Warming up to Bandol wines

Other wines may share some of Bandol's characteristics, but few are as distinctive as the burly, brooding red from Provence.
Other wines may share some of Bandol's characteristics, but few are as distinctive as the burly, brooding red from Provence. ILLUSTRATION: SERGE BLOCH / NYTIMES

UNITED STATES (NYTimes) - It's fair to say that no wines anywhere resemble the red wines of Bandol.

Superficial kinships, perhaps, are easy to come by. Both Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Bandol, for example, may radiate a sense of Mediterranean power, but their characters differ as much as their dominant grapes.

Châteauneuf's grenache, especially nowadays, tends to offer a lusher, more opulent and jammy strength, while the force of Bandol's mourvèdre tends to be more brooding and withholding. Bandol is also more structured and tannic, a quality that comes from chemical compounds in the skins, seeds and stems of grapes that causes a drying, slightly bitter astringency.

The fierce tannins of Bandol may bring to mind the equally forbidding structure of a young Barolo, as might a licorice quality in its flavours, but any similarity ends right there. Mourvèdre from Bandol has a broader, sunnier quality that speaks of Provence, while the high-toned nebbiolo of Barolo can be from nowhere else but the Piedmont region of northwestern Italy.

Comparisons and contemplation come naturally when drinking any good wine. Why does it taste as it does? Where does it come from, and how does it reflect that place and its people?

No one innately knows the answers to these questions about Bandol, unless that person happened to have grown up in a terraced vineyard on a hillside in Provence. But with continued exposure to all sorts of wines, we can begin to make educated guesses. Not for competitive purposes - like the sport of identifying wines blind, which seems to loom large in the mythology of wine drinking - but simply to deepen the pleasure in enjoying a glass.

Welcome back to Wine School, where exploration begins at the table, with food, friends or family and a few good bottles. There's not a lot of baggage, but the places you might visit can be wondrous.

The last few weeks we've been drinking Bandol, which comes from a small appellation in the hills above the Mediterranean port of the same name, and is perhaps better known for its rosés. As usual, I suggested three good examples: Château de Pibarnon 2011, Domaine du Gros'Noré 2012 and La Bastide Blanche 2013.

Ideally, for comparison's sake, these wines would have been of the same vintage, and that vintage would have been 10 to 15 years old, allowing the tannic structure that is characteristic of mourvèdre to soften and release the complex potential of these wines.

But outside of a very few exceptions, like Rioja Reserva, that's not feasible. Producers need their cash flow, so they sell the wine when it's ready to go. Retailers don't want to be stuck with the task of aging their wines, and restaurants have largely abandoned this responsibility, so it's left to consumers.

How long can Bandols age? I'm not sure, but I've had 35-year-old bottles that still seemed as though they had miles to go. Estimating the ageing potential of a young wine always requires a good bit of informed guesswork. What was the vintage like? Have the wines been stored in ideal conditions? Even if you know the answers, every bottle can be a surprise.

Because these Bandols were young, I recommended decanting them. Several hours of exposure to air helps tame the tannins a bit, and few readers seemed to be particularly bothered by them. Nonetheless, they are a noticeable component and provided an interesting point of comparison.

The 2011 Pibarnon, the oldest of the wines, had the finest-grained tannins. They were discernible, but very smooth, and well integrated into the whole of the wine. This might be because of the extra year of aging. But more likely, it is a stylistic choice on the part of the estate, which in deciding when to harvest, which grapes to use and how to make the wine can soften the impact of the tannins.

For example, winemakers decide whether to destem the bunches of grapes before the fermentation process. Before automation, winemakers almost never destemmed, and some continue that practice today. Château Pradeaux, one of my favorite Bandol producers, does not destem, and its wines are notoriously tannic, requiring 15 years or so before drinking.

Destemming would contribute to a smoother wine by eliminating the tannin-bearing stems, and producers have the option of destemming all or part of the harvest. My guess is that the Pibarnon was at least partly destemmed, but I'm not sure.

The tannins in both the 2013 Bastide Blanche and the 2012 Gros'Noré were chunkier and more apparent. Where the Pibarnon's are felt mostly on the tongue, the tannins in the other two bottles creep up the insides of the mouth and behind the upper lip. On a texture spectrum, the Pibarnon would lean toward the realm of the polished and elegant, while the other two would point toward the rustic and soulful. I liked them all, and thought they were terrific with some fine Texas barbecue.

