The greatest appellation of the Provence: Bandol

Bandol is the greatest appellation in the Provence. Sure, you may think that there are certain estates that deliver superior wines like Richeaume or Trévallon, and I would agree with you, but there is a consistency to the wines of Bandol, a particular touch that makes them stand out as a whole. In white I would say that there is still a lot of work, especially with Cassis only a stone’s throw away and the nearly unbeatable complexity of Chateau Simone, but in red and rosé, Bandol reigns supreme on the Provençal wine scene.

Oddly enough, there is not a vine in sight when you visit the town of Bandol. As the map shows, most of the estates (and vines) can be found around La Cadière-d’Azur, Le Castellet and Saint-Cyr-sur-Mer. How did a town that made no apparent contribution to the production of wine end up being the face of the appellation? Bandol can thank its harbor for that. In the eighteenth century the wines produced in the neighboring villages already had a well-established reputation as ‘vin de garde’ wine that needed time to develop. This made it particularly suitable for export to the Americas or Northern Europe. Bandol thus became a trading hub, home to over 300 tonnelliers producing hundreds of barrels to fill with thousands of hectoliters a day to ship out to the rest of the world.

As in the rest of France, the phylloxera plague at the end of the nineteenth century was cataclysmic. Vineyards were decimated, export dwindled, and what is replanted years on was selected on yield (to recover from the economic damage sustained) not on quality. Enter Lucien Peyraud, a young man from the Ardèche, who falls in love in Marseille, with a girl who happens to own a wine estate: Domaine Tempier. One day, his father -in-law offers him an old bottle of wine that was produced at the estate in the good old days. Little did he know then that this particular bottle would be a revelation for Lucien. In a region were most wines produced at that time were decaying after a couple of years, this ancient bottle was so full of freshness and life, setting Lucien on his quest to restore Bandol back to its former glory.

Upon investigating the golden nineteenth century, Lucien figures out that the key to the wine’s reputation had always been Mourvèdre, a grape variety largely ignored when the vineyards were replanted after the phylloxera devastation. Focus was on yield and easy vineyard work, yet Mourvèdre is low yielding and difficult to get to optimal ripeness if you are not prepared to put the work in it. At its best however, it is one of the greatest grape varieties. Lucien understood that, if he were to have a real shot at putting Bandol back on the map, Mourvèdre would need to be put back on the foreground.

Around the same time, the French wine scene had been revolutionized by the implementation of a structured appellation system. In order to guarantee quality and distinctiveness, a framework of rules was created (varieties to use, work in the vineyard, work in the cellar, yield, control) that could be adapted to local characteristics. Before long, consumers caught on and realized that wines within an appellation, although not necessarily better, offered a degree of predictability superior to those outside of it.

The Syndicat des Producteurs was created in 1939, spearheaded by Lucien Peyraud, André Roethlisberger (of the now defunct Château Milhière) and Arlette Portalis (Château Pradeaux) focusing at first on gathering as much information and as many testimonies on authentic Bandol as possible. Their efforts were presented to the INAO, and impressed by the zeal displayed by the vignerons and the quality of the wines, the appellation Bandol was created in 1941.

Luckily for us, just being able to put ‘appellation d’origine controlée’ on the label was not enough. A set of strict rules would need to be set to ensure that the wines sold under the AOC would be up to the standards Peyraud and friends had in mind, and it ended up being one of the more ambitious appellation frameworks in the entire country.

Yields were restricted to 40hl/ha, which is the second lowest limit in all appellations when it comes to red wines. Châteauneuf-du-Pape caps yield at 35hl/ha, outdoing Bandol, the appellations of the Northern Rhône follow Bandol at 40hl/ha, but others of perhaps greater reputation are more flexible (around 55hl/ha for great Bordeaux, or 45hl/ha for Bourgogne GC). Of course, grape variety, soil and climate will also play a role in the possible or most suitable yield, but even if we look at the surrounding Cotes de Provence appellations, Bandol stands out on strictness (CdP villages remain around 50hl/ha).

Furthermore, it is not enough to plant a couple of rows of Mourvèdre to call whatever you produce out of it Bandol, you need to be patient. It is only after seven years that the juice you collect from these vineyards becomes eligible for the AOC. Even when the vines are too young to be used for the production of Bandol, yields are still restricted to the rules imposed by the appellation!

It should come as a surprise to exactly no one that Mourvèdre was considered as the main grape variety. Given that the vast majority of it had not survived phylloxera, and that what little Mourvèdre still around needed to be at least eight years old, a compromise was struck: Mourvèdre would need to contribute only 10% of the blend.  As more vineyards were planted and reached the maturity required to qualify for the appellation, the minimum percentage increased, up to the 50% we see today. Even so, no serious producer has ever kept to the strict minimum, and nowadays most use between 70% and 90%. The bet on Mourvèdre has paid off, as the success of Bandol boosted the popularity of the variety all over the South of France, resulting in an increase in total plantings from 567 to close to 10,000 over the past fifty years, with about 20% planted in the Var.

Now, with all these rules set, the most important question remains: what makes Bandol Bandol? Find out in this weekend’s publication!

The Provence Series

Photo credit: Domaine Tempier

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