For most, Provence brings to mind the famous and elegant salmon-colored rosés that have become the standard for the world across to emulate.
While most associate this region tucked alongside the Mediterranean in southeastern France with rosé, there is also a hedonistic red wine that demands one’s attention – enter Bandol.
The character and reputation of Bandol stems from the full bodied, inky red wines made dominantly from the grape variety mourvèdre. The warm, sunny Mediterranean climate is the ideal place for this grape varietal to succeed in terms of ripeness, with nearly 3,000 hours of sunshine per year, twice the amount needed to fully ripen grapes.
Bandol is a small fishing village that sits between Toulon to the east and Marseille to the west. Its limestone and silicon soils are ideal for viticulture and make for wines with intense structure. The region has a long history of viticulture dating as far back as 600 B.C.
Bandol’s Appellation d’Origine Controlée requires both red and rosé wines to be made with a minimum of 50 percent mourvèdre (pronounced “mor-ved”). Most producers, though, will increase the amount upward of 75 percent of the blend. As with most southern French wines, grenache, cinsault, syrah and carignan can also contribute to the blend – albeit in limited permitted amounts. Also required for the reds is a minimum of 18-months in oak. This is a good thing, considering the thick skins of the mourvèdre grape. These rich structured wines benefit from long barrel aging, which helps integrate, add complexity and soften the wines.
Unique to France, Bandol is the only wine that is legally dominated by mourvèdre, and as such, it is typically the richest, spiciest and biggest wine in France. Of course, the wines of Chateauneuf du Pape and Bordeaux are also full bodied, but the wines of Bandol can dwarf these other great wines in terms of body and power. As a result, the wines can be very appealing to lovers of California cabernet sauvignon and syrah.
Because of the soils and warm and hot sun, the grapes can reach full maturity and ripeness in addition to thick skins. This recipe adds up to wines that are high in alcohol and firm with tannins that typically require long cellaring for the wines to reach their zenith. Although there are certainly wines that are ready to drink upon release, the more structured wines will benefit from 10 years of bottle aging. When young, the wines offer notes of blackberries, cinnamon, herbs de provence, lavender, tobacco and vanilla. As they age, the fruit notes brighten and more earthy notes like leather and tobacco begin to dominate. Decanting for an hour or longer is highly recommended.
As with most French wines, Bandol is best suited to accompany food. Hearty dishes like roasts, stews and fatty rib eye steaks are excellent pairings for the bold tannic powerhouses. Prices start at $40 and can easily exceed $100 for single vineyard expressions.
Alan Cuenca is an accredited oenophile and owner of Put a Cork in It, a Durango wine store. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.