France: Provence

Domaine de Mauvan (Puyloubier)

We were looking for another Rose in Provence in the wilting 40C heat of summer. Much of our shortlisting work was done in the thankfully cool Cotes-de-Provence-Sainte-Victoire Vinotheque in the town of Trets. Our clear winner was Mauvan. 30 minutes later, with the stunning long ridge-like Mont Sainte-Victoire as backdrop, we were tasting the full range with Martin Massot, Gaelle Maclou’s long-term boyfriend and co-worker. Gaelle’s Grandfather started the Domaine in the 1950s. It was mixed farming. Mainly cereal, fruit and some vines. Gaelle, a qualified Oenologist, took over the Domaine 22 years ago, stripped out the cereal production and has concentrated on wine ever since. The wines are very very good. A refreshing white made from Rolle (Vermentino), two levels of Rose, Classique and the Sainte-Victoire and three reds. Classique is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, Cuvee Vieilles Vignes is 70% Grenache and 30% Carignan from vines planted in 1953 and 1956. Their Sainte-Victoire Cuvee Prestige is 70% Syrah with 30% Grenache. All the reds age beautifully.

Chateau Vannieres (Bandol)

Bandol, one of France’s great, age-worthy red wines, is the mad king of Provencal wine that can trace its roots back to Roman times. It takes its name from a pretty coastal town on the Cote d’Azur, not quite as chic as St Tropez or Cannes perhaps, but whose harbour is still crammed with expensive white motor boats and yachts. Bandol’s vines are inland, dotted around the villages up in the hills. The wine is made mainly from Mourvedre, a grape that needs lots of heat and sun to fully ripen. Even when it does, it can be extremely tannic when young. Playing an occasional minor part in southern Rhone blends, here Mourvedre expresses all of its potential. It is definitely worth waiting for its dark, meaty beauty to emerge. It can also be very alcoholic, routinely 14.5-15 percent.

We are big fans of Chateau Vannieres age-worthy Bandol. The current incumbent, Eric Boisseaux, has the air of a 1960s playboy about him – suave, jacket, scarf, smart jeans and smart shoes: very Cote d’Azur. His grandfather bought the domaine in Bandol in 1957. The family was originally from Burgundy (they are related to the Gouges of Nuits-St–Georges). His father, Gaston, who made wine in Beaune and Bandol, died prematurely in 1968. His mother, Colette, took over and during the 1970s they baled out of Burgundy and settled full-time at Vannieres.

His Bandol Rouge is 90% Mourvedre with 10% Grenache, the Rose is made with Mourvedre (saigne method), Grenache and Cinsault (from the press). The white Bandol is made with 80% Clairette and 20% Bourboulenc.
In addition to the three Bandols, he also makes some more everyday white, rose and red. Now labelled as Vannieres with the Mont-Caume IGP (Indication Geographique Protegee – the new name for Vins de Pays). The composition of each is similar to the Bandols but for some Syrah in the red.

As if to demonstrate the ageing potential of Bandol, it is wonderful to be able to procure some mature vintages from Eric. The 1998 was a revelation when we visited and we are proud to now have some on our shelves – although possibly not indefinitely.

Domaine de la Tour du Bon (Bandol – Le Brulat du Castellet)

Mourvedre is king in Bandol and Agnes Henry is queen in her village high up in the hills. However, Agnes Henry’s Tour du Bon is packed so full of fruit that we can enjoy it now. Big, deep, dark and leathery, occasionally sweaty. Some writers also find aromas of cinnamon, vanilla, blackcurrant, violets and herbs.

Mas de Cadenet (Trets)

The artist Cezanne was so fascinated by the Mont Sainte-Victoire, east of Aix-en-Provence, that he painted it many times. It forms the stunning backdrop for Guy Negrel’s Mas de Cadenet vineyards. Guy, with help from his son Mathieu and daughter Maude, produce a brilliant range of Provencal wines in every colour. Sainte-Victoire, our runaway Rose success for several years, is a blend of 40% Grenache, 40% Cinsault and 20% Syrah, it. They also make a “junior” Rose, L’Arbaude, a blend of 70% Grenache, 15% Cinsault and 15% Carignan, an equally brilliant white made from Rolle (otherwise known as Vermentino), a delicious, rich, herbal red – 45% Grenache, 45% Syrah and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon and finally, top-of-the-range, the Mas Negrel, supple, deep and concentrated.
All their wines seem evocative of Mediterranean sunshine and the warm scents of the garrigue; the Provencal brushland of wild lavender, rosemary and thyme. Oh, and they also make a small amount of Vin Cuit, a sweet red wine, something of a local speciality, and some delicious, peppery Extra Virgin Olive Oil.