Conventional wisdom has taught us that wine grapes fare best in places where nothing else will grow; rocky, water-starved soil on precipitous hillsides make vine roots work harder, ramifying and branching off in a search of nutrients and, in consequence, producing small grapes loaded with character.
Cue Bandol, the sea-and-sun-kissed region along the French Riviera which is not only good country for grapes, it’s good country for the soul.
Made up of eight wine-loving communes surrounding a cozy fishing village, Bandol breaks the Provençal mold by producing red wines that not only outstrip the region’s legendary rosé, but make up the majority of the appellation’s output. In part that’s due to the ability of Bandol vignerons to push Mourvèdre—generally treated as a blending grape in the Côtes du Rhône and Châteauneuf-du-Pape —to superlative new heights.
This week’s package contains a number of exemplary wines from eight top producers; they represent the scope of style and quality from this beautiful corner of France, which proudly claims to be the home of Mourvèdre’s peak expression.
It may be impossible to find a region where the winemaking pedigree is more impressive; Phoenicians were fermenting grapes here 2500 years ago, long before the Romans showed up and named the wine ‘Massilia.’ As the late-afternoon Bandol heat sends wafts of violet, black pepper and thyme into the air above an azure sea, it’s easy to see why this seacoast resort town has been both a destination and a home since prehistory.
About an hour’s drive east from Marseille, the microclimate that sets Bandol apart from the rest of Provence is the result of altitude and its natural amphitheater; the vines are planted on steep hills where the soils are composed of limestone, red clay and silica sand and the vines are protected from the harshest winds by the natural bowl formed in the low coastal mountain ranges between La Ciotat and Toulon. This combination of features makes it ideal for ripening finicky, late-budding Mourvèdre, which might otherwise be challenged by the proximity of the Mediterranean.
The ecological niche that makes Bandol’s Mourvèdre unparalleled in the world is the work of both man and nature. While Syrah and Grenache are planted on Bandol’s cooler, north-facing slopes, Mourvèdre is strategically placed on warmer, south-facing slopes to help nudge along the ripening process—the varietal is notorious for the time it needs to reach the level of phenolic ripeness required for the big, brooding, spicy, age-worthy reds for which the appellation is famous. Even so, the vines cling desperately to the slopes, making mechanical harvesting impossible. But hand-gathering is preferred in any case, ensuring a finer selection of grapes, in better condition and with smaller yields.
Meanwhile, the variety itself seems custom-designed for Bandol; Mourvèdre is an upright bush vine that forms a short stumpy trunk that will stand up to the Mistral winds. Bandol growers give preference to goblet pruning in order to reduce the amount of foliage and to help the low-producing vine bear triangular bunches with small, tight grapes bunches.
To say that Bandol’s climate is ideal for Mourvèdre is not to say that growers have a smooth path to success: On the contrary, constant vigilance is table-stakes for successful winemaking operations; understanding the AOP regulations is a task in itself; following them is that much harder. For example, young vines intended for the production of red wines are not allowed to contribute until the eighth leaf has appeared on their trunk, and from that point, during every stage of cultivation, yields are controlled. Vine density must be at least 5,000 per hectare while spur pruning (leaving two-bud spurs on the trunk) is required. Chaptalization (adding sugar to unfermented grapes to increase the wine’s alcohol content) is banned, as is ‘any enrichment or concentration operation, even within the limits of the legal prescriptions in force.’
Things don’t get any easier in the cellar. Technology may have lightened certain workloads, allowing better control and new progress in quality, but the old ways reign supreme. Maturation is an essential factor in red wine production, and here, the vigneron’s know-how is irreplaceable. The primary goal in producing Bandol is to achieve balance through a process of slow, natural stabilization, and at each stage, wines are carefully selected and tasted and are accepted only if they meet the requirements of their status. A blind tasting test is carried out in June of the first year following harvest to allow the wine growers to examine the evolution of the vintage. It’s considered a ‘mock exam’ from which each wine grower learns critical lessons.
In with the old, in with the new: In September, 2022, after 25 years of ownership, Guillaume and Soledad Tari sold Domaine de la Bégude to the Roulleau family, who then became the fifth family to own the wine estate since the Middle Ages. Christian Roulleau immediately appointed Laurent Fortin as Managing Director. Fortin, who has managed Château Dauzac (also Roulleau-owned) since 2016, says, “The Roulleau family fell in love with this site, these exceptional terroirs set in the garrigue and these wines with strong personality. We are following in the footsteps of the Tari family to make La Bégude shine at the top of the Bandol appellation. The challenge is exciting, in the continuity of Château Dauzac, to build a family group of inspired vineyards.”
