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robert camuto: letter from europe

Bandol—The Hard Way

A Rhône winemaker's labor of love in coastal Provence
The only vigneron in recent memory to start a Bandol estate from scratch, Jean-Marc Espinasse plans to plant a total of 8 acres of Mourvèdre and Cinsault.

Posted: May 26, 2014 11:00am ET

Jean-Marc Espinasse stood overlooking his day-old Bandol vineyard with an expression somewhere between exhaustion and bliss.

"It's been a fantasy for me to be here," said Espinasse on his hillside in coastal Saint-Cyr-sur-Mer, surrounded by olive trees, pine forest, sea views and 2,000 stubs of grafted Mourvèdre vinestock in an acre of freshly turned clay.

It was Sunday, a day of rest for the 47-year-old Marseille native and former Rhône winemaker (see our previous blog on him) who sold his Domaine Rouge-Bleu in 2012 to do Bandol the hard way. The day before, he and a team that included friends and his 19-year-old son planted the first vines at his Mas des Brun property—working from dawn and finishing under car headlights. This followed a year of clearing trees, removing boulders and preparing soils.

Starting an estate from scratch has become rare around here. Sure, every few years someone decides to make their own wine instead of selling grapes to a local co-op. But this is different. The Bandol appellation producers' association—with more than 50 wine producers in eight historic winegrowing communes west of Toulon—can't pinpoint the last domaine started from nothing.

If all goes as planned, Espinasse will plant a total of 8 acres of Mourvèdre and Cinsault by 2018. Under appellation rules, Espinasse must wait until 2017 to harvest from the vines he planted this spring for Bandol rosé and until 2021 for Bandol red. (However, in 2016, he can start producing vin de pays, table wine.) When it's all done, he can make nearly 1,500 cases of Bandol wines a year.

This is a love story: boy meets terroir. Looking to the rounded forest hillsides and the Mediterranean a mile way, he enthused about Bandol's Mourvèdre-dominated reds and the area's natural beauty. "It's not Tuscany," he said dreamily, "but it reminds me of Tuscany."

Wearing ripped shorts, sandals and a Grand Canyon ballcap, Espinasse led me up a narrow path to a series of east-facing, flat drystone terraces. Long ago planted with vines, they're now home to an occasional olive or fig tree, jungles of garrigue, and dangerous-looking blackberry bramble.

"I think this is the right place for Mourvèdre," Espinasse said. "Higher elevation, more sun, cooler night temperatures and it's not steep. Mourvèdre likes almost flat areas where the rain gets absorbed and it doesn't get too dry."

Espinasse grew up around wine and his uncle's Domaine du Banneret in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Later, he sold wines for the Provence estate Château Ste.-Roseline. Then in 2006, he started Rouge-Bleu with French and American investors. (He has kept a 15 percent interest and still brokers about 20 small-production wines to the U.S.)

By 2012, however, Espinasse was restless. He and his wife, Kristin, an Arizona native who has chronicled their adventures in books and blogs, decided to start a new project in his dream vineyards by the sea.

There were, however, obstacles. Espinasse couldn't afford Bandol vineyard prices of $100,000 per acre, and unplanted potential sites in the appellation were rare. Then, a fellow vigneron tipped Espinasse to Mas des Brun, 20 acres with a 19th-century farmhouse that had fallen into decline.

Timing worked in his favor when the election of a Socialist president, François Hollande, injected fear in the real-estate market. "We had the luck to be here at a time when nobody wanted to buy anything," he said.

He plans to harvest organic olives for oil, and he's begun raising honeybees. When the time comes, he will fashion a makeshift winery from a pair of air-conditioned shipping containers and will eventually excavate a small cellar for aging reds.

As Espinasse spoke, I thought, "Geez, when will all this butt-busting work pay off?"

Then Espinasse described his summer schedule—up at six, swimming in turquoise waters at seven, then back to the sea on his Zodiac boat in the evening—and I realized that Bandol is already compensating him handsomely.

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