Article By: Bill Nesto, MW
AOC law prescribes for Bandol the possibility of making three wines - a red, a rose and a white. Bandol producers, however, have always been defiantly red in the midst of a world conveniently pink. This small Provence appellation perched on the Mediterranean coast specializes in hearty and tannic red Mourvedre-based wines. A glass of Bandol red on a sizzling hot summer afternoon is a head-on collision. The locals and holiday clientele slake their summer thirst with invigorating Bandol rose or dip a glass into the ocean of Cotes de Provence rose. During a recent trip to Bandol, I discovered that Bandol producers consider the growing popularity of Bandol Rose a mixed blessing. They are selling more and more rose while Bandol red, the source of their identity and fame, is becoming more difficult to sell. About sixty-six percent of Bandol wines produced are rose, an embarrassingly large amount for an appellation whose raison d'etre is red.
Bandol's decision to stake its reputation on Mourvedre-based red wines dates back to the 193Os when Lucien Peyraud, owner of a small wine farm, Domaine Tempier, emboldened about 1O owners of local vineyards to do something that on the surface seemed foolish.
Before the 193Os, Provence had been a place where the French from France's north came to escape the winter cold. The red wines traditional to Provence were good companions for these cool winter days. During the 193Os, Provence made the transition from being a winter resort to a summer one. The waves of vacationers asked for refreshing wine. Local farmers responded by using their red grapes to make rose instead of red wine.
Peyraud, however, wanted to do something more than fulfill local requests for quaffing wine. He pointed out that Mourvedre had been common in the Bandol area before phylloxera infestation arrived in the late 19th century. When grafting onto American roots was identified as the solution to phylloxera, the locals replanted their vineyards with easier-to-ripen and easier-to-vinify varieties particularly Cinsault and Grenache. Mourvedre became a minor, even an endangered, variety in the Bandol area. Peyraud, however, wanted Bandol to stand apart from the rest of Provence by making great red wine. He exhorted his Bandol friends to replant Mourvedre and to use as much of it as they could in their red wine blends. It would be their opportunity to do something special and something different.
In 1941, Bandol became one of the very first AOCs. France's post war boom, the continued popularity of Provence and the increasing prestige of French cuisine helped support the growth of Bandol wines. It took longer for Bandol to be recognized outside of Provence. Key were the efforts of US importer Kermit Lynch who wrote about Lucien Peyraud in his "Adventures on the Wine Route" and who imported Domaine Tempier into the United States. Also important was Alice Waters, owner-chef of Chez Panisse restaurant in California, who championed Provence cuisine and the Domaine Tempier wines. Culinary pilgrims of the 198Os put a visit to Domaine Tempier and the Peyraud dinner table high on their list. As a result of the growing popularity of Bandol red wines, land dedicated to Mourvedre vines increased dramatically during the 197Os and 198Os.
Growing Mourvedre is not easy. Mourvedre may be the latest ripening winegrape variety on the planet. The saying is that the vines must "see" the Mediterranean in order to ripen. The Bandol appellation, which comprises hilly land around seven villages circling the small port of Bandol, gives Mourvedre its needed panorama. The climate can ripen Mourvedre almost every year, but it requires farmers to wait and wait and wait. Grenache and Cinsault, which are planted commonly all over Provence, ripen easily in September. Mourvedre ripens in rain-storm vulnerable October. Mourvedre makes its best wine in the cool and moist rocky, clay-limestone soil of Bandol's hilly areas. In valley floor vineyards, Vins de Pays and Cotes de Provence wines can be made, but not Bandol. The clay content of the best soils necessitates that, during dry periods, the vineyard surface be cultivated so that cracks do not increase in dimension. It rarely rains in Bandol during the summer. Along the Provence coastline, soils like Bandol's are rare. For example, east of Toulon there is a sandy, mica-schist soil that is dry and warm. There Mourvedre makes lighter weight Cotes de Provence red wines, as well as roses that are notable for their finesse, lightness and minerality. Bandol is the perfect spot on the French Riviera coastline for Mourvedre red wines of substance.
Neither is vinifying Mourvedre simple. With respect to rose production, the Grenache and Cinsault harvests are so close together that they can be vinified together. Mourvedre must be handled separately. Appellation laws require Mourvedre vines to be at least 8-years-old before they can be used for red wine production. Between 4- to 8-years-old, the production can be used for rose. This is one source of Mourvedre juice for rose production. Another source is the bleeding off of juice from musts destined for red wine production. Bleeding off, called saignee in French, heightens the color and structure of the red wines while creating rose wine as a by-product. In appearance, Bandol roses are distinctly more transparent than Tavel rose. Bandol roses are usually pale salmon. Cotes de Provence roses exhibit much greater variation in hue and intensity of color.
