An in depth look at Bandol (II)

Whole-bunch fermentation is a hot topic in winemaking these days. As anyone who walked passed a vine come harvest time has surely noticed, a grape bunch contains not only grapes but also stems. These stems only make up 3 to 4% of the total bunch, but they can have a big impact on the vinification, which is why winemakers will often separate them from the grapes. It is not a binary choice though: depending on the style or type of wine, a winemaker can include a portion of the stems in the fermentation. In general, inclusion leads to wines with more freshness and differently structured tannins.

When included, the most important thing is to ensure that the stems are ripe. You can have the world’s most perfect grapes to work with, if the stems are not ripe enough, it will be noticeable in the wine through greenness and herbaceousness. Ripeness comes with time and it can be a source of frustration for winemakers that stems and grapes do not always reach their optimal point simultaneously. Waiting for ripe stems can lead to too much sugar accumulating in the grapes (resulting in higher alcohol) or to a drop in acidity. The safe bet is to simply skip the whole-bunch fermentation fashion and destem.

The whole-bunch fermentation conversation mainly focuses on Pinot Noir or Syrah. For other varieties, the question rarely pops up, often because the grapes already have a good tannic structure on their own (which is not something that can always be said of Pinot Noir), or because it is tricky to get ripe stems (Cabernet Sauvignon is quite notorious). Mourvèdre is one of the varieties that understandably falls in the first category, but as always, there is a lot more nuance when it comes down to what actually happens in the field.

First, Mourvèdre grape bunches can reach complete ripeness (grapes and stems) in Bandol, so there is less risk of green tones. Next: terroir. Wines will more easily retain an element of freshness if the vines grow on soils with a high chalk content than on thick layers of compact clay. Finally, to destem or not to destem is but one of the questions a winemaker needs to answer. The decision to crush or not to crush afterwards is equally important. Not crushing the grape bunches will introduce an element of carbonic maceration in the fermentation process, which will in turn add flavor and freshness without a tannic structure.

There is to my knowledge no estate in Bandol working with (partial) carbonic maceration. There are however some Mourvèdre examples in the new world, for instance Craig Hawkins’ Monkey Gone to Heaven in South Africa or Dirty & Rowdy’s Familiar in the USA, but the techniques behind them have not found their way back to the old world.

Few estates are completely going for wholebunch fermentation. Some prefer a partial approach, but the impact on the wine will still be quite marked. I recently tasted Lafran Veyrolles’s Cuvée Spéciale 2006, which not only contains a heftier dose of Mourvèdre than the entry level cuvée (95% vs. 70%), but which also has a destemming ratio of only 40% (vs. 80%) The wine was clearly in a shutdown phase, reductive, gamey in the nose and rough and tannic on the palate. I did wonder a bit when and how this would soften, but only time will tell.

The two estates that to do go all in are Chateau Pradeaux and Ray Jane. I mentioned Chateau Pradeaux in my first article on Bandol, and its contribution to the appellation is difficult to ignore. The estate was acquired by Jean-Marie-Etienne Portalis in 1752, and has always remained in the same family. For decades, the work was outsourced while the family remained in Paris, but when Arlette and Suzanne Portalis were forced to flee the city during the Second World War, they took back direct control of the estate. The estate’s long track record, as well as Arlette’s determination to prove the greatness of the wines helped to secure the appellation status in 1941. These days the estate’s in the capable hands of her nephew Cyril and his two sons, Etienne and Edouard.

Respect for tradition is met by a rigorous focus on quality, instigated in the eighties by Cyril. Herbicides or pesticides are eschewed in the vineyards, yields are stricter than what the appellation dictates (26 to 32hl/ha) and attention to old vines complement an old fashioned style of wine making, characterized by wholebunch fermentation and extensive ageing in large old barrels (40 to 80 years old!).

The estate produces two Bandol appellation wines. Le Lys is a blend of 85% Mourvèdre and 15% Cinsault, sourced from relatively young wines (20 to 30 years old) and 20% of the Mourvèdre is destemmed. Elevage is about 28 months, but that does not mean that the wine is ready to drink upon release. The 2012 shows earth and game, dried prunes yet with surprising freshness on the palate. The Cinsault has something to do with this, but as Etienne explained, the high proportion of chalk in the soils surrounding the house where the vineyards are planted aid in creating a refined structure.

