Provence lies in the south east corner of France. There are many famous wine regions within Provence, but none make better wines than Bandol. Wine has been made in Bandol since the Phoenicians planted the first vines 2,500 years ago.
The Romans also made wine here, shipping them from the nearby village of Bandol, from which the wine region took its name. Bandol surely benefitted from being a port city. The wines of Bandol were popular with the royal court in the 16th and 17th centuries. Louis XV said they provided him with vital sap and wits. Certainly much wine produced elsewhere was labeled as Bandol due to its fame. The wines were available in far away ports such as Brazil and India as long ago as 1800.
The village of Bandol, traditionally a fishing village, is on the Mediterranean coast, east of Marseille. Bandol is also the name of an AOC region created in 1941which covers eight communes. The vines are inland in the hills between La Ciotat and Toulon running down to the sea. Today, the AOC is restricted to this natural amphitheatre. The vineyards are terraced into the hillsides making automated harvesting virtually impossible. The soils are red clay and limestone. The biggest danger to the region’s wines, however, is that the property is in demand for vacation homes which has driven up the cost and value of the vineyards.
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Bandol is equally famous for its Rosés and its Reds. I have previously discussed the Rosés here: Provence Rosés: a Summer Staple from Southern France.
Bandol wines are based on the Mourvèdre grape, the only AOC region in France for which this is true. This grape plays a small role in the southern Rhone but is the predominant grape here. It is a very tannic grape with plenty of structure. The red clay soils add to the tannic quality of the wines. Mourvèdre also gives an animal quality to the wines. It is a late ripening grape that is well suited to the warm Mediterranean climate. By law the red (and rosé) wines must contain at least 50% Mourvèdre grapes. Most producers tend to use a much higher amount. The remainder may include Grenache, Cinsault, Syrah and Carignan. The latter two can account for no more than 15 %in total and 10% individually. Care must be taken to prevent the over ripening of the Grenache which would lead to roasted flavors and higher alcohols so it is often planted on the cooler north facing slopes. Prior to release the wines must spend 18 months in oak.
About 70% of all wine production in Bandol is red. Most of the remaining 30% is Rosé, although a small amount of white wine is made. The whites are made from Clairette, Bourboulenc and Ugni blanc.
Red Bandol wines are quite tannic in their youth. And need cellaring to bring out their best. They have black raspberry fruit with spice and often a good dollop of oak. The better ones don’t begin to hit maturity for seven to ten years while even the basic ones usually need a few years to open up. The Rosés drink well on release. Featuring clean strawberry flavors they are consistent with other Provence and southern Rhone Rosés.
The most famous winery in Bandol is Domaine Tempier which traces its roots back before the reign of Louis XV. In 1936 Lucie Tempier married Lucien Peyraud, who took the winery to the foremost heights of Bandol. Lucien became the spokesperson not only for his winery, but for Bandol wines itself. Eventually their sons took over their winery. Today, the sons have been joined by their sisters and manage the winery while the day to day operations are headed by Daniel Ravier, a non-family member. They make a variety of Bandol labeled wines. Cabassaou is made from 95% Mourvèdre. It costs close to $90 a bottle and demands at least 5 to 10 years of ageing before consumption. La Tourtine also needs ageing as it is 70% Mourvèdre. It costs about $45 a bottle. Classique is 75% Mourvèdre with Cinsault, Grenache and 3% from old vine Carignan. It costs closer to $40 a bottle. Cuvee Speciale is an 80/20 mix of Mourvèdre and Grenache. It also runs about $40 a bottle. Finally, La Migoua is about 60% Mourvèdre and runs about $45. All of these wines are excellent but if you buy them now, patience before opening will truly be rewarded. Domaine Tempier also makes a rosé and a white. Unfortunately, the price on these has risen to $40 and $50 respectively.
Domaine Ott is another winery that excels in Provence. While they make a variety of wines, they also craft Bandols under their Chateau Romasson AOC Bandol label. Three of them are rosés; the Cuvee Marine, the Coeur de Grain, and the Cuvee Marcel Ott, and two of them are red Bandols. Chateau Romasson Rouge is a blend of Mourvèdre, Cinsault, Grenache and Syrah. Longue Garde is a step up and also a blend of Mourvèdre, Cinsault, Grenache and Syrah. I rarely see anything but the Domaine Ott Rosés in the stores. I did taste and purchase the Longue Garde on a trip to the winery a few years ago and was very impressed.
Chateau de Pibarnon is also a leader in Bandol. Henri de Saint Victor purchased this property in 1975 and runs it today with his son. While they make a white and a rosé, their red wine is the most famous. Les Restanques de Pibarnon is an easy drinking wine that is accessible on release. It retails for around $20. Chateau Pibarnon Rouge AOC Bandol has risen in cost and now is close to $50 a bottle. It is 90% Mourvèdre and really needs to be cellared for five to ten years to be fully enjoyed. Pibarnon has really improved quality over the last ten years and their wines are consistently some of the best from Bandol.
La Bastide Blanche winery has been owned since the 1970s by Michel and Louis Bronzo. They make a few different red cuvees. The Fonatnieu is 100% Mourvedre and retails for around $25. It drinks well now with some decanting but really needs a few more years in the cellar. The basic Bastide Rouge is 70% Mourvèdre with the rest mostly Grenache and a bit of Cinsault and Carignan. It retails for around $20.
With the difficulty in planting and harvesting the terraced vineyards, combined with the quite low yields, Bandol is not an area to look for really inexpensive wines. There are, however, a few less expensive alternatives being produced.
Bandol wines are natural matches with grilled meats and hearty cheeses. Especially when enjoyed young, they have a lot of tannins. Perhaps it is due to its proximity to the sea, but I think these wines match very well with heartier seafood dishes.
These are wines that belong in any serious wine lover’s cellar. I would encourage you to buy some and lay them down. If you can find some with some age on it now, all the better. I would love to know what you think.
Loren Sonkin is an IntoWine.com Featured Contributor and the Founder/Winemaker at Sonkin Cellars.