With respect to red wine production, Mourvedre wines have a tendency, particularly in their youth, to show reductive aromas. Reduction can lead to wines that smell of leather and manure. This makes it dangerous to oversulfite the wines. On the other hand, sulfiting can prevent microbial infections that result in gamey smells. Most producers mature their Bandol reds in old barrels. These older barrels can harbor microbial populations that are nicely kept in check by sulfite additions. Mourvedre's distinguishing characteristic is its richness in tannin, tannin that with bottle age provides a complex, long-lasting, drying finish. Mourvedre wine typically is low in acidity. Acidity would help balance the high alcoholic content of Bandol red wines.
Climate change complicates red wine production. Cyrille Portalis of Chateau Pradeaux reported that within his more than 2O years at Chateau Pradeaux, harvest dates have advanced 2O days. The reasons are increased heat and dryness. The last four years have been very dry. When I arrived in Bandol in mid-September, there had not been significant rain for 15 months. Only the vines were green. (Luckily for Bandol, but not for me, it rained heavily towards the end of my stay.) Unfortunately, heat and dryness quickly drive up the sugar concentration in the pulp much faster than the pips and skins mature physiologically. In order to make great Bandol red, it is essential to wait for Mourvedre pip and skin maturity. Otherwise the wines are bitter and rustic on the palate. As one waits for the pips and skins to mature, sugar content increases in the pulp. As a consequence, modern Bandol wines contain about 15% alcohol. The high alcohol results in more thorough extraction. Jean-Luc Dumoutier of Domaine de L'Olivette reported, "In the last few years, particularly the last three, I have done less maceration. Now I am afraid of over extraction." Restoring freshness and drinkability to Bandol reds is a concern of many producers. JB Dutheil de la Rochere of Domaine Ste. Anne credited northwest expositions with keeping the domaine's wines fresh. Reynald Delille of Domaine de Terrebrune asserted that his terroir in Ollioules naturally produces more harmonious, less brawny wines. His 2OO3 Bandol, an unusually hot vintage characterized by high alcohol wines, proved his point. It was the easiest-to-drink and softest 2OO3 Bandol that I tasted during my stay. A more radical solution has been by Guillaume Tari of Domaine de la Begude. His vineyards sit at 4OO meters above sea level, higher than all others in the appellation, yet his Mourvedre vines still gaze on the Mediterranean. He gets lower alcohol and higher acidity yet the same degree physiologic ripeness as producers at lower elevations. A Begude 2OOO Rose that I tasted was lively and fresh. So were Tari's 1998 Bandol and the 2OO1 La Brulade Bandol.
Another threat to Bandol producers are developers of holiday homes who can offer them more money for their land than they could ever hope to make in terms of wine sales. Bandol producers are family owned estates who live and work on the land they own. The only exception is the Ott estate, which a few years ago was sold to Roederer. Bandol families wonder if their children will want to stay on the land. The French government also threatens. It has taken away land by eminent domain in order to secure a pathway for the future TGV line to Nice. Now there is a big fight about it.
After the formative period of the Bandol appellation, producers had split into two associations, one called the "producers" association and the other the "domaine" association. Each organization has a wine shop where the members' wines are sold to the public. In the last few years, all the producers have united in one organization, the Association "Les Vins de Bandol". This organization now occupies new administrative offices and visitor's center. In the future, it will open up a large shop for the sale of all Bandol wine products. This organization operates independently of the CIVP, an interprofessional association that represents the other appellations in Provence.
Bandol producers are trying to remain faithful to the vision and determination of their parents who set Bandol on an unlikely but ultimately successful path: to become the premier red wine producing appellation of Provence. They face many challenges. Mourvedre's difficult personality, climate change and euro-waving developers. Though Bandol rose is a good cash crop, Bandol producers do not strongly identify with the wine nor do they seem to have that much affection for it. Perhaps the increasing popularity and fame of Bandol rose is another threat.
During my recent trip to Bandol, I tasted white, rose and red Bandol wines. I found the white wines lacked a clearly defined appellation profile. With increasing focus on Clairette, a profile might come into focus. The roses, too, lacked a clear profile. I was told that Bandol roses were wines that needed time to evolve and were best served with cuisine. I am not yet convinced. The 2OO5 wines I tasted either on one hand harked to the fresh light fermentative style of Cotes de Provence or, on the other, were more solid, structured and dull. Bandol roses do not excite me - Bandol reds do. Style and character of the reds differed from producer to producer, but all the wines expressed a common ethos. Among the reds, I tasted three wines from the great 2OOO vintage which showed me that the dreams of Lucien Peyraud and his band had been attained. They were the La Tour du Bon, the Domaine Bastide Blanche, Cuvee Fontaneou, and the Domaine Lafran-Veyrolles, Cuvee Speciale.
One 2OO4, the Les Lauves from Domaine La Suffrene, stood out in my various tastings at domains.
The Association of the Wines of Bandol, which represents all the producers of the region, set up a blind tasting of twenty producers' 2OO4s. There are about 5O producers of Bandol. The following twelve red wines, listed in the order of my preference, were superb and showed the great promise of the 2OO4 vintage.
La Bastide Blanche
&endash; Cuvee L'Estagnol
The following is my vintage assessment for red wines based on the wines I tasted during my stay in Bandol.
summer, elegant, some approaching drinkability.