With its mighty, meaty red wines and elegant rosés, Bandol is one of Provence's most prestigious wine regions. This is an introduction to these wines and some of the best places to try and buy them.
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Bandol is fully dominated by its reds. Tannic, earthy, spicy and complex, they're not as universally well known as the wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy - but they're valued by many connoisseurs just as highly.
However rosé wines of distinction and a smaller quantity of whites are also made under the Bandol Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC).
And we were surprised to learn that much wine produced in the territory is Côtes de Provence AOC rosé. Many vintners also make humble vins de pays.
It seems the lighter, easier-drinking Côtes de Provence rosé sells best and most of the wine-makers we met seemed to regard it reluctantly as a way of "subsidising" their real passion: the more exciting, exacting reds.
Note that Bandol doesn't actually have any vineyards in the town centre. But it gives its name to the appellation because it was the port from where the wines were exported around the world.
A THUMBNAIL HISTORY
Wine has been produced in Bandol since the Greeks arrived in Provence in 600 BC. The Romans carried on the tradition with enthusiasm and, throughout the Middle Ages and beyond, it continued to thrive.
Bandol wines even found favour in very high places: at the French court. According to legend, when the hedonistic Louis XV, pictured, in a 1748 portrait by Maurice Quentin de la Tour, was asked the secret of his youth and vigour, he replied promptly, "The wines of Bandol". It's as good a reason as any to drink them.
The late 19th century saw the terrible phylloxeria epidemic, which wiped out vineyards all across Europe. Bandol was not spared, and wine-makers had to start again from scratch.
Bandol wine as we know it today was created then, and a strict list of specifications was drawn up - indeed, it's one of the most complex lists in France. In 1941 Bandol became one of the country's first regions to earn an AOC rating.
There are few huge estates: the average size is just 10 hectares / 25 acres. And because of the sloping land, most vineyards are set on steep, stone terraces known locally as restanques. For this practical reason, as well as because of the AOC regulations, Bandol grapes have to be harvested by hand.
The soil types vary from pebbly limestone to rich clay and so the wines vary too between vineyards. Moreover many vineyards are also subdivided into smaller parcelles or plots, each producing its own distinctive wine type. Pictured top left, the Domaine Souviou and below the Domaines Bunan.
Around 55,000 hectolitres / 1.5 million US gallons of wine are produced in Bandol annually. The soil is poor and its vines aren't prolific. Their lifespan is much shorter than, say, in the Côtes de Rhône AOC region and the yields are very low: 40 hectolitres per hectare / 1,057 US gallons per acre, less than half the regional average.
Under AOC regulations, Bandol vintners aren't allowed to produce more than that, even if they could. But many prefer to produce less. For this reason you're unlikely to be able to see these wines on sale on the cheap, en vrac (from a pump) or in a BIB ("bag in a box").
But they're certainly readily available, both locally and internationally - as far abroad as China, India or Brazil.
Bandol wines travel well and have been shipped abroad ever since Roman times - as is attested by the hundreds of terracotta amphorae (wine jars) found in shipwrecks all along the coast!
Bandol's chief characteristic is the omnipresence of the Mourvèdre grape. This thick-skinned, late-ripening varietal is notoriously hard to grow but thrives in these particular soil and climate conditions.
No other wine in the world uses Mourvèdre in the same quantities. Bandol reds must contain a minimum of 50 per cent and some wine-makers use as much as 95 per cent. (Rosé and white Bandol wines must also contain it at a lower level.)
The higher the percentage of Mourvèdre, the higher in alcohol and more tannic the wine, and the longer it needs to mature before being ready to drink.
A quirk of these wines is that there's a "window of opportunity" when some of them can be drunk after a couple of years. Then the window slams shut, the wine becomes less palatable and you have to wait patiently - sometimes for up to 25 years. Whatever the case, a Bandol wine must spend at least 18 months being aged in an oak barrel.
The reason: to test the effect of sea water on the maturing of the wine. It seems the sea bed offers ideal conditions: humidity, darkness and a constant pressure and temperature.
The bottles were sealed with wax to prevent the corks being affected by water pressure. The seabed cache was covered with sand and its exact location kept top secret to avoid being raided by thirsty pirates or scuba divers.
120 identical bottles were also stored on land in a conventional cellar.
Twelve months later, in August 2016, the bottles were all retrieved. And experts, including one of the world's top sommeliers, Philippe Faure-Brac, came in to give their verdict.
Monsieur Faure-Brac said that the bottles stored underwater had matured more slowly, resulting in more nuanced and balanced wines, especially in the case of the whites and rosés. In all cases the effect seemed nothing but beneficial and he recommended repeating and perhaps prolonging the experiment.
The Oenothèque de Bandol is a brilliant place to start, and ideal if you are based in Bandol itself and don't want to drive. On the seafront at the eastern edge of the town, it's a bright, modern showcase for the entire region, selling wines from almost all its vineyards - at vineyard prices.
Around ten bottles are available for you to taste, free of charge, and to buy, advised by the friendly sommeliers / sales staff. The Oenothèque doesn't take appointments: you just turn up and take your luck.
We spoke to the very knowledgeable Jeanne Cerna, pictured, and tasted, among other wines, a Château Pradeau 2011 which is atypical among Bandol wines in using the grape stalks in the fermentation process to push the tannin level up even higher.
The line-up charges regularly on a rotating basis to give every vineyard a moment in the spotlight and the Oenothèque will ship to many countries (excluding, alas, the UK).
There are also explanatory panels about the region (in French only) and a considerate touch is a play area, so that your kids won't get bored while you're quaffing. Website for the Oenothèque de Bandol.
