Cédric Gravier of Gomaine la Suffrene on sustainable wine making in Bandol

By Tobias Webb

When you ask those who know about wine, about Bandol, the same names come up.

Tempier is always top, and with good reason. See a previous post on their wines. Terrebrune is another, also with excellent reckoning behind it, although the wines are very different from Tempier. De Begude is also in the running, see this post and podcast on their wines.

Also on the list is of course Domaine Ott, which I’ve not yet visited, and a few others.

Domaine La Suffrene also ought to be on anyone’s list for the region. Perhaps it is much less well known because the family that own the property, the Gravier’s, have only been doing it for two decades.

In an appellation where some producers, many in fact, have been making great wines and great value wines at that, for decades longer, Domaine La Suffrene is perhaps a little bit of an outlier.

Which made me all the more curious to visit the place and meet the winemaker. So I did.

Cédric Gravier of Gomaine la Suffrene on sustainable wine making in Bandol  - Sustainable Wine
Cédric Gravier

Turning up in late March my Brother in Law Rob and I were in for a bit of a treat.

Rather than the quick gaze into the vines from the edge of the property or the cursory tour one sometimes gets, Cédric, who runs Domaine La Suffrene, got us immediately into his 4X4 and off we went into the vineyards, to discuss everything from grape types to soil composition to weather, climate change, wall building and how to best use a tractor on the stark soil of this particular corner of Bandol.

Prior to 1996, the vineyards at Suffrene were used to grow grapes for the local co-operative. When Cédric took over that year, he decided to make their own wine across 50 hectares made up of mini mountain ranges packed with calcareous fossils of the Castellet: the Cadiere and the hillside of Sainte Anne de Castellet.

As mentioned in previous posts, the Bandol area is known for its climate: over 3000 hours of sun per year, with lots of sea air, and rainfall which rarely exceeds 650 mm during autumn and winter. He’s helped by his his grandfather, who knows every vine, they use a mostly calcareous clay ground soil and their terroir to make wines from Mourvèdre, Cinsault, Grenache and Carignan. The Mourvèdre clearly adds what they call “structure and finesse” to the rosé, and an “aromatic palette of spices and liquorice” to the reds.

The audio podcast and videos below allow Cédric, our enthusasiatic, knowledgeable and extremely affable host, to tell his own story, interjected with my rather layman like questions about his work, his wines and how he makes them.

On the wines. His rose is without doubt the best I’ve had. Sorry D’Esclans, you also showed me amazing hospitality and even gave me some Garrus, the world’s most expensive Rose wine (which is extremely good) but Domaine La Suffrene and Cédric and family produce for me, Rose wine which is the best I’ve had. His reds are also superb, and more on those in a minute.

The Domaine La Suffrene Rose, though, is worth a few more words. Bandol rose can be, and is, the best you can get, for my palate at least.

So many Provencal Rose’s are weak, watery and lacking in character. That is not surprising. Most are produced in large quantities, sold for less than ten Euros and designed to be drunk fast, without much thought.

That’s fine, if you like that sort of thing (not sure why you would but each to his/her own). But if you really want the best things about a good Rose wine combined in a bottle, I’d suggest ordering some Domaine La Suffrene Rose.

Here’s why. For me, a good Rose should have a few simple qualities. Freshness and a little elegance, but also a little structure, some character, with more than one dimension, and a little bitterness on a long finish that cuts through your saturday lunch olive oil dressing and refreshes the palate, whilst giving you a moment of pause for consideration of what you’ve just drunk.

Domaine La Suffrene Rose does that in spades. Here’s a bit about it. The Cuvée Sainte-Catherine 2013 is the Rose I’ve had the most of in recent months.

This is because it’s mostly Mourvèdre, with a touch of old Carignan, it has the lasting structure and flavour that a Grenache dominated Rose (for example) just can’t match.

Here’s how a great rose wine is made, using the 2013 vintage as an example.

The 2013 harvest garnered some 38 hectolitres per hectare, and was harvested in September 2011, with considered grape selection.