The synergy between the Tari and Roulleau clans has been immediately apparent, both in viticultural dynamism and in the pioneering spirit that shares the common value of respect for nature and biodiversity. Under the Tari family, Bégude was a place of natural agro-forestry, home to the International Conservatory of Mourvèdre, which farms an exceptional vine collection of 150 Mourvèdre varieties, the largest in the world. Going forward, the intention is to reinforce and maintain this collection.
The estate itself encompasses more than 1200 acres, of which 75 are under vine—65% Mourvèdre, 25% Grenache and 10% Cinsault, now at an average age of 25 years. The vineyards sit at elevations exceeding 1300 feet, and as such, are among the highest in the appellation. The plan is to increase the cultivation to 100 acres over the next few years and to continue to produce Bégude’s hallmark rich, acidic, fruit-driven wines that develop in the cellar with elegance. The Roulleaus are proud to age their own wines in the old chapel of Miséricorde of Conil, dating from the 7th century—a vestige of the presence of the Abbey of Saint Victor on the estate.
Domaine de la Bégude ‘Cadet de la Bégude’, 2020 IGP Méditerranée ($25)
A nice declassified Bandol made from young vines (around 10 years old) and without oak, 34% Mourvèdre, 33% Grenache, 33% Cinsault. Scents of black cherries, with hints of mint, lavender and spice gives rise to a warm and dense palate with an evocative, herbal finish.
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Domaine de la Bégude ‘La Brulade’, 2017 Bandol ($99)
95% Mourvèdre, 5% Grenache grown on clay marl. ‘La Brulade’ is the name of a select slope located at an altitude of 1300 feet overlooking the Mediterranean Sea between La Baie d’Amour in the south and La Sainte Baume in the north, one of the highest parcels in Bandol; the wine is only made in exceptional vintages. With 24 months of foudre aging behind firm and tannic fruit, the wine is dark and brooding and shows blackberry, boysenberry, licorice and peppery garrigue. It should continue to develop nuance for years to come.
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Domaine de la Bégude ‘L’Irréductible’, 2020 Bandol Rosé ($43)
90% Mourvèdre and 10% Grenache from vines averaging 45 years of age, it is a quintessential Bandol rosé with expressive red berry notes along with nectarine and orange pith softening the finely integrated minerality and closing whiff of iodine and saline … as if from a sea breeze.
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A further selection from our favorite producers in Bandol—estates that have delivered reliably over the years and whom we trust with the assured bonhomie of old friends:
Founded in 1979 by Henri and Geneviève Tournier, Roche Redonne is situated among the Bandol foothills surrounded by olive groves and garrigue scrub just outside the pretty village of La Cadière d’Azu. The 30-acre vineyard is farmed using organic methods and the vines now average more than 40 years old, with the youngest vines at 20 years and the oldest at 60 years. The yields are kept low, and in fitting with the appellation laws, the steeply hilled vineyards are harvested by hand.
Domaine Roche Redonne ‘Cuvée Les Bartavelles’, 2019 Bandol ($69)
‘Bartavelles’ means ‘Royal Partridges’, and there is certainly a noble delivery here: On the nose, lovely scents of ripe black fruit, licorice and sweet spice waft above a powerful, full-bodied palate with notes of blueberry, wild herbs and peppery spice.
Michel and Louis Bronzo purchased Bastide Blanche in the ‘70s in the belief that the terroir could produce a wine to rival those of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. With that in mind, the brothers planted Carignan, Cinsault, Clairette, Grenache, Mourvèdre and Syrah. Vintage 1993 proved to be their breakaway year, putting both Bandol and themselves on the wine map. The estate is located in the foothills of Sainte-Baume Mountain, five miles from the Mediterranean Sea on land that is primarily limestone scree.
Domaine de la Bastide Blanche, 2018 Bandol ($30)
72% Mourvèdre, 20% Grenache, 6% Cinsault, 1% Syrah and 1% Carignan. A muscular core of earthy dark fruit is highlighted by classic leather, garrigue, underbrush and sweet black raspberry notes.
