The French south coast between Toulon and Marseille is not only incredibly beautiful but also home to some of the best wines in Provence, both red and white. Here, in the small appellation of Bandol, the vineyards look out over the Mediterranean and thrive in the sun. A favourite among the producers here is Domaine la Suffrène run by Cédric Gravier.
I visited Bandol and Domaine la Suffrène at the beginning of September 2021, when the harvest had just started, and the cellars were bustling with activity.
Cédric Gravier has been managing Domaine la Suffrène since 1996. He was then 23 years old and took over from his grandfather, who belonged to the local cooperative. Cédric, however, had other plans. He wanted to make his own wine. He left the cooperative, built a cellar and expanded his vineyard surface as he went along. “Now we have 55 hectares (136 acres),” he says, which is quite large in Bandol, a small appellation of just 3,700 acres.
Domaine la Suffrène makes 200,000 bottles a year. 30% is red, 65% rosé and 5% white. 50% is exported; the United States and Canada are big export markets.
The rosé wine dominates the production in Bandol estates today. Admittedly, it is considered the best rosé wine in Provence, but still, it is a bit of a shame. Bandol has long been known for its fantastic red wine. And Cédric admits he would like to do more red. “Bandol’s most important wine is the red,” he says.
But I suppose no producer can ignore the growing demand for rosé wines. And yes, they are delicious. Not least Cédric’s two rosé wines that we taste, one from the latest vintage 2020, and an older one from 2016.
(Prices mentioned are for wines purchased at the cellar door.)
Bandol Rosé 2020, Domaine de Suffrène is made with 40% mourvèdre, 30% cinsault, 20% grenache and 10% carignan. It is very pleasant, quite complex with red berries, spices and some citrus. It is totally dry and stays fresh in the mouth. A rosé to drink with food. (16 euro/18.80 USD)
In the Bandol Rosé Sainte Catherine 2016, Domaine de Suffrène mourvèdre is more prominent with 90% of the blend. This is a slightly more full-bodied style with developed aromas and notes of marmalade and almonds. “It shows how well mourvèdre develops in a rosé wine,” says Cédric. (25 euro/29 USD)
Mourvèdre is the emblematic grape in Bandol, both for the reds and the rosé wines. “Mourvèdre is not used in so many places,” says Cédric. “It is difficult to get mature, and it really needs to be mature to be interesting. It gives a special character to the wine, a strong identity. It gives flavours of spices, pepper, eucalyptus.”
Mourvèdre influences the taste of the Bandol wines, and so does the climate. Provence is a warm and sunny region. But in 2021, it became a little too much of a good thing. “It has been a dry year with exceptionally low rainfall from October 2020 until the harvest (2021). The vines are stressed; in some, the ripening is blocked. It has mostly gone well, but it has been difficult in some places “, says Cédric.
Everything is harvested by hand and destemmed. At a sorting table, bad grapes are discarded. He adds cultivated yeast for the whites and the rosé. “It’s good because the fermentation then starts quickly and protects the must,” he says.
For the red wines, the grapes are slightly crushed after the destemming and put into the fermentation tank, where they will ferment with the skins for 2-3 weeks. For the reds, he uses the natural yeast found on the skins and in the cellar. “During the fermentation, it is important to work with the extraction,” says Cédric. “Bandol are wines with body; we want to extract a lot.”
The regulations for red Bandol stipulate ageing in barrels for 18 months. Cédric has large oak casks of around 50 hectolitres each. When he took over the estate, he bought three used ones, and since then, he has acquired some more, little by little. “They keep for at least 30-40 years,” he says.
The ageing on the large casks gives no oak aromas or tannins to the wine. What Cédric wants is the micro-oxygenation that will soften the wine a little bit. “Mourvèdre needs oxygen”, he says.
Mourvèdre wines have great ageing potential, but Cédric is looking for drinkability early. Actually, he wants his wine to “have drinkability all the time”, at all ages.
Bandol Tradition 2017, Domaine la Suffrène has 60% mourvèdre and the rest grenache, cinsault and carignan. The nose is intense with ripe dark berries and oriental spices. The palate shows concentration, a fresh acidity, tannin structure with a little softness in the finish. (17 euro/20 USD)
Bandol Tradition 2014, Domaine la Suffrène has more developed aromas of leather, tobacco, a bit smoky. It is more elegant, and it still has good freshness. (20.50 euro/24 USD)
The special cuvée Les Lauves comes from a particular plot of land. Here the vineyards are on terraces, which is not unusual on Bandol’s sometimes very steep slopes. The terraces were built to facilitate the work and prevent soil erosion. They are held in place by beautiful dry-stone walls, called restanques.
The grape composition of Les Lauves is 90% mourvèdre and 10% of old carignan. Our vertical tasting with four vintages of Les Lauves clearly shows the “drinkability at all ages” that Cédric talks about. Both the young and the old wines are easy to enjoy, but in different ways.
Bandol Les Lauves 2016, Domaine la Suffrène has more marked tannins than the cuvée Tradition, but they are pleasant tannins. It is a rich wine, full-bodied with a dense structure, expressive with some herbal aromas. (31 euro/36 USD)
Bandol Les Lauves 2013, Domaine la Suffrène is well balanced with developed aromas, ripe dark berries, tobacco. (34 euro/40 USD)
Bandol Les Lauves 2006, Domaine la Suffrène is starting its mature phase with complex notes of ripe figs, leather and tobacco. It is still very fruity. Long and delicious taste. (48 euro/56 USD)
Bandol Les Lauves 2005, Domaine la Suffrène is perfectly balanced and still fresh. There are elegant and smooth aromas of ripe red berries, autumn leaves. A long finish, a great wine. (50 euro/58 USD)
Finally, the white wines, rare but delicious. 5% of la Suffrène’s production is white, not much, but maybe it will be more in the future. People are getting more and more interested in white Bandol, says Cédric. The grapes are clairette and ugni blanc.
Bandol Blanc Tradition2020, Domaine de Suffrène
Ugni blanc is destemmed and then sent directly to the press. Clairette, which is the more elegant of the two grapes, according to Cédric, is destemmed and crushed and then put in the ugni blanc juice to macerate for 24 hours at a cool temperature. The skin contact gives a lovely complexity and volume in the mouth. Aromas of peaches and white flowers. (16 euro/18.80 USD)
Caritas, Vin de France 2019, Domaine la Suffrène
In 2019, Cédric wanted to make a white wine with a little more extraction and more structure and complexity. He started the vinification the same way as with the above-mentioned cuvée Tradition, but here the clairette skins remained in the must during the fermentation, almost until the end. Then they were removed, and he finished the fermentation without skins.
We have floral notes and apricots on the nose and a firm structure, and a sensation of tannins, which comes from the skin contact. It is different and absolutely delicious. (22 euro/25 USD)
He didn’t know if the wine would meet the requirements to become a Bandol; therefore, he chose to sell the wine as generic vin de france. The label was designed by an artist from the nearby village of Castellet. His plan now is to do a new experiment with the same label every year. A great way for a winemaker to stay creative.