Bandol: Provence’s Best Kept Secret

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”).

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