With AOP standards that exceed those of Burgundy and Bordeaux, the third ‘B’ in age-worthy French reds is, unmistakably, Bandol. Much smaller than the first two, the wines of Bandol are built primarily around Mourvèdre; 50% of Bandol must be composed of this grape, but assemblages frequently contain 95% Mourvèdre—only because the law requires two varieties in any bottle, white, red or pink. The truth is, many Bandol vignerons would like to get rid of this stricture to allow for 100% Mourvèdre wines.
Mourvèdre naturally produces a smaller crop of grapes than either Pinot Noir or Cabernet Sauvignon, but even so, Bandol restricts the production per acre to levels much lower than either Burgundy and Bordeaux. There is a saying in Bandol: “One vine, one bottle,” which speaks to this extremely low-yield type of viticulture. Additionally, Mourvèdre vines must be at least eight years old before they are allowed to be used for red Bandol wine, double the minimum age required for vines in Burgundy and Bordeaux. Bandol red wine must also be aged in barrel a minimum of 18 months, though many producers age their wines much longer.
The effect of all these regulations ensures the highest possible quality for Bandol reds and the most expressive potential for their star variety, which tends to be aggressively tannic in its youth, viticulturally and oenologically. Lower yields, older vines, and extended aging helps moderate and soften Mourvèdre’s forceful profile, leading to wines of finesse with remarkable ageability, as this selection of Bandol wines with a few years of correct cellaring will demonstrate:
Situated on the outskirts of the town of Saint Cyr-sur-Mer, directly on the Mediterranean between Toulon and Marseilles, Château Pradeaux has been in the hands of the Portalis family since the French Revolution. In fact, Jean-Marie-Etienne Portalis helped draft the Napoleonic Code and assisted at the negotiation of the Concordat under Napoleon the First. Today, the domain is run by Cyrille Portalis, who continues to maintain the quality traditions of his forbears, assisted by his wife Magali, and their sons Etienne and Edouard. Although vineyards are planted almost exclusively to old-vine Mourvèdre, Château Pradeaux Bandol Rosé is composed of Cinsault as well.
Château Pradeaux, 2015 Bandol ($50)
95% Mourvèdre, 5% Cinsault. In contrast to the three years preceding it, the 2015 vintage yielded a classic and deeply typical Pradeaux Bandol: a wine of grainy, spicy fruit, medium in weight but rippling with underlying power, and with an intoxicating aromatic overlay of violets and smoked meats.
Château Pradeaux ‘Cuvée Vesprée’, 2020 Bandol Rosé ($46)
95% Mourvèdre, 5% Cinsault. After spending a year on the lees in demi-muids and concrete eggs, the wine shows the creamy redolence of the richest rosé; the nose offers orange peel, grilled plums, wild strawberry. Dry and gently acidic, it finishes with the tang of dried garden herbs.
Château Pradeaux, 2021 Bandol Rosé ($37)
80% Mourvèdre, 20% Cinsault. The wine is a coppery, flamingo-pink, with more extraction and tannin than your typical Bandol rosé. It shows round and ripe on the palate, medium to full-bodied, with cherry and lime notes and a long, almost dusty finish. It is a limited production wine, as most of the Mourvèdre production at Château Pradeaux is used to make the formidable Bandol Rouge.
Robert Parker Jr. once referred to Domaine Tempier’s rosé as ‘the world’s greatest’, but the backstory isn’t bad either: Gifted the property by her father in 1936 upon her marriage to Lucien Peyraud, Lucie ‘Lulu’ Tempier found herself the owner of an active Bandol farm near Le Plan du Castellet that had been in the family since 1834. Her husband did extensive research into the terroir, and immediately halted the ongoing effort to tear out Mourvèdre vines in favor of higher-yielding varieties. In went new Mourvèdre, some of which are still producing.
With the assistance of neighboring vignerons, Lucien worked with the I.N.A.O. to establish Bandol as its own AOC, whereupon a large-scale replanting of Mourvèdre ensued across the region, As a result, Lucien will forever be celebrated as the Godfather of Bandol as well as the man who revived Mourvèdre to its former glory. Part of that glory includes their three single-vineyard releases, La Migoua, La Tourtin, and Cabassaou.
Domaine Tempier ‘La Migoua’, 2016 Bandol ($85)
50% Mourvèdre, 20% Grenache, 26% Cinsault, 4% Syrah. La Migoua’s terroir is primarily made up of heterogeneous clay that varies in color between red, ochre, and blue. At 885 feet, it sits at the highest altitude of all Tempier’s vineyards. The 60 acres are surrounded by garrigue and pine forest, and the grapes produce earthy, gamey wines. La Migoua has the smallest amount of Mourvèdre in the blend, with the highest percentage of Grenache of the three cuvées.
