Think Provence, think beautiful villages and sun-kissed hillsides strewn with wild thyme and rosemary – think Bandol. nigel buxton visits the beautiful southeast of France��
When friends in Bandol heard I proposed to travel there from the UK by Eurostar and TGV to Marseille, where I would pick up a car, they advised going instead to Toulon, 30km closer and a far easier half-hour drive. So it proved. ‘St-Tropez’, read a sign, pointing east, as I drove away from the city. ‘Cassis,’ said another, pointing west. Between early breakfast and lunch I had been transported almost effortlessly from London to the Côte d’Azur.
In a region of legendary place names – Avignon, Arles, Salon, Les Baux, St-Rémy, Aix – Bandol may not quicken the pulse. Unless, of course, you are a wine enthusiast. ‘The most serious wine of Provence
,’ says Jancis Robinson MW. ‘Quintessentially Mediterranean. Typically a deep-flavoured, lush red blend dominated by Mourvèdre.’
‘Mourvèdre is a variety particularly suited to our microclimate,’ says winemaker Daniel Ravier of Domaine Tempier. ‘With its thick skin it needs and tolerates the hot sun. At the same time, we’re sheltered by the mountains to the north and cooled at night by our proximity to the sea.’ Sounds ideal for humans too. The Tempier red blend: 80% Mourvèdre, 15% Grenache, 5% Cinsault. Their rosé: Mourvèdre, Grenache and Cinsault again, but this time in equal amounts.
Mountains, sun and sea. As the Mourvèdre grape is quintessentially Mediterranean, so this pocket-size appellation contained in scarcely 250km2 of the Midi, menaced by the suburbs of Marseille and Toulon, embraces much of the romantic perception of Provence. Hilltop villages where walls of bare limestone appear almost white in the sun and labyrinthine back streets seem not such a far cry from the middle ages. Garrigue, fragrant with thyme and rosemary or heather and broom, is in the air, noisy with crickets, and the glass, full of the swirls of summer. Woods of pine and evergreen oak. Dark cypresses standing sentinel over terraces where the vine and the olive have thrived for more than 2,500 years.
Pre-eminent among the villages is La Cadière-d’Azur, focal point, landmark and pride of the entire Bandol appellation; an ideal base from which to explore this corner of the department of the Var where nowhere is much more than half an hour’s drive. With a window table in the Michelin-starred restaurant, or an upper room in the 11th-century convent which forms part of the complex of the Hostellerie Bérard (within the town’s former ramparts), the visitor may enjoy a panorama of the heart of the wine country. Domaine Tempier and Château Romassan, two of the aristocrats of the appellation, seem only a stone’s throw away in the undulating plain. Just over the wooded ridge of hills, 3km due south, are the elegant Château de Pibarnon, the Moulin des Costes and Château la Rouvière, all with their welcoming caves and their own superb views.
Across the valley from La Cadière is Le Castellet, the Roman castellarium of neolithic beginnings, where, as at nearby Le Beausset, evidence of some of the earliest cultivation of the vine and the olive in Europe has been found. Few places in the Var are more deserving of the visitor’s time. Few offer better or more inspiring prospects. Northwards, the Ste-Baume Massif promises good walking. South and east is Evenos with the haunting ruins of its 16th-century castle commanding the wild country beyond. Hiding the harbour of Toulon are the heights of Le Gros Cerveau, well worth the drive and the climb. South and west lies the Bay of Ciotat.
Bandol itself and the neighbouring (and prettier) Sanary are concealed by the high ground that shelters them, and the vineyards, from northerly winds. But on a sunny day it is the wondrously blue sea that presents what many visitors to these parts consider the greatest promise of all. Unfortunately, as on all of mainland Europe’s Mediterranean coast, the public beaches can become incredibly crowded during the summer months. Given that every hotel or chambre d’hôte worth its website has a swimming pool, immediate comfort and convenience can strongly rival the romantic ideal of the Med.
