Moulin des Costes rosé is a wonderful example of graceful Cinsault (60%) with an edge to it. Appellation rules allow the inclusion of white varieties, namely Clairette, and Domaine de la Tour du Bon makes perhaps the sunniest expression of rosé that I have encountered in the region, even with a couple of years behind it.

There are estates that rely almost exclusively on Mourvèdre for their rosé production though, and it is with these wines, as with the reds, that the ageing potential of the variety really shines through. Pibarnon’s rosé (65% Mourvèdre) is for me personally the most perfect yet stereotypical Bandol rosé with garrigue just jumping out of the glass regardless of the wine’s age (as proven by the remarkable 2000 mentioned before).

The most atypical rosé wines that I have encountered in Bandol are those from Domaine de la Bégude. The estate itself is magnificent, set at the highest point of the appellation close to the Massif de Sainte Baume. 500 hectares, of which only 22 planted with vines, with a magnificent view all the way to the Mediterranean Sea, if ever there was a bias-inducing environment, this would be it! The estate itself is owned by Guillaume Tari, of Chateau Giscours fame, and the current president of the Syndicat des Vignerons.

The vinification style is decidedly modern, whereas all the vineyards are organically certified. The two rosés produced at the estate immediately stand out because of their colour: you would be forgiven if you thought you were in Bordeaux! The Estate rosé (80% Mourvèdre, 15% Grenache, 5% Cinsault) is dense, fruit driven but bright, whereas the Cuvée Irréductible (90% Mourvèdre & 10% Grenache) goes even further, fleshed out, more on the spicy side. It is a bit too much in its youth to be honest, so hopefully it will come around with a bit of bottle time.

The Provence Series

photo credits: Domaine de la Tour du Bon, De Wijnzolder

3 thoughts on “An in depth look at Bandol (I)

  1. I’ve loved Bandol for many years. The wine that got me interested was actually a Bunan, initially Mas de la Rouvière some time in the 1980s (I only drank the Château de la Rouvière after). I always wanted to visit, but I never have.

    I’ve drunk a few nice Bandols this year, Pibarnon and some of the Tempier cuvées, but I only own some of Tempier’s 2005. I very much enjoyed reading this piece.

    1. Thanks for your kind comment! Coincidentally, it was Chateau de la Rouviere for me as well, tasted about six or seven years ago at the Real Wine Fair and stopping me in my tracks.

      The big names find their way to the export markets, smaller ones are not always easy to find unfortunately, also as they have quite a strong domestic market.

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