In Bandol a new generation of winemakers is producing great wines from Mourvèdre, writes JAMES LAWTHER MW
In 1985 wine producers in Bandol took a big step towards improving the quality of the appellation’s red wines – they decided to change three salient points in the decree governing production. The minimum permitted amount of Mourvèdre was increased from 20 to 50%, yields were held to a maximum 40hl/ha (hectolitres per hectare), and in future the vine had to have reached its seventh year before the fruit was permitted in the wine. With the ground rules set, a new generation has been further refining this exciting and undervalued wine. Bandol comes in three shades: red, pink and a tiny amount of white. The rosé provides the volume and has a strong following on the Provençal coast but it’s the red that holds the most interest. The Mourvèdre grape grown in this Mediterranean location offers an originality worth underscoring. Dark fruits with a refreshing herbal nuance of the local thyme- and rosemary-strewn garrigue moving to truffle and leather with age, and a steely tannic structure, are the wine’s hallmarks. Reserved in youth, Bandol needs seven or eight years to mellow and has the potential to age at least 20 years. A little over halfway between Marseille and Toulon, the vineyards of Bandol form a terraced amphitheatre overlooking the Mediterranean. A rocky terrain of parcelled vineyards, olive trees and fire-scorched pines meets the eye, rising in elevation to just over 400m at the highest point. Beyond lies the mountainous Massif de la Ste Baume. The fishing port-cum-holiday resort of Bandol lends its name to the appellation but inland the hilltop communes of La Cadière-d’Azur and Le Castellet provide the focal point. Both the climate and soils make this a prime site for grape cultivation, in particular for Mourvèdre. An average 3,000 hours’ sunshine per year helps ripening while sea breezes temper the heat, and the drying Mistral acts as a foil to rot. In recent years 2000 and 1998 were outstanding, 1999 and 1997 more than respectable and 1996 a little severe. Soils are basically clay-limestone, poor in fertility and excessively stony in certain parcels.
Greeks from Phocaea introduced the vine into the area around 600 BC. Fast forwarding, the patronage of Louis XV and the construction of the port of Bandol in the 18th century reinforced an already established reputation. Phylloxera in 1870 put paid to this success and there followed a morose period where the vineyard was slowly rebuilt. Grenache, Carignan and Cinsaut were the main varieties, supplemented by various hybrids, the Mourvèdre sadly all but ignored. Bandol’s modern history stems from the creation of the appellation in 1941 and the arrival of Lucien Peyraud at Domaine Tempier at roughly the same time. His insistence on replanting Mourvèdre was crucial to the gradual resurgence of the region. In this he was aided by, among others, the Portalis family at Château Pradeaux, and at a later date by newcomers like the Bunan family and Henri de Saint-Victor at Château de Pibarnon. Since 1990 a new generation has been taking over the reins, convinced of the attributes of Mourvèdre and the need for quality. At the most dynamic of the cooperatives, La Roque, for instance, the youthful conseil d’administration has gradually been ringing the changes. These include analysis of all the parcels of land of the 135 members to help facilitate the harvest, remuneration based on a charter of quality, greater selection and the introduction of new oak vats for fermentation.Cultivation at the better domaines remains traditional, reflecting the appellation’s earthy viticultural base. Soils are worked, insecticides and chemical fertilisers eschewed, the Grenache and Mourvèdre pruned en gobelet with minimal trellising, and harvesting is done by hand. Red Bandol now represents 50% of production at these estates with the percentage of Mourvèdre in regular or special cuvées as much as 90–100%. Yields more often than not fall below the maximum 40hl/ha. ‘A great wine is above all a question of terroir and yields,’ says Alain Pascal of the relatively new Domaine du Gros’ Noré. At the leading properties, like Domaines Bunan (Moulin des Costes, Mas de la Rouvière) and Château de Pibarnon, the transition from one generation to the next has been fairly smooth. Following studies in oenology and practical work experience in California, Laurent Bunan has taken over from father Paul and uncle Pierre, while at Pibarnon Henri’s son Eric has steadily slipped into the driving seat over the last 10 years. Fine tuning is more the optic here. ‘We’re aiming for wines with a little more volume and structure now,’ says Eric. With the retirement of Lucien Peyraud’s sons François and Jean-Marie, Domaine Tempier has had to go beyond the family circle to ensure continuity for the estate. Since 2000 Daniel Ravier, previously at Domaine Ott and Domaine de Souviou, has taken over the winemaking and management. Ravier’s task is to maintain an established quality and style. ‘The main aim is to keep the trademark balance in the Tempier wines,’ he explains.