Another added bonus is a store next door selling regional produce (honey, soap, jams and so on): if you really get into the sampling mood you can go on to taste AOC olive oils and other goodies there.
If you're in Bandol in early winter, it gets even better: created more than three decades ago, La Fête du Millésime takes place each year on the first Sunday of December.
This isn't like other primeur (new harvest) festivals such as Millévin in Avignon, since Bandol is not a wine that can or should be drunk young. So wine-makers at the festival siphon their latest vintage straight from the barrel presenting it as, simply, a "work in progress", a tantalising foretaste of the glories to come.
Of course you buy wines too. There's an auction of rare vintages and experts will assess the "longues gardes": which of this year's wines are best for laying down.
But basically La Fête du Millésime is just an excellent excuse for a big, boisterous pre-Christmas party on the town's pretty waterfront.
Finally, if you're in nearby Le Castellet, check out the Maison des Vins de Bandol (Bandol Wine House) a short walk from the centre of the village. In summer it has tastings and sells wine too. 238 chemin de la Ferrage, 83330 Le Castellet. Tel : +33 (0)4 94 90 29 59.
La Cadière d'Azur also has a wine co-op, La Cadiérenne, where you can buy the produce of over 300 wine-makers. D66, 83740 La Cadière d'Azur. Tel: +33 (0) 4 94 90 11 06.
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TWO VINEYARDS OF BANDOL
Bandol has between 50 and 60 wineries producing AOC wines. Click here for a full list and links to their websites (scroll down to the bottom of the page).
In rolling hills near the villages of Le Beausset and Le Castellet, at the north-eastern edge of the Bandol territory, the Domaine Souviou has been producing both wine and olive oil for centuries.
Some of its 6,000 magnificent olive trees are over a thousand years old and the estate is full of curiosities from a bygone era of peasant farming.
Wandering round, you might discover a 15th century bastide (farmhouse) and chapel, some unusual apiés (dry stone walls peppered with hollows to house beehives), a well and an oven for cooking cade, a local speciality made of ground chickpeas, similar to the panisse of Marseille, but less fatty, since it's not fried but baked in a round pizza-style dish.
Sadly we didn't see any of these treasures. Bandol claims to enjoy 3,000 hours of sunshine a year, but we'd picked a day when it was pouring with rain.
So instead we chatted congenially to the vintner, Olivier Pascal, pictured, in his cosy tasting room decorated with work by local artists while his two big friendly black dogs wandered around.
As we sipped his star wine, an award-winning, intense 2010 red high in Mourvèdre grapes (and alcohol!), Monsieur Pascal said he felt Bandol wines were undervalued and not taken seriously.
"We don't have a powerful marketing lobby," he lamented. "But once you're tasted a Bandol you don't forget it."
Pascal makes rosé, white and red wines in both Bandol and Côtes de Provence appellations, but his heart lies with the Bandol AOC reds. "It's a shame to spend so much time on rosé when red is Bandol's trump card," he said.
As on many other estates in Bandol, the sloping land here is arranged on terraces. More atypically, it sits on a former blue clay quarry, which Pascal's ancestors once mined to make tiles. But now, for generations, his family has been focussed on making wine. They have been based at Souviou since 2001.
A full 90 minute tour will take you round part of the Souviou estate and through the olive groves (it's not possible to visit the cellar for safety reasons). There's a modest charge for groups, but it's free for individual visitors and you don't need to reserve ahead. Monsieur Pascal will ship abroad too (minimum 24 bottles).
Where: Domaine Souviou, RN 8, 83330 Le Beausset. Tel (+33) 4 94 90 57 63. Website for Domaine Souviou.
The Domaines Bunan are somewhat tucked away up a narrow, winding side road just outside La Cadière d'Azur. Alongside the Domaine Tempier (whose produce sells out almost instantly) this is one of the best-known estates in the Bandol region, and also the largest.
The set-up here is more formal. They prefer you to arrive between 9am and 10am and to give advance warning that you're coming. Don't, as we did, rock up unannounced just before midday, when the winery closes for the holy French lunch break!
As its plural name suggests, this 80 hectare / 198 acre vineyard contains a number of different terroirs (terroir is the mysterious combination of soil, aspect and climate that conspire to form the character of a wine).
Bunan produces Bandol AOC wines, in both a traditional and a lighter, modern style, and Côtes de Provence AOC in all three colours as well as a marc (grape brandy), pink and white sparkling wines and olive oils.
Some of their wines are kosher, and they will ship abroad too. The vineyard is fully organic.
We sampled a dry, fruity 2015 Moulin des Costes white wine, grown on limestone soil and, by way of contrast, a suave 2014 Château de la Rouvière rosé, grown on clay.
The 2013 vintage of the latter wine was named Best French Rosé of that year by Wine Spectator magazine. The vintner, Benoît de Selve, was dismissive of the lightweight "tourist" rosé being churned out in the region, but regards the Bandol AOC rosés full of character and superb to drink throughout the year.
The Domaines Bunan are open every day in summer. Visits, including a tour of the salle des foudres, pictured above, where the big oak barrels live, take between a hour and ninety minutes, and there is a charge for them unless you buy some wine.
Alternatively you can go on one of two self-guided itineraries through the vines with the aid of a smartphone app or a leaflet, available in English and some other languages. A nice feature is the chance to compare the different, labelled grape varietals, pictured.
Where: 338 bis chemin de Fontanieu, 83740 la Cadière d'Azur. Website for Domaines Bunan.
Photo credits: all images © SJ and RWS for Marvellous Provence, except divers with bottles © Jean de Saint Victor de Saint Blancard