Why France's Bandol wines need time to show their grace
These spicy, dark-fruited, Provencal reds, made using the mourvèdre grape, rank up there with the most venerable from Bordeaux, Burgundy and the Rhone
Is Bandol the last great secret in French wine? It just might be. Not the beautifully expressive rosés that take their place - distinct, recognisable - alongside the best of Provence, but the spicy, dark-fruited, rosemary-and-dill-drenched reds that rank up there with the most venerable from Bordeaux, Burgundy and Rhone.
And just as with those three regions, the key is in a local variety that sits at its limit of ripening, and in its struggle lies greatness. This means cabernet sauvignon for Bordeaux, pinot noir for Burgundy, syrah for the northern Rhone … and mourvèdre for Bandol. For each, the route to ripening in their respective heartlands can be torturous, a reminder that tension during the growing season can create perfection in the glass.
For me, Mourvèdre gives Châteauneuf-du-Pape its heart and soul, and nowadays is too often forgotten in favour of grenache. One of Châteauneuf's best properties, Château de Beaucastel, planted cuttings in the 1950s of mourvèdre from Bandol's Domaine Tempier, in recognition of the brilliance of the grape in its (distant) Provençal neighbour, and of a deep friendship between the Perrin and Peyraud families. But in the southern Rhone it tends to hover as a sideshow, one of a host of grapes that make up the blend. Here in Bandol it is the main event - so much so that the local rules stipulate at least 50 per cent of the blend must be given over to it. Many wines regularly hover around the maximum allowable 95 per cent. Without the sunshine of Bandol it can taste gamey and overly abrasive in its tannins, but here the heat and the parched soils mean it can ripen fully, while the coastal breezes give it a chance to breathe when night falls, stopping overly sweet or jammy flavours.
"Châteauneuf uses mourvèdre for backbone," says Pibarnon's Eric de Saint Victor with a smile. "Here it is used for the head and tail. There for muscle, here for brain."
The young reds can be beautiful to behold, but the surprise of mourvèdre in Bandol is how it reinvents itself after about 10 years in the bottle, when the cassis and liquorice flavours of youth soften into wild strawberries, warm earth, roses, herbs, leather and tobacco.
The 2000 Pibarnon is a revelation, with a smoky gourmet attack that stretches out for minutes before the fruits arrive, softened, reddened, graceful and still vibrant. It's the same story with the 1990 La Bastide Blanche Cuvée Fontanéau a few hours later, the 2001 Domaine Tempier that night, the Chateau Pradeaux 2000 a few days later - the physicality of a young mourvèdre starts approaching something more like the grace of an older nebbiolo or pinot noir.
And yet, Stéphane Bourret at La Bastide Blanche tells me, more than 95 per cent of his clients will drink their Bandol red immediately upon buying it, despite its brilliant potential to deepen in complexity with a few years in the bottle. There is a movement locally (that the best estates are resisting) to recognise this fact by reducing the enforced 18 months of ageing that is in the local rule book for Bandol reds.
"Some producers are hoping to increase ageing in stainless steel to emphasise the primary flavours of young fruit, or are moving increasingly to rosés because they are easier to sell," says Bourret.
"It's crazy not to celebrate the potential and character of these reds. And the irony is that mourvèdre needs this length of ageing to allow its tannins to fully soften. Without it they can be too aggressive. What people forget is that mourvèdre is complicated in character, it can't be treated like most grapes. But if you show it love, it responds in kind."