By Jancis Robinson, FT.com. Source.
There aren’t many wine names as resonant as Domaine Tempier Bandol. This is a producer whose back-story is as heady as the dry Provençal rosé for which it is best known.
Tempier’s garrigue-scented pink wine is so popular that it runs out long before the next vintage is available and, yet, it is one of the world’s few rosés seriously worth ageing — for decades in some cases. It is usually released in late March or early April but, by July, when demand is greatest, there is none left in the cellars of the domaine on the plain below La Cadière d’Azur.
Daniel Ravier, winemaker at Domaine Tempier since 2000, freely admits that the rosé sells too quickly. They want to build a new cellar in which to keep back 10 per cent to 20 per cent of the stock but the mayor has refused permission — twice — arguing that the road leading to the domaine is too insubstantial. As it is, each year’s Tempier rosé is bottled in four or five tranches between March and May. “We bottle for the cash,” Ranvier told me frankly, adding, “but I don’t want to make the rosé seem more important than the reds.” The totemic pink wine constitutes less than 45 per cent of the domaine’s production; its full-bodied Clairette-based white, produced from 1988, just 2 per cent.
The story of the domaine is, in large part, the story of Bandol but also of a Mediterranean way of living. It was first told by the fastidious American food writer Richard Olney, who lived not far away, and was then spread far and wide by disciples Alice Waters of Chez Panisse and her influential wine merchant neighbour Kermit Lynch, who commutes between Berkeley in California and an eyrie on a hilltop high above Domaine Tempier.
The couple at the heart of the story are Lucie “Lulu” Tempier, now in her nineties and still living at the domaine, and her late husband Lucien Peyraud who, inspired by a bottle of pre-phylloxera wine from the estate, resolved to recreate its greatness from the vineyards of Domaine Tempier. The farm had been a wedding gift from Lulu’s father and, by the late 1930s, had substantially been replanted with grape varieties more productive than the Mourvèdre traditional in the area. Lucien championed Mourvèdre to such an extent that Bandol is now the only appellation in the world that demands 50 per cent minimum in its red blends.
Lulu was a talented hostess and the Peyrauds’ table became celebrated, inspiring an army of enthusiasts for the bouillabaisse, tapenade, ratatouille and aioli described in Olney’s book Lulu’s Provençal Table. The cellar today is dominated by a giant black-and-white photograph of this energetic couple who had seven children, two of whom ran the domaine for many years.
The job of Tempier winemaker, therefore, is not just any job in the wine business. But Daniel Ravier, an agricultural engineer from Savoie who had been based in Bandol since 1987, seems to fill the shoes comfortably with his boyish good looks and the solidity of a rugby player. The estate was always organic but he took it along the biodynamic path a few years ago, and has instituted some gentle fine-tuning in the unglamorous cellar. Over the past 10 years or so, he has replaced a few of the old 50-hectolitre round casks with new ones from his friends at Stockinger in Austria.
There are four different reds: the Classique, blended from all their plots, and three more expensive bottlings based on specific vineyards that can be seen on the slopes across the plain. La Migoua is the particularly lively product of a geological accident and, at 270m to 300m, is the highest of them. It ripens first and always contains more of the fruity Cinsault and Grenache grapes than any of the other blends, it has only just over 50 per cent Mourvèdre. When I tasted at the domaine last July in the company of two British wine merchants who also happened to be visiting, there was spirited but fruitless discussion as to whether La Migoua is “feminine” or “masculine”. The wine itself certainly isn’t fruitless.
La Tourtine is a popular and powerful, slow-maturing, almost leathery Tempier red, grown on clay, while just below Tourtine is the plot responsible for the most expensive wine of all: Cabassaou, which is protected from the mistral in a sort of amphitheatre. Old Mourvèdre vines, more than 55 years old, generally constitute 95 per cent of Cabassou, the densest of all the Tempier reds.
One of the wine merchants, Roy Richards of Fields Morris & Verdin, encouraged Ravier to demonstrate Tempier’s ageing ability to us, and we ended up tasting almost two dozen wines. The 2014s were hugely promising, the 2013s a bit scrawny from a vintage Ravier described as “bizarre”. The 2012s are coming along nicely, while he counsels keeping the 2011s for quite a bit longer. A Tourtine 1982 was gorgeous, even if in youth the wine can be a bit too solid to enjoy.
But it was a vertical tasting of the rosé, generally a blend of 55 per cent Mourvèdre with almost equal portions of Grenache and Cinsault, that was the real eye-opener. After showing us the three most recent vintages (the 2015 will already have finished fermentation), he opened three much older wines: the 2006, 1988 and 1981. This for a wine style that in theory is designed to be drunk no more than one year after the harvest.
Yes, the 1981 was a bit syrupy and long in the tooth but the 1988 Tempier rosé was probably the finest pink wine I have ever drunk. Creamy and suggestive of macerated rose petals but with a bone dry finish, it seemed to call out for a talented chef. Lulu in bed upstairs perhaps? My tasting notes include the gnomic comment “Great with sea urchins?” It was an utter revelation. We should all lobby that mayor.
Some Tempier favourites
Tasting notes on Purple Pages of JancisRobinson.com
Stockists from winesearcher.com
Illustration by Graham Roumieu