Stunning coastline, great wines, superb gastronomy, protected national parks... the people of Provence know how to live la belle vie, says Mary Dowey. Read her Cassis & Bandol travel guide here.
Cassis & Bandol fact file
Planted area: 215ha
Main grapes: Marsanne, Clairette, Ugni Blanc, Bourboulenc for whites;
Grenache, Cinsault, Mourvèdre for rosés
Planted area: 1,500ha
Main grape: Mourvèdre for reds and rosés
Marseille is the place to be. In summer evenings, its bars are packed with visitors admiring the city’s gleaming new waterfront as they sip their glasses of rosé – because, as European Capital of Culture 2013, this gritty, edgy port has acquired bold architecture on a lavish scale, as well as a calendar of events stretching out as far as Arles and Aix-en-Provence.
This is all well and good but, for wine lovers, serious excitement lies down the road in a different direction. A short drive east of Marseille lie two of France’s oldest appellations that produce memorable wines on such a limited scale that they remain inside-track gems. Cassis specialises in smooth but racy whites, while Bandol’s reputation rests on savoury, long-living reds. As both also produce stylish rosé, all colour preferences are catered for within a 30km stretch of coast.
And what a coast! Sheltered by the steep cliffs of Cap Canaille, the pretty port of Cassis is close to the Calanques – deep inlets of turquoise water carved into a dazzling white limestone foreshore all the way to Marseille. Bandol is a bigger holiday town, yet within minutes of its bustling promenade you can be lost among vines, olive trees, pines, wild flowers, bare rock and screeching cicadas.
The two appellations share topography as well as history. Developed by the Greeks in 600BC, both sit up like amphitheatres facing the Mediterranean, their vines lining steep stone terraces known as restanques. The idea that these terraces boast elements of a Greek tragedy is not as far-fetched; wines appreciated by the Romans, the bishops of Marseille and the French court came close to annihilation when phylloxera struck in the 19th century. A determined rescue campaign led not only to early AC status (Cassis 1936, Bandol 1941), but to a resolute focus on quality.
With just 12 estates (more than half of them organic), pocket-sized Cassis is easy to get around, even if time is short. Graceful white wines with floral, citrus and honey tones and a mineral, almost salty undertow account for roughly 70% of its output and fine-boned rosés 25%, with reds from a handful of producers making up the balance.
‘Cassis is the only southern French appellation to specialise in white wines,’ stresses Olivier Santini of Domaine du Paternel (www.domainedupaternel.com), president of the producers’ syndicate. ‘And the only appellation situated entirely within a national park.’ Created in 2012, the protected Massif des Calanques encourages environmental awareness among producers while helping to safeguard their vineyards from developers.
To get a feel for Cassis, drive up the craggy limestone spine of the Route des Crêtes and look down on the appellation. Then, as most estates welcome visitors, pick up details at the tourist office on the harbour and away you go. Particularly recommended is ravishing Clos-Ste-Magdeleine (www.clossaintemagdeleine.fr, guided tour €14), with vineyards plunging down to the sea, a sumptuous Art Deco villa and wines of exceptional finesse.
After a few domaine visits, all that remains is to see how well Cassis wines suit a dinner of freshly landed fish or the famous (ultra-filling) local fish soup bouillabaisse. Evenings slide by easily, you will find, in a smart little town that has managed to hang on to its Provençal soul. Chic et authentique: for once the marketing slogan is spot-on.
A bountiful neighbour:
Bandol may need a bit more time because more than 50 estates are dotted around eight communes between the Massif de la Ste-Baume and the coast. Rosé easily dominates production in volume terms and deserves more than a casual glass: many examples are impressive food wines, especially with a year or two of age. Suave whites sprinkled across the appellation may also catch your attention.
But of course Bandol’s glory hangs on majestic reds based on Mourvèdre. Nowhere else does this late-ripening grape play a leading role with quite so much élan, giving silky, sinewy, rich wines stamped with the freshness of cool sites near the sea.
One recent change which those on a tasting tour will welcome is that, whereas Bandol reds used to need years to tame their stern tannins, they are now enjoyable soon after the 18 months in cask that the appellation demands. ‘Climate change has helped,’ says Eric de St-Victor, proprietor of Château de Pibarnon (www.pibarnon.fr), whose wines walk the tightrope between power and elegance with ease. ‘But so has paying attention to detail – picking at the right moment and deciding how much to destem.’
Also noticeable over the past decade has been a move to renew very old casks. Large foudres are the preferred format: ‘They protect the fruit and the terroir,’ says Reynald Delille of organic Domaine de Terrebrune (www.terrebrune.fr), near the coast and noted for its subtle, supple wines. But thankfully for visitors who end up buying several cases to tuck away, Bandol’s remarkable staying power remains constant, relating more closely to Mourvèdre’s star performance on local limestone with Jurassic and Triassic soils than to any winemaking decisions.
‘We have the same amount of tannins as before, but now they’re rounder and less aggressive,’ explains Daniel Ravier, winemaker at renowned Domaine Tempier (www.domainetempier.com), an estate dating back to the time of Louis XV and prominent ever since owner Lucien Peyraud drove the appellation forward in the 1940s. ‘The wines still keep magnificently. Our UK clients understand this particularly well. One told me recently: “We absolutely love old Bandol”.’
I can appreciate their point of view, having admired the 1986 – not a great vintage apparently – at both Pibarnon and Château Romassan (part of the Domaines Ott group, owned by Champagne Louis Roederer since 2004, www.domaines-ott.com). So silky, so harmonious, so vibrant… ‘Ah yes,’ grins Jean-François Ott. ‘Down here, Mourvèdre can be extremely refined.’
If you happen upon an older vintage, remember that, besides going beautifully with lamb or beef with mushrooms or truffles, it may well shine in a dish that includes tapenade, given the black olive tones of many mature Bandol reds. As for slightly older rosés, try them with saffron-rich dishes or white meats, again with mushrooms or truffles. They can also be splendid with Thai food – in limited supply around the Med, admittedly, so ensure you bring a bottle or two home.
How to get there:
By plane: Fly to Marseille or Toulon (two hours from London). Cassis is 40 minutes’ drive from Marseille airport and an hour from Toulon; Bandol is 40 minutes’ drive from Toulon airport and an hour from Marseille./p>
Written by Mary Dowey