Bandol Rosé: A Wine of Many Pleasures

Date: 13 May, 2021 / Author: Andrew James

In France, as we emerge from the shadow of a pandemic unsure of how to interact with others, an old friend on the sunbaked Mediterranean coast anticipates our return. Nestled among the garrigue and olive groves are the vine-covered terraces of the Bandol hills, and among them stands their master, rosé, smiling and wearing his multi-coloured coat, pointing towards the swimming pool. He’s right, of course. Rosé is made for summer parties. But when it comes to the Bandol rendition, show some respect and leave the ice cubes in their tray. The producers in the eight Bandol communes, sprinkled 55 kilometres west of Marseille, take their rosé seriously. Not only do they devote most of their crop to it – 74% of the 55,149 hectoliters of wine made in 2020 in Bandol was rosé – but they give it a place of privilege at the dinner table. Rosé is a gastronomic wine, they insist. From northern African to spicy Asian to Provençal, almost any dish with power and character benefits from its association with Bandol rosé.

There are some important differences between the rosé made under the Bandol appellation and those of other regions. In Bandol, grapes are all handpicked and at least 20% of them must be Mourvèdre. To guarantee ripeness and focus, yields are limited to 40 hectoliters per hectare. In comparison, Côtes de Provence rosé – Bandol’s primary competitor for local supermarket shelf space – is cheaper but the yields are higher. Another interesting fact that has a bearing on both colour and flavour is that most Bandol producers prefer to apply a light direct press to the grapes before removing the skins rather than using the saignée method, favoured in places such as Tavel, in which the juice is extracted from crushed grapes after a period of skin contact. The direct press method is basically the application of white winemaking principles to a wine with red-skinned grapes. It results in a lighter-hued wine and helps to bring out the delicate side of Mourvèdre’s tannic character.

While some of the 65 domaines make rosé with more than 80% Mourvèdre, others prefer to let the three principal actors play roles of equal importance. Mourvèdre offers complexity and structure; Grenache, the generosity of fresh fruit, and Cinsault, perfume. The blend would be enticingly balanced if two of the three actors didn’t have trouble sharing the same stage. Eric de Saint Victor of Château de Pibarnon explains the complications of the relationship between Cinsault and Mourvèdre via a sibling metaphor. Imagine the perfumed Cinsault as the younger of the two, eager to go out and show off its charms, but with the older, brawny Mourvèdre as chaperone, scowling in the shadows, the outing is spoiled. Cinsault doesn’t get to express itself and Mourvèdre comes off looking badly. Things change, though, after a year or two in the bottle. Cinsault becomes less demonstrative and Mourvèdre’s scowl is replaced by a smile. After a year spent at cross purposes, the siblings begin to get along. Barrel tastings at Domaine Tempier helped me to confirm such stories of Mourvèdre’s growing pains. The 2020 seemed to be protected by a layer of barnyard (verging on compost) that almost put me off wine altogether, but the 2019 had evolved and was showing beautifully with anise, dark red fruit and violets on a smoky backdrop. All of the components one looks for in mature Mourvèdre.

Serious rosé is being made in Bandol in seemingly infinite variations. Here are three of the many outstanding versions that approach 100% Mourvèdre. Eric Boisseaux at Château Vannières pays homage to the great Burgundians with La Patience, a majestic wine that challenges stereotypical notions of what rosé ought to be. The 2014 and 2017 vintages were made from vines over 50 years old and were vinified in barriques with an extended period on the lees. Château de Pibarnon’s Nuances is equally impressive. Half of the wine is aged in 3,000-litre Stockinger oak while the other half goes into terracotta amphorae, and when they meet again in the bottle the nuances are indeed fascinating. Château Pradeaux’s Vesprée is another varietal rosé to look for. Vinified in oak and left on the lees for eight months, it is balanced, smooth and luscious.

On the other hand, if you prefer the refreshing combination of citrus fruit and spring flowers, seek out the blends. Domaine Ray-Jane’s history dates back to 1288. They are longtime organic practitioners who view blending as key to maintaining typicity. Château Ste Anne, a producer with sheltered, north-facing vineyards that practices natural winemaking, offers a fresh and elegant rosé with a similar varietal breakdown: 40% Mourvèdre, 30% Cinsault and 30% Grenache. Domaines Bunan makes three Bandol AOC rosé wines. According to Claire Bunan, though the blend hasn’t changed much over the years, the colour has become lighter. Technological improvements have led to better temperature control and the creation of a more refined rosé.

Some think of rosé as a vin de primeur, like Beaujolais Nouveau, and will only drink the most recent vintage. This is understandable, if misguided. It is true that most Bandol rosé never sees the inside of an oak barrel. In theory, it is ready to drink six months after harvest but most Bandol rosé needs time in the bottle to mature and synthesize. For those with cellar space, curiosity and patience, I recommend buying a case of the 2020 vintage of any Bandol rosé with at least 50% Mourvèdre. Drink two bottles this year, then two more in 2022 and note the gradual taming of the animal that is Mourvèdre. Soft fruit and spice will emerge in the second year. Then comes the hard part: forget the rest of the case for at least five years. Like many age-worthy wines, Bandol rosé often experiences an identity crisis in middle age, with not much to say for itself. But with age comes loquaciousness, and vintage rosé speaks of dried apricot, heather, honey, garrigue and underbrush. Dust off a bottle after 10 years or so and you’ll see that the hue of your old friend’s coat has changed, along with the aromas. I was able to sample a 1999 rosé at Domaine Tempier and a 2001 at Château de Pibarnon, and both were beautifully preserved. Oxidation gives the wines something of the feel of a vin jaune, yet they are light, ethereal and uplifting. How, I marveled, how can a wine dance with such spry assurance after 20 years with its feet up in the cellar?

Olivier Colombano, the exceptionally talented director of Maison des Vins de Bandol, organized a blind-tasting of 26 wines from 2020 and another five from 2019. From these wines I have selected a handful that impressed the fickle palate of one unreliable taster on a single afternoon. The list is far from definitive. Explore and enjoy!

*G = Grenache, M = Mourvèdre, C = Cinsault, CN = Carignan

2020 Vintage
Château Barthès: well-balanced with salinity, lime, grapefruit and a dry finish. (One-third each of MCG.)
Château Salettes: a refined rosé like flowers on a sea breeze. (40-37-23 GMC).
Château de Font Vive: floral, elegant, slightly racy, with a burst of citrus and acidity; powerful and refreshing. (One-third each MCG.)
Domaine de la Bégude: the ocean with garrigue and citrus in the nose and an excellent grapefruit finish. (95-5 MG.)
Domaine Ray-Jane: an elegant wine with an almond and butter nose. (40-30-30 MGC.)
Domaine La Suffrène: peach and apple aromas; light on the palate with a dry aftertaste. (40-30-20-10 MCGCN.)
Château Val d’Arenc: light peach and flowers followed by good spritz on the palate and an elegant finish. (80-10-10 MCG.)

2019 Vintage
Château Jean-Pierre Gaussen: a very satisfying wine with salinity, apricots and a little of the untamed animal. (One-third each MCG.)
Domaine de Terrebrune: almond, flower and spice lead into a creamy mouthfeel and excellent finish. (60-20-20 GCM.)
Château Pradeaux: a superb nose of flowers and clove, generous fruit in the mouth and a soft finish. (75-25 MC.)

Andrew James is a professor of English literature at the School of Commerce at Meiji University in Tokyo, Japan. He is currently on sabbatical leave in France at Université Grenoble Alpes in order to write a book on Bandol wine. His great interest as a wine researcher is understanding the evolution of wine-speak, and the reflection of culture in wine language.