The Bandol 2012 is a whole other story. No destemming, 95% Mourvèdre complemented by 5% Grenache, and 36 months ageing in large oak barrels. Very little is given away at this almost embryonic stage, but there is an intensity to it that instigates confidence for the future. The 1995 shows the direction that the wine will involve in. Whereas it does not completely shed its brooding character, there is a lovely fruitiness that pops up, showing black currant and blackberries, even a bit of raspberry. After 23 years, a gentle side emerges, and while the tannins are still a bit harsh, there is length and persistency throughout that are extremely rewarding for those with patience.

Although Alain Constant founded Ray Jane only in the seventies, the winemaking roots of his family go back to the thirteenth century. Together with Pradeaux, the estate prides itself on being one of the guardians of traditional Bandol winemaking, although with a bit more attention to the more contemporary commercial aspects. The core business is clearly rosé, as proven by the stacks of bag-in-box wine at the entrance. When I was tasting in the shop, the majority of the clientele came in to purchase copious amounts of decent rosé (it may have had something to do with the fact that it was the day before the 14th of July), showing very little interest in the red wines. Although they may not be the most complex wines, the rosé wines (VDP and Bandol) are ridiculously good for their price, and you would be hard-pressed to find a wine more accommodating on a warm summer evening.

In red, Ray Jane produces three AOP Bandol wines. The Cuvée de Sanary can be considered to be the entry level wine made from ‘young’ vines, located near the town of Sanary, which is actually lies quite a long way from the heart of the appellation. The parcel has been acquired only a couple of years ago, and the vines are between 50 and 60 years of age. The 2013 will turn out to be the most approachable wine, but this does not make it an easy one. Very typical Bandol with prunes, blackcurrant and meat, yet lacking a bit of depth.

The Bandol 2013 (sourced from different plots) is quite reductive in the nose, even a bit green, but shows more promising components on the palate. It is a muscular wine, tannins slapping you around and clearly unhappy at this time, but there is a gentler softer touch towards the finish. Both wines are brooding in character, and lack for my taste a bit of energy. Constant aims for softness and will thus harvest quite late to ensure that the acidity is low. Furthermore, whole bunch fermentation will lower the acidity a bit as well, and seeing as the vines are planted dense clay, it is no surprise that freshness is difficult to find.

The estate can proudly claim that with a plot planted with 120-year old vines, they own the oldest vineyard in the appellation. Soil composition is a bit different here, as the layers of clay are interspersed by fossilized shells, so there is a more nuanced complexity that is achievable here. Falun 2012 surprised by a floral note in the nose, nothing exuberant but nuanced and subtle. The gamey and wild side dominates the first impression, but the finish is elegant and with a light but vibrant fruit touch to it.

Finally, Ray Jane is one of the very few to produce a wine containing only Mourvèdre. VDP Mont Caume 2010 has been aged for four years in large old barrels, so it is a bit in the tradition of Pradeaux, but at only a quarter of the price as it is ‘only’ a vin de pays (as appellation rules dictate a maximum of 95% Mourvèdre). Liquorice and leather rule the nose, yet there is a surprisingly soft start on the palate. It really shows that Mourvèdre needs a lot of time to start finding itself, be it in barrel or in bottle.

What is difficult to ignore in the wines of both producers is their brooding character. These are not exactly wines that will instantly put a smile on your face, although they can be rewarding in their own way. It is a challenge to retain freshness with the Bandol terroir, and whole bunch fermentation may push the wines into the rusticity trap. For my personal palate, I wonder if these wines will develop the charm and finesse that I so love in Bandol, and think that a bit of focus on the playful side would push the wines in a gentler direction.

The Provence Series

6 thoughts on “An in depth look at Bandol (II)

    1. In general you would look at the degree of ‘lignification’, which is the stems changing colour from green to brown and actually becoming stalky. If this is not the case and you work with sappy stems, they will interfere much more with the fermentation than when they are dry. Of course, just as with the grapes, stem ripening is an uneven process, so in certain vintages with patchy weather for instance, it becomes difficult to avoid some greenness.

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