A number of other well-established, quality-oriented domaines have confirmed the succession. Domaines Le Galantin and Terrebrune were both created in the 1960s with the guiding hand of Lucien Peyraud. Terrebrune is the most southerly estate in Bandol and the founder, Georges Delille, has gradually given way to his son Reynold. At Le Galantin the change is more recent, Jérôme Pascal and his sister Céline taking over the 25ha family estate in the 1990s after work experience in Germany and South Africa respectively. Here and at Terrebrune the grapes are now partially destemmed, an important innovation in recent years. The wines are gradually gaining a more refined style and are deceptively long-ageing.The move towards destemming can be seen at two other notable estates where the next generation is waiting in the wings. Châteaux Jean-Pierre Gaussen and Ste Anne are different in style but both destem 100%. Jean-Pierre Gaussen is one of the stalwarts of the appellation and now has his daughter Mireille at his side. The wines are full bodied and generous. In contrast the wines of Ste Anne are fine and wonderfully expressive. The property has been in the same family for five generations and is currently run by Françoise Dutheil de la Rochère, assisted by her daughter Marie. The present tendencies in Bandol are perhaps best contrasted at the newer estates. In an appellation that stipulates a minimum of 18 months’ ageing in cask for red wines the use of new oak barrels is probably the most thorny subject. Nearly everyone is experimenting and ready to express a point of view. In 1996 Cédric Gravier took over his grandparents’ 45ha vineyard, withdrew from the cooperative and created Domaine de la Suffrène. He invested in a new vathouse and cellars but has remained faithful to the traditional oak foudres. ‘The aromas from Mourvèdre are very special so why destroy them by using new oak barrels,’ he says.
The 1996 vintage was also the first for Guillaume Tari at Domaine de la Bégude. This splendid estate sits at the highest point in the appellation with a panoramic view of the ocean down as far as Toulon. Owned by the Tari family, formerly producers of Château Giscours in Margaux, the winemaking is modern Bordeaux in concept, including the use of new oak barrels. ‘Mourvèdre needs a controlled exchange of oxygen when ageing and this is better accomplished with oak barrels,’ argues Guillaume Tari.The overall benefits of experimentation with new oak will probably be less the adoption of barriques than the gradual renewal of the stock of older foudres. One of the most savvy of the new producers is Alain Pascal of the Domaine du Gros’ Noré. Having sold grapes to Domaines Ott and Château de Pibarnon, he set up his own domaine in 1997, naming it after his father, Honoré, a man of singular weight and frame. Yields can be as low as 25hl/ha and all aspects of production have been carefully studied. ‘I didn’t like the dry, oaky effect of barriques but have bought in new foudres as the old ones weren’t giving the results I wanted,’ he explains. Beyond the oak barrel debate the new generation is providing plenty of energy and food for thought. ‘I’m really the first generation so am putting everything into it,’ says Agnès Henry of the Domaine de la Tour de Bon. Yields are held to 30hl/ha and the wine given an extended period of two to three weeks’ maceration with pigeage and remontage. The white wine is made from Clairette, Ugni Blanc and a percentage of Rolle or Vermentino, a grape variety soon to be given official approval.
Bandol is still essentially a vin de vigneron which happily hasn’t changed with the new generation. If anything the role of Mourvèdre has been heightened, but with a search for flavour and ripeness. ‘Bandol is just beginning to arrive at a mature stage of its modern form,’ observes Eric de Saint-Victor.
James Lawther MW is a contributing editor to Decanter, based in France.
Written by James Lawther MW