Bandol: Provence’s Best Kept Secret

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.

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