Poolside, terrace or rug on the grass; it is in such circumstances that Bandol’s wine – Robinson’s ‘most serious wine of Provence’, with its implications of frivolity attaching to all the rest – may be tested. There is better than idle pleasure to be found in many a chilled Bandol white (crisp, floral, yet faintly earthy) to accompany the toast, tapenade and olives on the shaded terrace. And there is serious delight lurking in the beaded bottle of well-made rosé (Ott, Pibarnon, La Rouvière, Souviou, La Suffrene, Tempier, Terrebrune, Tour du Bon, Le Gros Noré, to name but a few) nestling in the cool box as one chooses the idyllic spot and deploys the picnic paraphernalia from the car boot.
Red, white or rosé, those who set out on the tasting trail are unlikely to be disappointed. But a final word or two of counsel. First; some domaines hide modestly at the end of less-than-well-signed or -surfaced country lanes. A good, large-scale map is essential for trouble-free navigation. Second, and with apologies to those who may rarely need anything of the sort, but happen to be newcomers to the wines of Bandol: few ‘serious’ reds of the appellation are ready for general, pleasurable drinking under four or five years of age. Most, being essentially vins de garde, as their makers will readily acknowledge (but not often advertise), need a year or two longer. Meanwhile, a large number of the rosés deserve to be called ‘serious’ by any standards, and go very well with food.
La Cadière d’Azur
Domaine du Gros Noré, Chemin de l’Argile
Tel: + 33 4 94 90 08 50
Moulin des Costes, Chemin de Fontanieu Tel: +33 4 94 98 58 98
Château de Pibarnon.
Tel: +33 4 94 90 12 73
Domaine la Suffrene, Chemin de Cuges Tel: + 33 4 94 90 09 23
Domaine de l’Hermitage, Chemin du Rouve
Tel: + 33 4 94 98 71 31
Domaine de la Tour du Bon Tel: + 33 4 98 03 66 22
Le Plan du Castellet
Tel: + 33 4 94 98 70 21
Ste Anne d’Evenos
Château Ste Anne
Tel: + 33 4 94 90 35 40
Domaine de Terrebrune
Tel: +33 4 94 74 01 30
La Cadière d’Azur
Tel: + 33 4 94 90 11 43
Chambre d’Hôte La Cyprïado, Chemin de Fontanieu
Tel: + 33 4 94 98 64 32
Chambres Bastide de Fontanieu Tel: +33 4 94 25 21 01 www.bastidedefontanieu.com
Hôtel Dolce Frégate, Route de Bandol Tel: + 33 4 94 29 39 39 fregate.dolce.com
Hotel Castel Lumière, rue Donce Tel: +33 4 94 32 62 20
Les Quatre Saisons Chambres d’Hôte, Montée des Oliviers
Tel: +33 4 94 25 24 90
Le Jujubier Chambres d’Hôte, Chemin de Beaucours Tel: +33 4 98 00 06 20 www.lejujubier.com
Chambre d’Hôte Le Cabanon, Plage de Port-Issol Tel: +33 4 94 74 64 17 www.lecabanon.net
La Cadière d’Azur
Tel: +33 4 94 90 11 43
Le Clocher, Rue de la Paroisse
Tel: + 33 4 94 32 47 65
Le Marché, Rue de la République Tel: +33 4 94 29 41 86
Hôtel de la Tour, Port de Sanary Tel: + 33 4 94 74 10 10
L’Esplanade, Boulevard d’Estienne d’Orves
Tel: +33 4 94 74 08 56
La Table du Vigneron, Domaine de Terrebrune
Tel: + 33 4 94 74 01 30
Comité Départemental du Tourisme du Var Tel: +33 4 94 50 55 50
RailEurope Tel: +44 (0) 8705 848 848 www.raileurope.co.uk
IGN 1:25,000 Michelin Green Guide to French Riviera from:
n Hereford Map Centre. Church St Tel: +44 (0) 1432 266 322
n Stanfords, London WC2
Tel: +44 (0) 20 7836 1321