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Sunday, July 13, 2008

Bandol's Estate

While Bandol had always conjured rustic, almost savage imagery in my mind, the town itself is actually a tourist infested, seaside destination, complete w/ beach vendors and ornate summer homes. Just 3 kilometers away and 300 meters above sea level (a two week stint in France has done wonders for my metric conversions) you’ll find Telegraph Hill’s highest point at Chateau Pibarnon. Once through the meandering, labyrinthine dirt road (ample for the width of one Renault at best, on-coming traffic beware), complete w/ more twists and turns than a Hitchcock film, you’ll find one of the grandest views the south of France has to offer. Atop the meticulously landscaped knolls, complete w/ statues and shrubs akin to the campus at the Shining’s Overlook Hotel, is a pure panoramic delight. Terraced vineyard beds form streaming rows on the valley floor, as eroded hillsides wane every so slightly, allowing glimpses of the steel blue Mediterranian to peek between the earth. Peeling your eyes away for a moment, you note the exterior of the Chateau face, which exudes class and an almost aristocratic sensibility, while inside of Pibarnon forms a stark, almost medieval contrast, w/ a cold austerity that sends subtle bone-chilling goose-bumps down your back.

After I dropped off a care package for Eric de St. Victor from Isable Ferrando of Domaine St. Prefert (they had bonded over their love of the Mourvedre grape at a trade tasting in New York), I opened my ears to an impassioned tale of the family’s history at Pibarnon.

Henri de St. Victor, after an awkward sales courtship, purchased the estate (w/ only a few hectares planted to vine) in the mid 70’s w/ little to no viticultural experience under his belt. Henri was in his fifties and struggled his way through vineyard planting mishaps, eventually deciding to lease small parcels from different growers in order to increase his production of Bandol wine. After years of trial and error, Henri honed his craft & became more adept at fashioning distinctive wines from very particular terroirs. Now the estate owns every one of their 46 hectares and is under the control of Henri’s son, Eric (who had top notch training through top producers from both Bordeaux and Burgundy).

The cool microclimate at Pibarnon, thanks to the high altitude and maritime influence, tempers the arid, searing heat of a Bandol summer. While Mourvedre has to form the majority of the blend in order for any wine to carry the Bandol A.O.C. designation, Pibarnon uses a particularly high amount in their reds (generally over 95%) in order to highlight its varietal uniqueness. While most wines from the appellation are notoriously tannic and nearly unapproachable in their first decade of life, Pibarnon’s reds are much more elegant, w/ an almost Burgundian sensibility about themselves. This is partly due to the geology of their vineyards, which are mostly composed of pre-Jurassic (or Triassic) limestone and an abundance of clay (which helps maintain moisture in the particularly dry years), as well as the high altitude exposures. Another aspect that contributes to the finesse in Pibarnon’s wines is likely their ‘progressive thinking’ elevage, which involves gentle extraction, de-stemming and brief periods of small barrel aging (to combat the reductive behavior of the Mourvedre grape and give the wines a bit more polish). The viticulture is yet another notch in the ‘green movement’s’ belt and just a few years away from being a certified, biodynamic property.

Onto the wines…

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