If Alain Pascal didn’t exist, a French movie director might invent him.
Pascal, 62, is an increasingly rare breed—a local, old-school, self-taught winemaker in Provence. Raised on a farm, he has lived his entire life in southern France’s coastal Bandol appellation. A former amateur boxer and a keen hunter, he’s a burly guy who likes to build big things—like winery additions—with his own hands, which are as stubby and gnarled as his old, bush-trained Mourvèdre vines.
He also makes some exceptional red wines.
Bandol is the only appellation in France dominated by sun-loving Mourvèdre and, not surprisingly, Pascal made his reputation on big, black, highly extracted wines.
But in the past decade, he says, he has moved to gentler winemaking.
“Before, I made wines that were too strong,” says Pascal, driving his muddy truck up a dirt road through a series of vineyard-covered terraces. “Now I am looking for finesse and fraîcheur. I make more delicate wines.”
“Delicate” is, of course, relative when speaking of Mourvèdre, a tannic variety usually considered more rustic than refined.
“You learn from getting older,” he adds. “I am trying to evolve—in a positive way, I hope.”
It is a chilly winter day, and Pascal, defying the cold in denim shorts, stops at the edge of his highest-elevation vineyard, about 650 feet above the sea. His four dogs (three pointers and a sheep dog) playfully pounce on him as he walks over clods of recently plowed clay.
“In Bandol, there are many types of terroirs,” he says. “Everyone has their specificity. I believe in clay.”
He planted these 2.5 acres of Mourvèdre before he was 20 years old. Since 2008, he has used the grapes for his sole special cuvée, named for his mother, Antoinette.
Born in a small house among the vineyards facing the village of La Cadière-d’Azur, Pascal always knew he wanted to be a farmer.
When he was 20, he rented a few acres of vineyards from a neighboring property with a sprawling 18th-century farmhouse.
“The owner had no children, and he told me, ‘One day when you have some money, I will sell it to you,’” Pascal recalls.
Eleven years later, Pascal bought the place and renovated it. About a decade later, after the death of his father, Pascal decided to make his own wine and built a cellar dedicated to his father, Honoré, whose nickname was Gros Noré.
“Everything I did, I did with my hands,” he says.
In 1997, he produced his first bottles of Gros Noré. At first, Pascal strived for the ripest possible fruit, producing striking reds that earned him notice. From the start, he fermented with indigenous yeasts and didn’t filter his wines.
In the past decade, in search of freshness and complexity, he has changed a few things: harvesting slightly earlier, incorporating whole-cluster fermentations and limiting use of extractive techniques in his fermenting must.
Pascal divides the work at Gros Noré with his brother Guy and nephew Jordan, tending to about 45 acres of vineyards that he’s now in the process of certifying organic and to a winery that produces about 6,000 cases annually—mostly red, with some rosé and a mere 150 cases of white.
Gros Noré’s Bandol red is a blend of 80 percent Mourvèdre, completed by Carignan, Cinsault and Grenache. His Cuvée Antoinette is 95 percent Mourvèdre—the maximum allowed by the appellation. Typical of Bandol, the wines are aged 18 months in large oak casks, or foudres.
Despite Pascal’s new direction, his reds remain robust. He’s shaved up to half a point of alcohol off the wines, putting them below 15 percent. But no one will mistake them for Pinot Noir.
And that’s a good thing. I enjoy the wild, spicy, meaty and even tough character of Bandol wines that mellows with time. Just like some of the vignerons who make them.