We’ve probably all imagined the scene. That letter, one Thursday, from a strange provincial solicitor. The curious, dry phrasing, outlining the 'bequest' from the 'deceased', whose name means nothing to you.
You read the letter several times. The sum looks improbably large: it must be a hoax. Nonetheless you phone; the details are politely and impassively confirmed, and arrangements put in hand for a bank transfer. It takes a week to sink in, and another week to hand in your notice. And then you begin to look for a vineyard.
It hasn’t happened to me yet, and I don’t suppose it ever will. But this may be your future. Where would you chose to buy?
Bandol, I have often thought, has a lot going for it. Wherever you are in this Provençal appellation, you’re never more than 15km from the Mediterranean; indeed you can see the glitter of the waves in many vineyards as you prune. You’re within an easy drive of the sunniest town in France, Marseille, and nearer still to the next sunniest, Toulon. Tourists flock to the pretty little seaside port which gives the appellation its name, and there’s an Oenothèque there near the seafront to help sell your wine. Every serious restaurant wine list between Arles and Menton, of course, needs to feature a range of Bandols, while no French three-star restaurant can ignore you, either. I would argue that the walled terraces of this stony amphitheatre constitute the greatest site in the world for the Mourvèdre grape variety. Why bother being an also-ran in Bordeaux, a nobody in Languedoc or a beggarly outsider in the Hautes Côtes de Beaune? Buy in Bandol.
“The problem of Bandol,” Freddy Estienne of Domaine de la Laidière said to me a few weeks ago, “is that it’s too near to the sea.” What? I thought that was its gift. It was only as I spent a couple of days tasting and touring in the AOC that I came to realise that sometimes, in the wine world as in life more generally, what seems at first like a blessing can in fact be a curse.
I love the Mourvèdre grape variety. It’s not the only one grown in this 1,500-ha appellation: the rules stipulate that the wines must be between 50 per cent and 95 per cent Mourvèdre, with the balance coming from Grenache, Cinsault, Carignan and Syrah. “Pure Mourvèdre is beautiful,” says Reynald Delille of Domaine de Terrebrune, “but it’s always better with a little bit of something else” – and most growers seem to agree. Perhaps they are right, but the greatest Bandols nonetheless strike me as being the richest in Mourvèdre, and Mourvèdre here acquires a completeness, a harmony and an equilibrium which seems to elude it elsewhere. These dense, allusive, richly textured reds turn magnificently savoury as the years pass (for more detail, including some of my favourite cuvées, look out for my column in July’s Decanter magazine). Bandol is, in sum, one of the great red wines of France.
I gasped, therefore, when I discovered that only just over 30 per cent of the wine produced in this relatively small AOC is in fact red. There’s a little white, but most Bandol is rosé – because that’s what the holidaymakers want. And then … there are all those little houses, where elderly Parisians potter through retirement with a poodle or two. When I mentioned this, a communal wail went up. “It’s the biggest worry we have,” said Patricia Ferrero, who directs the local growers’ grouping. “We are eight little communes, and whenever anyone wants to build anything, it is always in the vines.” The appellation is an amphitheatre, and villages like Le Castellet and La Cadière d’Azur have an almost Tuscan beauty; the whole place could easily become a gigantic rest home. I began to look at the beautiful Mediterranean rather differently — as the blue corruptor, determined to usurp the land for its own ends. (Those in Australia’s McLaren Vale sometimes feel the same way about the Gulf of St Vincent.)
Things haven’t quite gone critical yet, and I have every confidence that the quality of the best Bandol will one day be more widely recognised than it is at present. Nonetheless the fact remains that what may well be the greatest site in the world for an important, indubitably noble red grape variety turns most of it into rosé. The customer isn’t always right.
Written by Andrew Jefford