The grapes were hand picked and were macerated at a low temperature prior to pressing. The juice was cold settled then placed in a stainless steel vat for fermentation for a period of 15 days between 18°C and 20°C before racking.

The juice was fined in early November then re-racked and assembled in January. The final assemblage is stocked in concrete vats until bottling after filtration from March to July 2014. The drinking window, according to Suffrene is only 4-5 years after bottling.

That’s a long lasting rose, and it shows why, if you like a structured rose, it’s hard to beat serious quantities of Mourvèdre in the wine.

Onto their Reds. (I tasted the white, but didn’t keep my tasting notes so will hold back from commenting, except to say they use 50% Ugni Blanc and 50% Clairette in the wine, a common combination in the Bandol region.)

They make three reds, but I’ll focus on the two better ones here. I’m not sure I even tasted their Rouge Vin de Pays du Var, which I’m sure is a lovely quaffing wine.

But onto the really good stuff.

First up, the “Rouge Tradition” is 55% Mourvèdre, 20% Grenache, 15% Cinsault, 10% Carignan. It’s modern Bandol at it’s finest. Red and dark fruit, austere but full bodied, not a fruit forward wine, and with restrained tannins and a deep, silky long finish. Notes of leather, menthol and eucalyptus abound, with some cigar box in places. But beware considerable variation in the ageing of the wine. Right now, the 1999 is perfect, whereas the 1998 has gone over the hill and is tumbling down the other side.

The grapes are hand harvested from the same calcareous clay as the Rose, usually between the 5th to the 20th September each year, as you might expect in Bandol. Partially destemmed before crushing, the grape must ferments without added yeast, in concrete vats between 28°C and 32°C, for around three weeks. Pumped over twice a day to bring out the tannins, it’s racked in 50hl vats for malolactic fermentation and aged in large wooden foudres for 18 months.

During this time it’s racked three or four times and there’s no fining or filtration. Yet I’ve found surprisingly little sediment in the wines, even in the 1999 vintages. It’s not recommended to be drunk for at least 4-5 years after bottling, and the optimum window seems to be about 7-17 years if the 1999 is anything to go by.

The other red that stands out is their Les Lauves. I’ve had the 2008 and the 2004 so far. It should age extremely well, perhaps even longer than the Rouge Tradition, given that it’s 90% Mourvèdre, with Carignan making up the other 10%.

It’s hard to compare to the Rouge Tradition given the differences in the ages of the wines I’ve tasted, but this is the wine to buy and lay down now, particularly the 2008, which has a long way to go to full maturity. Dark fruits, length, elegance, and the beginnings of tertiary flavours are coming out now. It’s a smoother Bandol than many with this much Mourvèdre, and seems bound to age very well until 2025 and perhaps beyond. In contrast to the Rouge Tradition the Les Lauves is aged for 21 months in the foudres (large barrels), because of the higher proportion of Mourvèdre.

So that gives you an idea of the wines that Cédric Gravier makes, and how it’s done in the vinification rooms and barrel cellars. Now onto the vineyards.

I’ll let Cédric tell you in his own words below about the practices he uses to make his wines. We talk a fair bit about his sustainability related practices. Organic but not biodynamic is a quick summary. I’ll let him explain the rest.

(They also make a superb olive oil which I’ve tried, and it’s well worth the money, particularly when you consider what a fraud so many ‘mainstream; olive oils turn out to be).

Podcast and videos below.


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About the author

Tobias Webb

Toby Webb is co-founder of Sustainable Wine. He is also founder of Innovation Forum, a leading platform for change in sustainable supply chains. He has spent 20+ years working in business and sustainability and has spent ten years teaching the subject at various London universities. He advises a number of companies large and small on sustainability. Businesses he has worked with include Patagonia, Interface, Bayer, SOK Group, Boots/Walgreens, Metro, Unilever, Nestle, Reckitt Benckiser, Sainsbury’s, and many others. He co-authored the UK’s national CSR strategy for David Cameron from 2006-10. He has been organising events, advising, teaching writing, blogging and podcasting on sustainable business since 2001. His (non-wine) blog is at www.sustainablesmartbusiness.com