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Bandol Tasting with Michel Bettane
In Paris last month, at a well known wine school, "Grains
Nobles," I had the chance to attend a tasting led by celebrated French wine writer
Michel Bettane. Bettane is perhaps the most prominent wine writer in France, and a key
member of the Revue du Vin de France. As is traditional in his Grains Nobles tastings,
Bettane brings all the wine from his own cellar. This event focused on Bandol (mourvedre
based, known for its rustic and somewhat gamey wines), and what was most interesting was
how many enjoyable wines he brought that were virtually unknown to Americans. Probably,
you think Domaine Tempier defines Bandol. Bettane brought nary a one. He lacked some of
the special cuvées, and thought that recent regular vintages were not as successful as in
the past. Sure, youve heard of Pradeaux, perhaps Pibarnon or Vannières. But what
about Lafran-Veyrolles, Salettes and Noblesse?
And by the way.....Did you know that theres actually a Bandol style in which some
of the wines seem a bit off-dry? And that some of these can actually age quite awhile?
Sometimes the most interesting tastings are the ones that result in new discoveries.
Bettane brought a couple of wines near the Bandol appellation and style. For starters: 1989
Cotes de Roussillon (Sardat-Malet) This was only 30% Mourvedre and seemed too thin to
be interesting. This wine might have been charming and more voluptuous in its youth, but
it should have been drunk young. 79 points.
- 1986 Coteaux d'Aix (Domaine Calissane) A big step up. And this was a ringer for
Bandol, and a much more interesting wine, too. A bit of that hint of bacon fat that seems
so typical of Mourvedre, a medium body, a pleasing amount of gamey nuances on the nose.
Not deep enough or concentrated enough to be a major wine, but for a modest one, it showed
some character and the ability to age gracefully. Probably, I would have drunk this a bit
earlier, too, as I doubt it gained much with age while suffering a thinning of fruit, but
it certainly drank reasonably well this evening. 84 points.
The Bandols--in order of
- 1993 Bastide Blanche A Bandol for those who don't like mourvedre. A contradiction
in terms? This estate internationalizes the wine and demonstrates that the gamey overlays
of mourvedre are not inevitable. On the other hand, the wine seems divorced from the
region and its roots. Grapey, with surprising purity of fruit and black cherry nuances,
this is an elegant Bandol apparently made for those who would rather not drink traditional
Bandols. It's hard to dislike this wine but if you chose it because it was a Bandol rather
than because you liked its style, you probably would rather pass. It won't satisfy any
Bandol cravings. 87 points.
- 1990 Cagueloupe Slight gamey nuances on the finish, supple tannins. This wine is
thin, and boring. It opened a little with air, but never became much. Simple, not much
character or depth. 83 points.
- 1990 Lafran-Veyrolles A wine from old vines and an estate I'd never heard of.
This does everything very well, falls just short of exceptional. It was decanted. The wine
shows good weight and a decent finish, some typical mourvedre notes without becoming
overbearing, and enough tannins to support more aging. A little short on pure flavor,
perhaps, but a solid wine. The tasting was good enough so that this wine didn't even make
my top 5! 89 points.
- 1990 Pradeaux The 500 pound gorilla of this tasting. An exceptional Bandol in
every respect, and one that defines greatness in the region. The gamey notes are
pronounced on the nose more than the palate. The palate delivers an unusual dark chocolate
character. The fruit is deep and rich and the texture velvety, but the wine retains
balance and elegance, too. Superstar Bandol, and still evolving. My favorite wine of the
tasting. I recently saw some of this in the USA for $17 or so. 97+ points, i.e., will
likely merit a high score.
- 1990 Pibarnon This tasting followed the convention of serving the youngest wines
first, the oldest last. I've always disagreed with that in most contexts (despite its
status as conventional wisdom) because I think the big young wines tend to overwhelm
softer ones that are served later. Of course, this was Bandol, and the wines didn't get
either too old or too soft, so it worked reasonably well. It also turned out to be my #3
on the evening. The Pibaron is a super Bandol. I don't think it quite shatters the mold
the way the Pradeaux does (wine of the vintage?), but it lacks little. Take the Lafran,
above, and add depth, a little more character, a little more game, a nose that mingles
fruit and bacon fat-- a little more everything. You get this. 92 points.
