Challenge: Name what some have termed the five “noble wines” of France and Italy—those special regions whose depth, expression, tradition, and class have historically set the gold standard for distinguished wines and up-and-comers alike.

Hint: They all begin with the letter “B.”
If you have a basic knowledge of the world of wine, you’ll quickly come up with the first two answers: Bordeaux and Burgundy, the most famous of French appellations and perhaps the best known wine regions on earth.

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If you know your stuff, it won’t take you long to decipher the next two: Italian powerhouses Barolo/Barbaresco and Brunello di Montalcino, the pride of Piedmont and Tuscany.

So far so good. But that’s only four. The fifth noble wine poses a greater challenge—one that may well stump even the savviest among us. But don’t despair: unless you’re a sommelier of some sophistication or, like me, you stumbled into dumb luck while vacationing in Provence, you’re not likely to have ever heard of a tiny seaside region called Bandol.

Nestled between Marseille and Toulon on the French Riviera, Bandol produces red wines of great power and depth. Bandol natives like to describe their wines as having aromas of leather, undergrowth, Havana, and minerality, with flavors of black fruit, eucalyptus, violet and liquorice when young and red fruit, Morello cherry, jam, spices, truffle and hummus when aged. While such precise specification may give rise to allegations of imaginative exaggeration, there’s no doubt that Bandol possesses a complexity and nuance of flavor shared by too few wines.

Characterized by cherry and blackberry flavors, an earthy (sometimes herby or feral) richness, a strong tannic structure, and plenty of pepper in its youth, Bandol’s voluptuous ripeness reflects its sun-baked terroir. The hilly region enjoys over 3,000 hours of sun per year, and the vineyards from which its red wine draws its grapes almost always face the sunny south.

The warm (often hot) Mediterranean climate creates an ideal ecological environment for Bandol’s roi cépage (“king grape”), mourvèdre. Ample sun and scarce rain (which, when it does fall, is blown away by the infamous Mistral winds, thereby preventing rot) gives the late-maturing mourvèdre the time it needs to ripen. Most people know mourvèdre as a character actor who pops in and out of wines dominated by celebrities like syrah and grenache. But mourvèdre plays a starring role in Bandol, whose microclimate uniquely develops the intensity and layering of the grape like no other region. Indeed, Bandol is the only appellation in the world that requires all of its reds to be made of at least 51% mourvèdre, and some of Bandol’s finest offerings are closer to 90 or 95%. The balance of the blend is rounded out by cinsault (for finesse of texture) and grenache (for generosity of flavor).

With all of the deserved hubbub over Bandol red wines, it’d be easy (but unforgivable) to forget that the region also produces rosé wines of great distinction. By some accounts (and in this humble reviewer’s opinion), Bandol rosés are the best in the world, bar none. Composed mostly of cinsault with a splash of younger vine mourvèdre culled from northward facing vineyards, Bandol rosé is taught and trim where its red cousin is round and robust. When my fellow Americans tell me they hate rosés (as they almost always do), I ask them if they’ve ever tried a French rosé. And if they have and they still hate rosés, I ask them if they’ve every tried a Bandol rosé. If they haven’t, we drop everything and go to my house, where they discover that rosés from Bandol are everything rosés should be—dry, crisp, spicy and herbaceous, with strong minerality and a long, clean finish that resonates in the mouth and gladdens the heart. Few beverages satisfy on a hot day like a glass of chilled Bandol blush, paired with anything grilled or savored on its own. Anyone who has (rightly) foresworn pink wine after a scrape with California white zinfandel should give it a try. Many wines delight, but Bandol rosé has the potential to redeem (if not your soul, at least your palate).

[I should note that Bandol produces a small amount of white wine made primarily from clairette, bourboulenc, ugni blanc and a few other French grapes no one’s ever heard of. These wines are harder to find and, in my view, less worth seeking than Bandol rouge and rosé.]

But back to red. Bandol, unlike most of its Provencal neighbors, produces serious vins de garde. Although one can drink Bandol with pleasure within a few years of the harvest (I had an amiable 2004 Bunan at Chez Panisse Café a few months ago), the best Bandol reds don’t peak for 12 to 25 years. At a terrific little wine shop in Aix-en-Provence I purchased a bottle of 2001 Chateau Pradeaux, one of the better winemakers in Bandol. After ringing me up, the shop owner held the bottle firmly in his hand and waived his finger at me in warning. “It’s forbidden to open this wine before 2016,” he told me. And then, staring deep into my soul: “Forbidden.” While I don’t recommend opening a 2001 Bandol anytime within the next few years, other vintages are worth trying soon, even if they might improve with age. Bandol has this strange tendency to go through odd phases in its maturity: during the first four years it will be drinkable but aggressive, then it will undergo a stage in which the flavor drops out and the wine tastes imbalanced, but after year six or seven it will become more interesting, complex, and approachable. This isn’t true for every Bandol, but nonetheless it’s worth making an effort to serve it before four or (even better) after six years of aging, if possible. Whenever popping the cork of a young Bandol, be sure to let it decant an hour or two before serving.

