When we dream of Provence, the idea of serious red wine rarely plays into the lavender-scented reverie. It is more likely that we imagine Provence’s easy-drinking, refreshing rosé, which seem aligned with the tone of the sunny South; that of leisurely lunches, listening to the nearby tinkle of yachts in the harbour, sea gently lapping the shore… It would be a shame, however, to experience Provence only through rosé-tinted glasses.
Looking beyond the vast pink Provencal sea, a beast of a wine lurks on the horizon. Compared to the ubiquitous light rosé of Provence, the intriguing red wines of Bandol are a different animal. In fact, red Bandol is a wine that is often described as almost ‘fauve’ (feral) in character.
The town of Bandol lies on the Côte d’Azur in Southeastern France, between gritty Marseille and the pretty harbour town of Toulon. This little seaside town is quaint and distinctly Provencal in character, but has an underlying depth and je ne sais quoi — except we do — it’s the strength of its powerful wines which props it up and sets it apart.
Bandol for the drinking thinker
DH Lawrence and Aldous Huxley spent time in Bandol — before it was cool, obviously. These days, the area is quite popular with tourists; lauded for its beautiful sandy beaches, cliffs, inlets and coves, rolling hills and pine and willow trees. Yet despite its increasing holiday appeal it has retained an air of cool — not surprising considering it was originally the intellectual’s seaside resort of choice: think Huxley and Lawrence engaging in deep philosophical discussion under the willow trees versus Brigitte Bardot frolicking in St Tropez, glass of rosé in hand. Bandol emanates a calm and confident cool, while further east there is the effervescent glamour and glitz.
I stumbled upon Bandol while living in the South of France, and being something of a Mourvèdre enthusiast, I was immediately charmed by the reds of Bandol; the complexity and nuance of flavour, the aromas of leather, black fruit, spices and violets, and the rich, earthy taste and strength of tannic structure. While Mourvèdre has the reputation of being something of an untameable beast, it seems extremely well-behaved and well-adjusted in Bandol.
In Bandol, Mourvèdre is the kingpin grape, accounting for a minimum of 50% of the wine blend, even sometimes making up 100% of the wine’s composition. Mourvèdre as a grape is a key player in the grape blends of the south of France and Spain; bringing power, backbone, and longevity. On its own it is a a rare and wild thing; Bandol is the area that has learned how to tame the beast into something beautiful — velvety, powerful, densely dark-fruited… A wine to be reckoned with. The soils and climate of Bandol are perfectly suited to this late-ripening variety, and it is only here that we will see a blend so dominated by this grape; producing wines that harmoniously balance power and elegance, and that often need a few years’ ageing to tame the tannins.
What makes Bandol so boss?
The south-facing vineyards and sun-baked soils of Bandol enjoy about 3000 hours of sunshine per year, and this makes for ripe, full wines, balanced by that impressive tannic backbone. And yet, despite all its strength, the wines often display an interesting delicate nuance of flavour — floral, and herbal notes appear — even hints of truffle. The hundred-year-old terraced vineyards on rocky soils are hand-harvested, the yields are low, and the price is often high. And yet, Bandol is a wine that merits the price tag; not merely hanging from its prestige, like many other big names, but on the increasing quality of the wines that the AOC produces. Speaking of prestige and big names, I personally value Bandol’s meaty, complex reds as highly as I do the other big Bs of France — Bordeaux and Burgundy. They offer as much depth and nuance, ageability, and silky, sinewy power. I also get a kick out of the idea that the wines of Bandol are still a little bit of a secret.
Bandol also produces some of the finest and most unique rosé wines in the world. They are usually a blend of Mourvèdre, Grenache and Cinsault, resulting in a round, full-bodied wine with an intense nose of rosehip and berries, and an undercurrent of minerality. This gives a distinct freshness to these wines that are delightful in their youth, but that also age exceptionally, due to the presence of the Mourvèdre grape. Bandol’s rosé wines are captivating, crisp, and refined, often with a stunning complexity of flavour.
THREE TO TRY
€39.95 – available at The Corkscrew
Lucien Peyraud, who ran Domaine Tempier from 1941 to 1982, was not called the ‘high priest of Mourvèdre’ for no reason.
This predominantly Mourvèdre blend has a savage edge, softened by a creamy, toffee sweetness. This Bandol is perfectly balanced, with fine acidity and an elegant but solid tannic structure. A cult classic.
€26.10 – available at Le Caveau
A slightly fruitier Bandol owing to the high proportion of Grenache, which gives the blend a delicious cherry character.
This fruitiness plays a perfect counterpoint to the spicy, peppery accents of Mourvèdre, with Cinsault uniting the whole. This 2006 is ideal for enjoying now, after having spent some time mellowing and softening its powerful tannins.
€29.50 – available at Terroirs
This delicately pale pink wine offers orange blossom, stone fruit, and berries on the nose, leading to a complexity and richness on the palate that is harmoniously married with a dry mineral acidity.
This elegant rosé has a touch of honey on the finish, along with lingering hint of strawberries and cream.
Naomi Ní Chatháin is a WSET-certified wine specialist from Co. Clare. She studied French and Philosophy in NUI Galway before pursuing a master’s degree in Wine Tourism (or ‘oenotourisme et projet culturel’) in Nimes.
Naomi loves French culture, and has lived in different parts of France over the years.
Her other passions include the pessimistic philosophy of Schopenhauer, the music of Bob Dylan, and road trips across America. Naomi is also a professional baker, and founder of NaomiBakes.com.
She is a firm believer in eating delicious, healthy cakes every day, and has a small subscription-based healthy cake kit delivery business.