- 1990 Domaine des Salettes Another estate I'd never heard of. Fat and rich with a
heavy bacon fat taste and some mouth drying tannins on the finish. This is a big wine that
will appeal to those who like them on the animalistic, perhaps a bit bretty, side, and
want something distinctive. It was a bit too gamey for my tastes. 86 points.
- 1989 La Ladière Now, here's a stunning reversal. This is a style I never knew
existed. I can't quite decide whether I like it or not to this moment. This wine had off
dry notes, and an almost sugary finish. The gamey notes mingled with the sugar to create
an interesting combination. Ultimately, the wine falls short not so much because of its
odd style, but because it was somewhat short on depth and intensity compared to the very
best. I think I liked it. Certainly, it's a good example of the type. 87 points.
- 1989 Sainte-Anne This is not quite as sugary as the last wine, but continues in
that sweet vein. This offbeat little bugger has a bit of a bigger body, butterscotch
nuances and no depth to speak of (it thinned out fast). Odd, interesting, too light. 84
- 1988 Vivonne A charmless wine. It shows hard and tight, with too little fruit and
a little too much acid. I think this is a bit closed, but I don't think it will matter
much when it opens as the supporting fruit flavors just aren't there. 82 points.
- 1988 Domaine de la Noblesse Take the Sainte-Anne, but do it right. This is
another in the off dry wine style. But this time the wine has structure and a tannic
backbone, better balance and depth, and just a hint of gamey nuances that lets you know
this is still mourvedre. My favorite of the sweeter wines. 90 points, but definitely not
to everyone's liking, or vision of Bandol! Ties for my #4 wine of the night.
- 1987 Moulin des Costes Supple and easy, soft, pleasing and charming, this
approachable wine shows purity of fruit, not much Mourvedre bacon fat, and a lot of
elegance. Short on depth and finish, but this is a wine that does the rest so well, you
can excuse its flaws. Very pleasing, and ready to drink. 86 points.
- 1987 Domaine de la Noblesse A powerful nose promises more than the body
delivered. This has a lot of similarities in style to the Moulin des Costes, but I thought
it showed a touch more depth and richness. Elegant and stylish. 88 points.
- 1985 Pradeaux The bottle showed some evidence of leakage, but Bettane thought it
was showing typically. If so, a disappointing Pradeaux (before a turnaround, said
Bettane). Thinning fast compared to the 1990, but it does resemble the 1990 Pradeaux in
one respect: that distinctive, atypical, dark chocolate overlay. Pleasing, but
unexceptional. 87 points.
- 1985 Pibarnon My #4 wine of the night, along with the 88 Noblesse. Big, tannic
and structured, this manages also to retain its balance, deliver a pretty floral nose, and
not become too hard or overbearing. I think this one still needs a little cellaring! 90
- 1983 Vannières Flavorful, perfectly preserved, almost Burgundian wine. Black
cherry fruit, nominal amounts of game at first, and supple tannins. But then with air,
there seems to be a heavy hit of brett that emerges and the wine becomes more and more
unpalatable. The brett is too heavy and too thick, and I count it as a defect at this
level, although some will be more tolerant. Too bad, since it spoiled a good performance.
- 1982 Pradeaux Decanted. This wine is drying out a bit, as the tannins are
starting to overwhelm the fruit. Still, the body for the moment remains deep and
concentrated, the texture velvety while the tannins are at bay, and the wine still offers
a lot of great fruit. Some astringency on the finish. 89 points.
- 1979 Pradeaux My #2 wine of the night (after the 1990 Pradeaux and just before
the 1990 Pibarnon). Old style Pradeaux. A touch sweet, glorious fruit, fantastic balance.
A gorgeous, seductive wine just a touch shy of the depth of the 1990, and drinking better
tonight. Just a touch of game on the finish as it airs out. Stupendous Bandol. Drinking as
well as it ever will. 97 points.
- 1969 Pradeaux. Decanted. Browning color, pruney and dying. Some maderization. The
weight and quality of fruit, notwithstanding, caused some to like it. Frankly, at this
level of maderization, with a heavy pruney nose, I find that incomprehensible. Personal
preferences aside, this was a defective, half dead wine. 73 points.
A small number of
terrific wines, a larger number that were extremely good, and a demonstration of widely
variant styles made this an interesting tasting for me. It's always good to find new
things, especially when some of them are great things!
Copyright © 1997, all rights reserved, Mark Squires.