In this interview below I meet Eric de Saint-Victor from Château de Pibarnon, in Bandol.
I struggle to think of a more spectacular setting for a winery, that I've seen, more or less ever. A friend who has been to many of the great wine regions who came along with me agreed. Photos are below.
Our host at Pibarnon, owner/manager Eric made it hard to get away, such is his infectious enthusiasm and knowledge about the Bandol region. We only left so as to get to another appointment.
Pibarnon, along with Pradeaux and a few others such as Bunan, is the Bandol wine you see most outside of wine shops, on big supermarket shelves across the south of France. They farm around fifty hectares of grapes at around 300 meters in altitude, making a red that's 90% Mourvèdre and 10% Grenache. Total production is around 200,000 bottles a year.
(Their white wine is made with local grape Bourboulenc and Clairette, for saltiness and their Rose wine with Mourvèdre and Cinsault)
Pibarnon red is regarded as one of the top wines from the region, with a reputation for elegant masculinity, and the winery sits atop a hill overlooking a bowl of vineyards that has stunning views. See below for photos.
Eric refers to Mourvèdre as the "tall man that can dance". By which I think he means it has a more austere,' vertical' taste structure (say than Syrah which is about breadth perhaps) combined with an elegant vibrant ness that can turn it into such wonderful wine, with the right techniques, ageing, weather and blending. I see what he means, having tried many of the best Bandol wines in the last couple of years. It has a restrained energy about it and a complexity that comes out superbly in the best wines. (there is some lower quality Bandol around, let's be clear, but not at Pibarnon)
Bandol is known for its "Restanque" approach to terracing and drainage, given the many steep hills in the area, and these are clearly visible from the Pibarnon Winery.
The soils in Bandol are hugely varied and fascinating. I've seen what looks like red clay only a kilometre or so from gravel type soils. Pibarnon has Triassic limestone soil and Santonian blue clays, similar to those of Yquem or Pétrus in Bordeaux. You can read more about the soils of Bandol here, on this useful website page.
Bought by the Saint-Victor family in 1978, the estate has undergone several transformations and has been extended through the construction of terraces on its steep and majestic hill and the purchase of further plots. Some of these contain Santonian blue clays, similar to those of Yquem or Pétrus in Bordeaux, according to Pibarnon's website.
Today, Pibarnon vines cover 50 hectares, and these are sheltered from the mistral and perched on terraces supported by Provençal dry stone walls in a huge, south-east facing amphitheatre. There's a narrow valley at one end where the wind from the sea can blow up onto the vines and bring some humidity.
Eric pointed out to me that Bandol is about as far north as you can ripen Mourvèdre in the proportions they use it in the region, being around 600kms further north than the Mourvèdre wine makers in Alicante (and other areas) in Spain, one of the few other places the grape is used in serious proportions in the final bottle.
On sustainability, whilst Pibarnon is organic, beginning in 2004, so almost all others in Bandol, they are now experimenting with biodynamic winemaking principles.
"It's not blind growing...it's the idea that if we make the soil more lively, more dynamic, the plant will get everything it needs from that soil", he says in the interview below. "It's not a religion, its a belief, a pragmatic way..." he adds.
In the cellar they are experimenting with long ageing in oak and in clay and ceramic amphorae (picture below) to see how that works with the new biodynamic approach.
Eric and his colleague Marie note that they are haves testing two to three weeks earlier than 30 years ago, with earlier ripening. In the 1980s ripening was late october, even early November, they say, and this earlier ripening has had a beneficial effect on the wine.
(Given the difficulty in ripening Mourvèdre this far north in the proportions winemakers use it in Bandol, this was interesting to hear).
Alcohol levels have gone from 13 to 14 percent as a result of riper grapes, but this adds more elegance and balance to the wine, says Eric.
Check out the interview below for more, and the wines of Pibarnon, I think you won't be disappointed, particularly given their best wine is still under 30 Euros a bottle in general.