Sometimes I need a hearty, fruit filled, bone-warming wine to sip on. And when the weather is cool, that’s often all I’ll grab. But after I’ve downed big reds from warm places around the (mostly NEW) world with higher alcohol that will make me feel warm, I’m left wanting a little something with more complexity. Something that’s less fruity. A wine that seems hearty but has an element of surprise – maybe that hit of terroir or something that keeps on giving me something new with each sip. And that’s when I grab a Bandol (BAHN-dol), a Mourvèdre based red wine from Provence in Southern France.
Amidst the lavender, olives, soaps, and beautifully patterned fabrics oh, and rosé, there’s this small, high quality region.
If you know anything about wine in Provence than you probably associate it with rosé. And rightfully so: 80% of wine produced here is pink. The market demands it and Provence delivers, in spades. But there’s more than just those lovely salmon colored beauties here: 15% of the wine from Provence is red and it isn’t the refreshing, light partner of rosé. This is big, balls-out stuff mainly from three red wine areas: Cassis, Bellet, and Bandol, with the latter being the only one I’ve been able to find often in a wine shop in the US.
Bandol’s wines are mainly made from the very powerful, luscious Mourvèdre (moo-VED-rrr) grape. It’s a plummy, herbal, licorice-flavored, woodsy grape that’s rarely bottled alone because it is so powerful. Mourvèdre is so strong that it can’t be without oak aging to tame its tannins and in the bottle, wines made of it can age for 15 years and may still not be ready!
Growing in tight little bushes that can stand up to the heavy, ferocious gusts of cold wind that come from northern continental Europe (the Mistral) this tough, muscly grape produces a small amount of potent wine. And because of its power, the grape is mainly used in blends to add a kick to wines that otherwise may lack tannins and brawn (Mourvèdre is a big component in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, for example, and many Côtes du Rhône).
But when it’s the star of the show, it needs to be tempered so in Bandol, where wines contain a minimum of 50% Mourvèdre, but can be up to 100%, the grape is usually blended with Grenache and Cinsault, which soften up the bold, tannic, and kind of meaty flavors of the lead grape. Syrah can be used to add depth of flavor (black pepper and other types of herbal notes) and Carignan adds fruit and juiciness and softens the toughness of the Mourvèdre, which in addition to its strong flavor can be tannic and unforgiving. As an aside, if it’s listed, the percentage of Mourvèdre can be a tip off as to how long to hold it before you drink it – more Mourvèdre = more aging.
But let’s get off the grapes and onto the region, which I think needs a dork out moment of its own, since we HAVE TO give props to one of the oldest winemaking regions in France.
Winemaking started here about 2,600 years ago, most likely when the Phoenicians sailed from modern-day Lebanon and took over the area we now know as Provence. They saw great potential for one of their cash crops here (wine) and likely brought Monastrell from Spain (which is Mourvedre’s name in the Iberian Peninsula), where their Phoenician brethren had already been making wine for several centuries in a similar climate.
When they arrived in the Gulf of Bandol, we can only guess that they were thrilled. They found the ideal place for vineyards: an area with a natural amphitheater created by mountains on three sides and easy access from the vineyards right out to the Gulf. Cha-ching! They could easily export their wine to far flung places and make cash without much transportation overhead (inland locales like Champagne or Burgundy required a trip down a river or over land— why waste the time when Bordeaux and Bandol were basically on the ocean?)
The Romans agreed with the Phoenician’s assessment of the wine quality and worked on painstakingly building stone terraces into the mountainside (which are called restanques and are still used today) and they further built the reputation of this small enclave.
Things trucked along for Bandol, with Louis XV being a famous fan, until the late 1800s when phylloxera hit and nearly all of the vineyards were destroyed.
But growers in this region weren’t giving up after that vine murderer came to town. The winegrowing areas were too good for that. They’d been extolled for millennia, not just for their warm coastal climates, elevation, and sun exposure but for the outstanding, diverse soils that yielded flavorful, bold but still nuanced wines. They used the phylloxera epidemic as a chance to reshape the vineyards and when they applied for their appellation in 1941, Bandol included an elite set of 8 communes that lie exclusively on