Domaine Tempier ‘La Tourtine’, 2016 Bandol ($85)
80% Mourvèdre, 10% Grenache, 10% Cinsault. La Tourtine sits just above Cabassaou, where the soil is more homogeneous and rich with clay. As a result, the 30-acre La Tourtine produces powerful, tannic wines with gorgeous fruit character.
Domaine Tempier ‘Cabassaou’, 2016 Bandol ($129)
95% Mourvèdre, 4% Syrah, 1% Cinsault. At 4 acres, Cabassaou is the smallest Tempier vineyard, but with the oldest vines, now surpassing fifty years. It sits lower on the hillside where it is protected from the strength of the Mistral, enjoying temperate breezes and maximum sunshine, which is evidenced by is ripeness, density and power in the wines.
‘Gros’ means big, but as for ‘Noré, the translators are silent. But ‘big’ is the operative word anyway since it describes the proprietor in body, mind and legend. A former boxer and an avid hunter, Alain Pascal spent many years as a grower who sold his Bandol fruit to Domaine Ott and Château de Pibarnon. Along with his father, he bottled wine for family consumption only. But in 1997, after his father’s death, Alain launched Domaine du Groś Noré, and now, along with his brother Guy, bottles 5000 cases annually drawn from his forty acres of prime Cadière d’Azur vineyard.
The brothers work within the strictures of the region and often, beyond them, leaving the grapes to mature fully on the vine, lending great intensity to the fruit, and where appellation law demands that each blend includes at least 50% Mourvèdre, Alain ups the assemblage ante to 80%. The wine reflects the man; big and bold up front, while underneath is a core of character—depth, complexity, soul and finesse.
Domaine du Groś Noré, 2011 Bandol ($79)
80% Mourvèdre, 15% Grenache, 5% Cinsault. The 35-acre vineyard contains vines of about 30 years in age. With a decade under its belt, the harsh tannins have softened and the wine has given over its aggressive fruit to cool notes of eucalyptus and fresh fennel.
Domaine du Groś Noré ‘Cuvée Antoinette’, 2010 Bandol ($99)
95% Mourvèdre, 5% Cinsault/Grenache from a small, two-acre vineyard. Black cherry and stewed plum notes remain to enliven balsa, tobacco, game, graphite and iron.
Domaine du Groś Noré ‘Cuvée Antoinette’, 2013 Bandol ($99)
95% Mourvèdre, 5% Cinsault/Grenache. A beautiful composition with notes of underbrush and mushroom behind the dark red fruits and spice. The tannins are resolved and the acidity is suitably tempered.
Sitting pretty at an elevation of 500 feet on 35 acres of red earth, clay, sand, and gravel over a sturdy limestone plateau in Le Brûlat du Castellet in the northwestern corner of Bandol, Domaine de la Tour du Bon is the culmination of commitment and sweat equity. The property, cleared by plough, has been a full-time farm since 1925 and has been worked by the Hocquard family since 1968. At the helm is Agnès Henry, who spent a number of years at the apron strings of a hired winemaker, but when she decided to approach the job herself, she found that her person expression of terroir was quite unique. The wines she claims as her own have both power and precision in equal measure, but effectively display the finesse and charm of her lyrically named vineyards, La Rémoise (The Dweller), Saint Ferréol (a local saint), Ensoleillade (Place Bathed in Sunshine), Clos des Aïeux (Clos of the Forefathers), l’Aire (the Aerie) and Bellevue (Beautiful View).
Domaine de La Tour du Bon, 2016 Bandol ($38)
55% Mourvèdre, 25% Grenache, 15% Cinsault, 5% Carignan. Agnès Henry explains the assemblage: “The Grenache counters the Mourvèdre’s tannin, rusticity, and spice while adding higher-toned notes; Carignan for freshness and Cinsault to bind it all together harmoniously.”
Domaine de La Tour du Bon ‘En Sol’, 2017 IGP Méditerranée ($85)
A half-acre site produces this extraordinary non-blended Mourvèdre, but since it breaks Bandol AOP regulations requiring a two-grape minimum, Henry has chosen to declassify the wine and release it as IGP Méditerranée. Grippy yet accessible tannins underscore flavors of ripe dark fruit, berries, scorched earth and a touch of smoked meat.
