It might seem strange that in the midst of winter my mind turns to Provence, a region synonymous with rosé. But within Provence lies the magnificent appellation of Bandol, whose signature wines are deep, rich and intense reds made predominantly from Mourvèdre.
Despite my penchant for lean, esoteric or ‘sommelier’ wines (as a tasting companion of mine cheekily describes them) there are times when what I really want is a smooth, plump and generous red. And that’s Bandol rouge, a perfect wine for this time of year when the weather’s cooler and the food heavier.
Located next to the vast rosé appellation of Côtes de Provence, the tiny appellation of Bandol, is referred to by many, including Decanter Magazine’s Andrew Jefford, as the ‘one true Grand Cru’ of Provence. While its name is taken from the small chic seaside town of Bandol, the appellation’s vineyards lie just inland. Nestled in the hills you’ll find beautiful villages surrounded by vines; the deep blue waters of the Mediterranean in the distance. Here, a collection of elevated, south facing amphitheatres capture the sun to create a unique microclimate. Bandol gets an average of 3,000 hours of sunshine a year compared to Burgundy, which gets around 2,000 hours of sunshine in a good year and only 1,600 in a dim one. Despite all this southern French sun, Bandol’s proximity to the Mediterranean and its persistent Mistral wind, means this warmth is tempered, ensuring coolish nights and making it ideal for ripening grapes.
The cooling influence of the Mediterranean gives Bandol ideal grape ripening conditions.
Bandol itself makes very good rosé and small amounts of white, but its best is red. Appellation laws require a minimum of 50% Mourvèdre; the balance usually made up of Grenache and/or Cinsault. The thick skinned, late ripening Mourvèdre (also known as Mataro in Australia) thrives in Bandol, where it produces some of the best examples of the variety in the world. As Jancis Robinson MW notes in her tome Wine Grapes, “Provence’s most famous red wine, Bandol, is arguably Mourvèdre’s finest expression,” a view shared by The Wine Advocate: “no wonder its (Bandol’s) wines are hailed as the apogee of Mourvèdre.”
Mourvèdre vineyard - Chateau de Pibarnon
So what to expect from a Bandol red? These are wines we know and like in Australia - generous, tannic and high in alcohol. You’ll find them mouth-filling, well structured and age-worthy, with flavours that include blackberry, liquorice and a meaty spiciness. The New York Times wine guy Eric Asimov describes them well: “predominant flavours include dark fruits, licorice, herbs, tobacco and earth. If you shy away from overly fruity wines, like flamboyant Châteauneuf-du-Papes from warm vintages, Bandols offer excellent, more savoury alternatives.”
Bandol Rouge evokes a sun-drenched climate, making it perfect to pull out in the cooler months, when it’ll bring a little Mediterranean warmth to your table.
There are just a handful of top producers in Bandol - here are a two I hope you like.
Chateau de Pibarnon
I’ve told the Pibarnon story before; they're one of the best rosé producers in Provence but it’s actually their reds that put them on the map.
This idyllic estate, with its amphitheatre-style setting, lies high in the mountains above the Mediterranean Bay of La Ciotat, between Marseille and Toulon. Its beautifully restored Provençal country house is surrounded by about 50 hectares of vines… stunning.
Comte Henri de Saint-Victor purchased the estate, the highest in the Bandol appellation, in 1975. He then set about reinvigorating it, restoring the house, acquiring more land and carving out terraces in the landscape to minimise erosion and maximise water absorption. With son Eric de Saint-Victor at the helm since 2000, Pibarnon continues to excel.
“The wines are gorgeous and offer classic examples of the appellation… These are classic Bandols that should not be missed.” eRobertParker.com, Feb 2014.
“The red is robust when young but develops a range of subtle, typically Mediterranean aromas, together with very fine tannins, that places it amongst the greatest of all the French wines.”Bettane and Desseauve’s Guide to the Greatest Wine of France 2011.
“Two Stars - producteur de très grande qualité,” (the equal highest rated producer in Bandol). Le Classement des Meilleurs Vins de France 2009.
“Chateau Pibarnon… a great Bandol classic with wines of depth, balance and without peer in Provence.” Le Classement 2005, Bettane & Desseauve (bigwig French wine critics).
“Chateau Pibarnon is one of Bandol’s best estates. All (wines) are of very good to outstanding quality, and are some of Bandol’s most well-crafted bottlings.”Wine Spectator, July 2003.
'Restanques' is the local name given to the vineyard terraces carved into the steep Bandol hillsides.
This is the estate’s entry-level red, made from 70% Mourvèdre and 30% Grenache. The fruit comes from a relatively young, single, four-hectare site that sits at an elevation of 200m. The younger vines tend to produce a lusher, silkier style of Bandol.
The wine has a higher percentage of Grenache than Pibarnon’s flagship cuvée, and much more than your average Bandol red, making it a more approachable and early drinking style.
Rich, rust tinged red in colour. On the nose it’s a charcuterie, savoury focus. A delicious wine-gummy red fruit emerges on the palate, integrating nicely with pepper, subtle spice notes and a savoury stoney finish. Dense and concentrated, yet very approachable - this is so smooth.
“Thanks to the cooler season, this is a suppler and more primary wine than last year's richer example. The tannins are also super fine, giving centre stage to the wines' fruit notes on the palate - blackberry, dark cherry, anise, and dried flowers. It's smoother than the more expensive bottling (from 2012), with terrific finesse and a perfumed finish suggesting the fruit notes listed above but also wild lavender, thyme and bay. All in all, a cracking value Bandol.” Bibendum Wine Co.