Bandol winemakers are committed to producing wines of the highest quality. Bandol vines are planted on terraces, called “restanques,” which early growers painstakingly carved into the hills in an effort to prevent erosion and facilitate the natural distribution of water resources. Regulations are strict: only hillside plots with a density of at least 5,000 wines per hectare are included in the AOC, the wines must be aged in oak for 18 months prior to release, and growers are expected to express their commitment to low yields by implementing Bandol’s “one vine, one bottle” policy with vigorous pruning.

Fortunately, the considerable pride with which Bandol winemakers view their bottlings doesn’t tend to infect their hospitality or largesse. A visit to a Bandol winery is a pleasant surprise, especially for those of us used to being herded through costly, impersonal tastings at Napa Valley conglomerates. A sign next to the closed farmhouse door reads “sonnez,” and after you ring the large cowbell and wait some moments, an elderly gentleman emerges from the back, his forearms stained purple and his boots muddy. You come to find he and his wife own the place, and he’s in the middle of crushing grapes, but he’d be glad to have you taste whatever you like. His wife encourages you to sample la gamme—the Domaine’s entire range of cuvées--and eagerly awaits your reaction to each. It should be noted that these are no small pours--you’d best spit if you hope to make it through more than two wineries or otherwise navigate the sometimes treacherous hills without fear of wreck. When you’ve finished, your only dilemmas are how many bottles of that rock star 2001 to buy and whether to head down the road to the next domaine and keep tasting or instead to pop the cork of a fresh rosé and enjoy the breathtaking views of the mountainous terrain and rolling vineyards from the winery’s terrace.

If Bandol is so fabulous—indeed, if it can fairly be called a noble wine—why isn’t it better known?

Bandol’s lack of renown can’t be explained by its size. Sure, Bandol is small—a mere 1500 hectares of vines (one-tenth the size of Napa Valley) producing only 60,000 cases of wine annually (compared to 60 million cases produced by Bordeaux each vintage). But Bandol’s scarcity should only elevate its market value—just ask the fortunate few who have managed to taste Screaming Eagle or Chateau Le Pin.

Nor does the history of Bandol explain the region’s obscurity. Louis XV first made Bandol fashionable by serving it at the royal table. When asked the secret of youth, he replied, “The wines of Bandol.” In the 18th and 19th centuries, merchants shipped Bandol to India and the Americas as a matter of course. And in 1941, Bandol was one of the very first regions in France to be granted Appellation d’Origine Controlée status (“AOC”).

Nor should Bandol’s privileged location contribute to its relative anonymity. There’s something magical about Provence that has inspired authors and artists for centuries. Whether through Mayle’s vivid pen or Cezanne’s vibrant brush, Southern France reveals herself as sun-soaked but sea-cool, floral but arid, glamorous but simple—a generous enigma. Lavender fields, Roman ruins, and olive trees loom large in classic descriptions of Provence’s iconic landscape, but strangely missing from such sketches is much mention of one of the region’s oldest industries—wine. One might forgive the lack of attention given to Provencal appellations with less gravitas, such as Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence, Palette, Côtes de Provence and Bellet (though these regions merit a good bit more attention that they generally get, for reasons I hope to address in future columns). By contrast, the anonymity that cloaks Bandol can be chalked up to nothing but neglect, since its quality and pedigree far outstrip its neighbors and, when in true form, approach that of its Bordelais and Burgundian countrymen.

Then again, perhaps our Provencal and Provencophile friends purposefully “forget” to mention Bandol when regaling us of the virtues of the Côte d’Azur, hoping we might unwittingly blip past the spectacular hillside vineyards of le Beausset and le Castellet while zipping from bouillabaisse in Marseille to casinos in Monte Carlo. Having tasted Bandol, I can hardly blame them. If you had your pick of noble wine at a fraction of the price of Burgundy, Barolo or Brunello, you’d keep it quiet too.

Bandol at a Glance

Location: Provence, France (between Marseille and Toulon)
Size: 1,500 hectares (≈3,750 acres) of vineyards
Production: 60,000 cases per vintage
Principle grapes: mourvèdre (at least 51% in reds), cinsault, grenache
Recommended vintages: 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2003, 2004, 2005 (rosés)
Recommended winemakers: Dom. Tempier, Ch. du Pibanon, Ch. Pradeaux, Dom. Bunan, Ch. de la Rouvière, Dom. de la Tour du Bon, Dom. de Terrebrune
Food pairings: Provencal cuisine fixed with spices, garlic, rosemary, olives, tomatoes; grilled lamb and other richly flavored red meats.
Where to find it: In the Bay Area—Kermit Lynch Wine Merchants, Paul Marcus Wines, K&L Wines, Vintage Berkeley; in Chicagoland—Binny’s Beverage Depot; Online--www.binnys.com, www.klwines.com
Price: $20-40

 

This column, which runs monthly, explores the lesser known wine regions of France. Comments? Contact me at [email protected].