With rosÃƒÂ© consumption on the rise, Gary Rose visits the vineyards of Bandol, Provence, to see what the fuss is about.
It’s Ascension Day when I arrive in Marseille. As my taxi approaches its outskirts, the city’s new Hollywood-style sign emerges in the distance through a layer of mist, like a holy commandment thrown down from the clouds. I later discover that the 50-foot-high letters were put there by Netflix last year to publicise their GÃƒÂ©rard Depardieuseries Marseille.
I’m not here to see France’s second-largest city though Ã¢â‚¬â€ I’m passing through en route to Toulon, 50 minutes’ drive to the east along the CÃƒÂ´te d’Azur, where I’ve been invited to visit the Royal Princess cruise ship. But before I get my sea legs on, I plan to exercise my wine legs on one of the vineyard excursions you can take from the ship.
The tour company showing me around is called Bandol Wine Tours and my guide is an affable Englishman called Richard, originally from Kensington. He kinda reminds me of Hugh Grant, and I enjoy the way he perpetuates the Englishman-on-the-Riviera stereotype: genial, gentlemanly, slightly awkward.
Before the tour starts, we stop for lunch at the impossibly rustic hillside village of La CadiÃƒÂ¨re d’Azur, where street-market vendors are offering olives and fish, and there’s a crumbling boulangerie on every corner. We eat at Le Bistrot de Jef, where the picture-postcard panorama of vineyards threatens to eclipse the delicate cuisine.
“The food exudes the essence of Provence,” says the Michelin Guide about this place. “Fresh ingredients, capably prepared.” It’s not the most gushing endorsement, but then Le Bistrot de Jef doesn’t charge the earth either. You can get lunch for 20 Euro here, and it’s well worth the cash.
“Bandol is known for its rosÃƒÂ©,” Richard tells me over my fish course, as I slurp down one from Domaine Lou Capelan. “It’s always been a big wine town, with an appellation dating back to the 1940s.
The Romans made wine there, and mourvÃƒÂ¨dre is now the main grape variety. The grapes are all hand-picked, because machines can’t access the crooked vines and steep slopes around here. All the wines are organic… and hangover free, which can be a bit dangerous.”
I decide that in the name of journalistic altruism I should put this to the test by trying as many as possible at our first vineyard, La Garenne. It’s a dirty job…
La Domaine de la Garenne is run by the glamorously-named Beatrix de Balincourt. “She wears stilettos in the vines,” says Richard. She’s not wearing them today, presumably to my guide’s disappointment. Beatrix doesn’t speak much English, so I do my best to dredge up my A-level French. I miss a lot of what she says, but one thing I do understand is that the 27-hectare site has been in her family for 300 years. Not a bad business to be born into.
The family’s Alsatian dogs frolic in the fields as I inspect the tiny, nascent mourvÃƒÂ¨dre grapes, before being dwarfed by the oak barrels in the 150-year-old cellar. Then it’s on to the salon de degustation (three of my favourite words) where the rosÃƒÂ© flows like, erm… wine.
Made with a blend of mourvÃƒÂ¨dre, grenache and cinsault, the ones I try are all rich and complex, with white-fruit aromas and (to my nose, at least) a hint of white pepper. Beatrix tells me they export about 30 per cent of it, but she doesn’t tell me where you can buy it in the UK. Looks like you’ll have to try an online search or, even better, a personal visit to Bandol.
Half-a-dozen samples later, I wobble contentedly out into the spring sunshine and it’s on to Domaines Bunan, where they boast about their wines being available in Marks and Spencer.
The company was set up in 1961 by brothers Paul and Pierre Bunan who, judging by the pictures on the walls, have a mild obsession with Marlon Brando, who visited Bandol in 1954. Phillipe, who is now in charge of winemaking here, has the motto “good wine can be made when the vine is respected,” which almost certainly sounds better in French, but we get the drift.
As in any winery, the tapestry of fields is juxtaposed with incomprehensible machinery and echoey steel vats, incarcerated like robotic zoo animals in rustic barns. As I’m shown around, I hear about the local terroir Ã¢â‚¬â€ a well-drained, hilly terrain with high-limestone soil, where the acidity levels are balanced by the humidity of the sea breeze.
I taste award-winning red, rosÃƒÂ© and white, all of superior quality. “What do you taste?” The lady serving me asks about the white. “Des pommes?” I guess, sheepishly. “NON!” she barks. “Pamplemousse (grapefruit)!” That’s me told. Still, it’s always good to hear a French person say the word “pamplemousse”, even in the context of a minor rollocking.
“Bandol is changing people’s perception of rosÃƒÂ©,” says Richard. Apparently global rosÃƒÂ© consumption has shot up by 200% in recent years. I haven’t verified this statistic, but it makes sense to me. I’ve always considered it to be the best hot-weather lunch option. And although some of the sweet ‘n’ syrupy examples you get in the UK have given it a bad rep, I reckon it’s time for rosÃƒÂ© to have its day in the sun. Get yourself down there before the hispters get wind.