Wine is so often typecast. Rosé belongs to the summer, and zinfandel, the all-American wine, to Thanksgiving. We drink white wine with fish.
Resorting to such reflexes is understandable. Wine can be confusing, and taking refuge in simple guidelines offers security. But the guidelines, though not exactly wrong, are too limiting.
Rosé does go well with warm weather, and most rosés are too ephemeral to last past the autumn equinox. Still, some rosés benefit from aging and are complex enough to warrant year-round enjoyment. Zinfandel does logically pair with Thanksgiving, even if the feast, which cries out for nimble, versatile wines, is not served by most big, burly zinfandels. White wine with fish? Not always. What’s better than salmon with pinot noir?
Similarly, Bandol, the great red of Provence, is a superb winter wine, the colder and stormier the weather the better. But it can be just as good the rest of the year, especially if you love Bandol.
Bandol is a great wine with a hearty stew or roast in front of the fire. But it may also be wonderful with a pot of chili or a roast chicken as summer days stretch long. Most wines are far more adaptable and flexible than imagined. And seasonality is overrated. More important are mood, food and context.
As a Bandol lover, I won’t restrict myself to those chilly nights that seem so perfect for the wine. The inclination to seek out Bandol whenever and wherever I can was reinforced by a wine panel tasting of 18 bottles from recent vintages. We found wines that were so wonderfully distinctive, and of such generally high quality, that we would drink them anytime. For the tasting, Florence Fabricant and I were joined by John Ragan, the wine director for Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group, and Jessica Brown, wine director for the Breslin and the John Dory Oyster Bar.
Bandol belies the image of Provence as solely the province of oceans of rosé. It is made mostly from the mourvèdre grape, grown largely on south-facing terraces inland from the fishing port of Bandol, between Marseilles and Toulon. The rules require the wines to be at least 50 percent mourvèdre, to be supplemented by grenache, cinsault and a few other grapes. Still, some producers make wine almost entirely of mourvèdre.
The wine tends to be tough in its youth, with an almost feral intensity, conveying the notion of a wild grape and landscape that won’t be tamed by a winemaker’s bag of tricks. With their staunch grip on identity and terroir, the best Bandols refuse to accede to contemporary winemaking’s importuning to be easy, accessible and friendly. Indeed, good Bandol needs time. While our selection ranged from 2011 back to 2007, I would say that every bottle in our top 10 would benefit from more aging. They can be enjoyed young — even the 2011s won’t be offensive. But, as with Barolo or Bordeaux, a good 10 years of aging will soften the brutishness, revealing many more facets within.
Bandol is a small appellation. We could only find 18 bottles instead of our usual 20. But the wines were superb, whether old-fashioned and rustic in style or modern, which in Bandol means polished rather than flashy and oaky. Regardless, predominant flavors include dark fruits, licorice, herbs, tobacco and earth. If you shy away from overly fruity wines, like flamboyant Châteauneuf-du-Papes from warm vintages, Bandols offer excellent, more savory alternatives.
“It’s a pretty true appellation, with a great sense of place without style getting in the way,” John said. Florence agreed, saying she found little evidence of pandering, that is, shaping the wines to meet criteria other than the producer’s own. Jessica said that while the wines were hearty, they were also nuanced and elegant.
Nuanced and elegant are not words often used to describe wines that are more typically, and with great respect, called bestial. But they are appropriate for our No. 1 bottle, the smooth, harmonious 2010 Château de Pibarnon, which can certainly be enjoyed now, though it will no doubt be better in a decade. The 2010 Bastide Blanche, No. 2 among our top wines, was more typical: rustic, soulful, somehow primitive and mouth-filling, yet lovely and inviting. It was also our best value at $25.
No producer is more identified with Bandol than Domaine Tempier. Back in the 1940s, Lucien Peyraud, its guiding force, spearheaded the re-establishment of Bandol as a meaningful appellation after the turn-of-the-century ravages of phylloxera. Later on, in the ’70s, Tempier inspired Alice Waters, Richard Olney, Kermit Lynch and others who kindled the American food and wine revolution.
The 2011 Tempier, our No. 7 bottle, was unexpectedly one of the more accessible bottles in the tasting; smooth, rich and enjoyable. It’s an excellent benchmark Bandol, though it wasn’t one of the more distinctive wines in the tasting. Tempier also makes some special cuvées, like La Tourtine, a superb single-vineyard wine of great intensity and freshness that certainly repays long aging.
Perhaps no Bandol is as resolutely old school as Château Pradeaux. It’s an uncompromising wine, displaying Bandol in its fully untamed state, and it’s a personal favorite. Even beneath the 2008 Pradeaux’s tough tannic structure you can sense its complexity, but, as I said, it’s uncompromising. It needs aging. Even more intense is Pradeaux’s Cuvée Longue Garde, made from old vine grapes in top vintages. It’s well worth putting away for 20 years.
Let’s not ignore some of our other top wines. The 2008 Domaine de Terrebrune was wonderfully animalistic and smoky, while the 2010 Domaine Castell Reynoard was tannic and complex. Age-worthy, yes, both of them, as was our No. 5 bottle, the savory, substantial 2008 from Château Jean-Pierre Gaussen.
Perhaps because of its singular qualities, Bandol remains somewhat of an obscure favorite. It’s not in great demand, and a pretty good value given its aging ability. If you, too, are a Bandol lover, perhaps the old seasonal saw plays to our advantage. Let the others wait until winter. More for us to enjoy year-round.