This is simply a delicious wine and although it’s an absolute delight to drink now, it’ll still go a few years in the cellar. The wine below is a step up in intensity and cellaring, but I reckon this one’s better drinking now, and it’s unbelievable value.
I can offer it for $56 a bottle. ORDER ONLINE
This is Pibarnon's top wine, a blend of 90% Mourvèdre and 10% Grenache. It’s based on selecting the best fruit from the oldest vines from twelve small plots, a few of which are considered some of the best sites in the appellation.
The wine “has a finesse and seamlessness that is unique by Bandol standards, yet there is still serious stuffing. On one hand, there is incredible density of forest fruits, meaty, savoury, spicy and peppery notes, and on the other, there is, again, incredible purity, delicacy and superb clarity. It is really too complex to put into words, so let me put it this way. Imagine someone distilled down the essence of Mourvèdre and yet tamed any rusticity that this grape is sometimes capable of producing in rougher terroirs. Here we have the fantastic balance that only a great terroir can produce with depth, finesse and fragrance all playing their part and a lingering, very mineral finish built of perfume. A truly great vintage for this fine, nuanced and uniquely elegant Mediterranean red.” Bibendum Wine Co.
"More approachable, yet still with classic Mourvèdre character, the 2011 Bandol (same blend/elevage as the 2010) offers ample blackberry, raspberry, underbrush, allspice and assorted floral nuances to go with a medium to full-bodied, balanced and seamless profile on the palate. Polished and already delicious, yet with fine tannin and solid concentration, it will continue to thrill for 10-15 years. These are classic Bandols that should not be missed!"93 points, Jeb Dunnuck, eRobertParker.com #211.
A seriously good wine. Dense, concentrated and one to put away.
I can offer it for $90 a bottle. ORDER ONLINE
How could I write about Bandol without mentioning Domaine Tempier? While many place Tempier and Pibarnon alongside one another at the top of Bandol in terms of quality, there’s no doubt Tempier is the most recognised.
So much has been written about this fabled estate and the dynamic couple who brought it to prominence, Lucie ‘Lu Lu’ Tempier, now in her 90s, and her late husband Lucine Peyraud. These days the estate is run by the tall and talented Daniel Ravier.
Richard Olney wrote a definitive history of the Domaine in 2002 and was the first to introduce influential US wine merchant Kermit Lynch to it in 1976. Lynch became a disciple, spreading the word in his seminal book ‘Adventures on the Wine Route’ (1988), which I recommend you read. Lynch was instrumental not only in bringing Tempier to the attention of the US market, but also for its subsequent cult following around the world.
“… the wines of Domaine Tempier stand as the proud benchmark when talking about Provençal wines. Through their passion, pioneering, and advocacy for Bandol, the Peyrauds have become legendary… If any wine can be said to have soul, it’s Tempier.” Kermit Lynch.
The estate makes four Bandol Rouge; one from a mix of terroirs referred to as the Cuvée Classique and three from single vineyards; La Migoua, La Tourtine and Cabassaou.
La Tourtine vineyard - Domaine Tempier.
All four of the Bandol Rouge are made in a similar way. The grapes are picked by hand and after de-stemming are fermented in stainless steel tanks for about 2-3 weeks using natural yeasts. Red fermentation takes place with the skins, so after fermentation the combination of wine and soggy skins, known as the must, is pressed out. The resulting wine is transferred to large oak vessels known as foudres (25-50hl) where it is aged for 18-20 months. The wine is bottled unfined and unfiltered.
I have a few Tempiers in my cellar and they are an absolute joy to drink. I wish I had more.
This wine is a blend of 75% Mourvèdre, 25% Grenache, 9% Cinsault and 2% Carignan, sourced from several of the estate’s vineyards.
The winemaker describes it as “A fruity, well balanced wine that can be enjoyed after 3 or 4 years, but develops extremely pleasant tertiary aromas (leather, animal and undergrowth) with further ageing. The wine’s balance gives it an ageing potential of 15 years or more.”
But be aware that the French view of fruity and ours is very different, as made clear by this note from Kermit Lynch: “Sorry, fruit juice fans, but the nose is more earthy than fruit-driven, with hints of damp soil, mushroom, and thyme along with a touch of black cherry. It is simply delicious Bandol from a historic estate whose wines live up to its reputation year after year.”
“Notes of dark fruits, mineral and peppery, Provencal herbs all emerge from this medium to full-bodied, beautifully pure, elegant 2014, that should drink reasonably well on release.” 89-92 points, Jeb Dunnnuck, The Wine Advocate, June 2016.
I can offer it for $75 a bottle (very limited) ORDER ONLINE
The Tourtine vineyard sits in the Castellet region at around 170m elevation, which puts it above Cabassaou but below La Migoua vineyard. The soil is clay and limestone (chalk), and the vines are over 40 years old. 80% Mourvèdre, 10% Grenache and 10% Cinsault, this inky dark and beautifully concentrated wine is perfect for cellaring.
“La Tourtine produces powerful, tannic wines with gorgeous fruit character.”Kermit Lynch.
“The La Tourtine parcel… yields a powerful, rich, concentrated and surprisingly polished Bandol that has the fruit and texture to impress in its youth, yet the concentration to age beautifully.”The Wine Advocate.
“Offering more minerality than the Cuvée Classique, the 2014 Bandol La Tourtine is a structured, tannic effort that has lots of fruit, ample mid-palate density and a masculine, firm style that will need bottle age to resolve.”91-93 points, Jeb Dunnuck, The Wine Advocate.
A very special wine. Just one bottle?
I can offer it for $110 (very limited) ORDER ONLINE