Owning a winery may be the whispered dream of many sommeliers, but Georges Delille put his francs where his mouth was. In 1963, he bought an idyllic property in Ollioules, just east of Bandol, framed by the Mediterranean and the Big Brian mountain (Gros-Cerveau). The site was dotted with olive groves and scenic views, but no vines. Georges spent ten years renovating the property; he terraced hillsides, refashioned the masonry, replanted vineyards following the advice of Lucien Peyraud, designated soils to lie dormant and regenerate, and built a new cellar. In 1980, his son Reynald joined him after attending winemaking school, and together they launched their first bottled vintage of Domaine de Terrebrune, which Reynald named in honor of the rich, brown soils they farm.
There is plenty of diversity in this soil, though. Throughout Terrebrune’s 75 acres, beneath the layers of clay and earth, blue, fissured limestone is at work, lending a more noticeable minerality to the wine. Reynald’s personal credo of “Philosophy, rigor, and respect” is not a catch-phrase, but an ideology for living.
Domaine de Terrebrune, 2016 Bandol ($54)
85% Mourvèdre, 10% Grenache, 5% Cinsault grown in limestone-pebbled brown clay above blue limestone bedrock. A full-bodied dose of Terrebrune terroir that should continue to mature and drink well for another two decades. Shows blackberries, dark cherries and cedar with hints of black pepper, game, licorice and dark chocolate.
Often referred to as the ‘Lord of Graves’, Haut-Brion sealed its reputation for quality in 1855 when its red wine was classified as a First Growth along with three prestigious Médoc properties. A new classification of Graves red wines was carried out in 1953, with dry white wines added in the 1959 update.
It’s fair to say that the creation of the Pessac-Léognan appellation in 1987 changed the appellation’s direction. Located in the north of Graves and intended to cover the district’s finest dry red and white wines, it contains many of its most respected producers, including Haut-Brion and its co-owned neighbor, the recent star performer La Mission Haut-Brion. Pessac-Léognan extends from the parish of Pessac and the southern outskirts of the city around 5 miles south to Léognan.
Founded in the 16th century, Haut-Brion has been owned by the Dillon family since 1935. As is the pattern in Bordeaux, the estate produces second labels: Le Clarence de Haut-Brion for red wines, meant to be drunk earlier than its big brother, and La Clarté de Haut-Brion, made in tiny quantities and originating in part from the vines of La Mission Haut-Brion.
The winter of 2018-2019 was mild and dry, and in the spring, flowering took place under ideal conditions, without the poor fruit set of coulure or millerandage. During the summer, regular rainfall was conducive to growth, leading the vines to develop an impressive leaf canopy. A series of successive heatwaves hit midsummer, and July was the third hottest in history, with temperatures reaching a record-breaking 108°F. Fortunately, rain fell by month’s end, followed by cool nights in August. Véraison was slow but uninterrupted and September was marked by fine, dry and sunny conditions interspersed by welcomed rainfall. Thanks to this ideal spell of weather, all the grape varieties were harvested at peak ripeness and at a leisurely pace.
Jean-Philippe Delmas, who took over management of Château Haut-Brion in 2006, expressed his delight with the 2019 vintage: “It is a rich, dramatic and unusually powerful vintage, a great success for both Château Haut-Brion, La Mission Haut-Brion.”
In discussing his white wines, he says, “The weather conditions are pointing to more Sauvignon Blanc in our assemblage; Sémillon tends to lose its acidity rapidly in warm vintages. The vineyard team are working to mitigate the effects of climate change and minimize the quantities of copper employed in treatments throughout the year. White grapes are whole-cluster pressed with great attention to pH, the musts protected with dry ice, and bottled with some 25 parts per million free sulfites, without much in the way of dissolved carbon dioxide.”
Château Haut-Brion & Château La Mission Haut-Brion ‘La Clarté de Haut-Brion’, 2019 Pessac-Léognan Blanc ($119)
Describing 2019 La Clarté, he says, “Aromas of confit citrus fruit, peaches, grapefruit and pastry cream make the 2019 La Clarté de Haut-Brion full-bodied, deep and fleshy, with a satiny attack and an ample core of fruit underpinned by lively acids and chalky structure. Overall the wine is richer and headier in style than its 2018 predecessor.”
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