All three of the wines had a licorice flavor that I often detect in Bandol. The Pibarnon was friendlier, with an underlying fruity sweetness: The proprietor of Pibarnon, Eric de Saint Victor, once described the '11 to me as a "chatty wine." Nothing was chatty about the other two. Licorice and herbal flavors dominated the Bastide Blanche along with very dark fruits, while the Gros'Noré offered the flavors of licorice, menthol and an array of red and black fruits. If you are wondering about the name Gros'Noré, the proprietor, Alain Pascal, named it after his father, Honoré, who was known as 'Noré and who was quite large, or gros.

Most readers followed my suggestion to serve these wines with hearty fare, like legs of lamb or cassoulets. Ali of New York went in another direction, finding the Bandols great with Indian food and unexpectedly good with chilled shrimp served with homemade horseradish cocktail sauce.

She quoted her mother as saying, "The pairing brought energy, grounding and balance to the wine, like yoga." Indeed, a pairing with shrimp cocktail demonstrates admirable flexibility.

I was intrigued by the associations with other wine regions that readers found in these Bandols. The shape and weight of the Gros'Noré initially reminded Sean McCarthy of Wainscott, New York, of Gigondas, not unlike my thought of Châteauneuf, a neighboring region. And Martin Schappeit of Forest, Virginia, said the Gros'Noré reminded him of Etna Rosso, which had not occurred to me but makes sense: another hillside red wine with tannins, made within view of the Mediterranean.

At least one reader, Caroline, was able to see how aging affected Bandols. She and her group pulled out three single-vineyard Bandols from the renowned Domaine Tempier, two from 1985 and one from 1988.

"All three elicited swoons and sighs," she wrote. The rest of us will have to get by on our vicarious pleasure, which is not to be underestimated.

I have often found that reading about wine can be transporting. That may illustrate the power of reading, but it also shows the power of wine.

Your Next Lesson: Ribeira Sacra The world of wine has changed greatly in the last 25 years. Few places illustrate these changes better than our next subject, the red wines of Ribeira Sacra, in Galicia in northwestern Spain.

It's an ancient wine region, relying on visually stunning, terraced vineyards carved into the steep slopes rising from a network of rivers by the Romans, 2,000 years ago. Yet it's strikingly modern: Many of the vineyards, which had been abandoned by the middle of the 20th century, have been reclaimed and rejuvenated, and the region's wine business has grown rapidly.

When I visited the region in 2009, I had dinner with a producer and his father. The father had tended vines and made a little wine for the family, just as generations had before him. The farthest the Ribeira Sacra wines had ever traveled was up the river, to the city of Lugo.

That was before the son took over the vines and, like other young producers, began to commercialise the production, taking advantage of a new global thirst for distinctive wines. Now, the wines are available in New York, San Francisco and even Japan. I remember the father chuckling and shaking his head in disbelief.

The reds are made largely from the mencía grape, which, like the region, few had heard of 25 years ago. Mencía is also grown in the neighbouring region of Bierzo, but the wines made from grapes grown in its warmer climate and alluvial soils are strikingly different from those from Ribeira Sacra's cooler climate and slate soils.

Here are the three bottles I chose:

1. Guímaro Ribeira Sacra Tinto 2015 (José Pastor Selections/Llaurador Wines, Tiburon, California)

2. Décima Ribeira Sacra 2014 (Gerry Dawes Selections/T. Elenteny Imports, New York)

3. D. Ventura Ribeira Sacra Viña Caneiro 2012 (De Maison Selections, Chapel Hill, North Carolina)

These are mostly small production wines, so you may not be able to find these same bottles. Don't hesitate to try other cuvées from these producers as well as any wines from Dominio do Bibei, Algueira, Raúl Pérez or Finca Millara.

These wines ought to be versatile, whether drunk alongside grilled skirt steak with onions and peppers, roasted chicken, wild salmon or earthy bean preparations. Or do as the Galicians do, and serve it with octopus.

Unlike our recent Bandols, these wines do not have to be decanted. Serve them fresh, with the barest of chills.