THE KING OF ROSÉ: BANDOL
Hilly Provence in the south of France features many small microclimates, and many enjoy their own AOC (appellation d'origine contrôlée) designations. Bandol is one such.
According to wine expert Jancis Robinson, Bandol produces "the most serious wine" in Provence. Quality-wise its red wine can compete even with the more famous appellation Chateauneuf du Pape.
Appellation rules dictate that a Bandol rosé or red wine must contain at least 50 percent Mourvèdre—the only such appellation in France—with Cinsault and Grenache typically rounding out the blend. Limited amounts of Syrah and Carignan are also permitted. Many Bandol reds approach 90% or more Mourvèdre. The entire appellation produces well under 2,000 hectares of fruit, with some of the lowest yields in all of France.
All of these grapes are considered Rhône varietals cultivated here since the time of the Romans.
The appellation is named for the nearby Mediterranean seaside village of Bandol, nearer Marseilles than Nice, and its Mourvèdre vines grow happily on south-facing terraces called restanques among sunny pine-forested hills, inland from the village, but close enough to the water to enjoy the sea's cooling, moderating effects. The breeze also helps prevent rot after rainfall. The grape is notoriously fussy, and this is perhaps the only microclimate in France where it can be counted upon to ripen.
Bandol's white wine is obscure and consumed locally. The red wine's profile is classic for a Mourvèdre-dominant blend: an earthy, big red food wine with dark, plummy fruit. But it's the rosé that's best-known internationally.
Why does this coveted dry rosé command over $25/bottle and often $50/bottle retail, and around $100/bottle in restaurants, in the United States?
It's a two-part answer: flavor, and quality.
First, the quality. Appellation rules ban irrigation and mechanical harvesting. Bandol reds must spend a minimum of 18 months in cask. And as we noted above, the Mourvèdre grape is notoriously fussy, perhaps even moreso than Pinot Noir. It's no wonder that the vast majority of Provence rosé and red wine is made from Grenache and Cinsault. Who's got the time and the patience for this fussbudget of a grape? Winemakers in Bandol, that's who.
They know that Mourvèdre likes its face in the sun and its feet in the water, so terraced Bandol soil can't drain too quickly. The grape is low in acid, challenging the winemakers to compensate, because acid is needed for aging potential, and for brightness, and it is coveted in a wine meant to be paired with food. And, if the winemaker isn't careful, Mourvèdre can produce too much of an unappetizing fecal farmyard smell. And if all that isn't challenging enough, Mourvèdre tends to mature better in large foudres than in traditionally-sized barrels.
The hard work, much of it by hand, produces an elegance in the flavor that makes Bandol rosé the king. Expect subtle complexities and a long finish, and hints of spice. It's a food wine: consider a spicy sausage dish, or wild boar, as a pairing on a warm summer evening.
For more about how rosé wine is made, click here.