Love at first sip – Chateau de Pibarnon

Stories sell wines, so they say. On hearing that I always hasten to add: stories sell the first bottle. The second one is a completely different matter and I consider buying that second bottle a much more significant decision with profound consequences. So no matter how good the story is if what’s in the bottle doesn’t back up the happy memories of your visit or the resonant history of the estate then it’s destined to fade into oblivion. But on a few occasions the place, the winemaker, the philosophy, the story and the wines all add up to a trajectory that catapults you to wine heaven. After tasting about a dozen different wines of Chateau de Pibarnon it is probably too early to say that this is a flame that’s going to burn for years but at this very moment it’s hard to imagine any other way.

Luckily, the wine world is still full of surprises. In July we travelled to Provence to embrace rosés and came home raving about Bandol. Before our journey I knew practically nothing about this region and its reds. My knowledge is still subliminal but now I’m desperate to find out more.

Bandol is the only French appellation where mourvedre is the king. Knowing how far north it is situated compared to the variety’s home in Jumilla, Spain and that it’s right next to the sea, I just didn’t think it could hold much promise. But experience trumps theory and our visit to Chateau de Pibarnon has wised me up.

First of all, it’s a beautiful region. If winemakers in Csopak live in fear of real estate developers wiping out vineyards, I can’t even imagine the pressure on viticulture at the Cote d’Azure. Pibarnon is a particularly beautiful spot that has inspired the merchants of Skurnik Wines to wax lyrical about it: „Perched at the apex of Bandol, with only the blue sky towering above, the grounds around the Château could be mistaken for John Milton’s vision of the Garden of Eden. Looking out over the terrace, the glittering Mediterranean greets you with its vast splendor. Rows of vineyards stretch out, forming a natural amphitheater that soaks up the warm Provencal sun. It is a place which reminds us that beauty exists in the world. It is a place where mediocre wine simply cannot be made”. The final statement is of course a non sequitur but based on our extensive tastings we can claim that it can easily be mended: Chateau de Pibarnon is a place where mediocre wine is not made.

The owner and managing director of the estate Eric de Saint Victor has got the right personality to make visits unforgettable. He is spirited, confident, attentive, curious and he’s got an air of a bon viveur about him. His eyes light up everytime he talks about dishes to accompany his wines.

What were the wines like? Ironically, my mental image of the rosé is the only one lacking proper resolution. I recall it being balanced, quite serious, a bit saline and fortunately staying away from the race for the palest rosé. Does it have enough charm to attract an average customer? Does it have enough complexity and depth to attract a rosé skeptic? Does it stand up to the best rosés I have tasted so far? I can’t answer with certainty any of these questions.

The partially amphora aged „Nuances” was definitely unlike any other rosé I have tasted and its power, structure and length left no doubt about its greatness (here’s the story). So much so that even the less seasoned tasters in our group fell for it. Unfortunately the bottle one of us bought was left at the estate and though it was later delivered to our place it was too late to taste it together.

As for the reds, they were all brilliant. Instant gratification. Both at the cellar and in the comfort of our lodgings in Cassis. I suppose there are only three wineries that we have visited over the years and have never stopped returning to their wines: Clos du Caillou in Chateauneuf, Collemattoni in Montalcino and Miguel Merino in Rioja. This ought to be the fourth as one of my friends aptly remarked. Of course this is a matter not only of quality and universal appeal but of price and availability. And unfortunately these wines are not cheap, nor easy to get hold of.

Earlier I said „instant gratification”. Actually, that was the last thing I was expecting. And for the sake of accuracy I must add it may have been a bit of an exaggeration. But certainly they were much more approachable than the reputation of mourvedre and Bandol would suggest (accepted wisdom tells you not to touch these wines in their first decade). It may be down to the chalky soil or to years of painstaking experiments with clones, pruning, harvest dates, oak ageing and other aspects of vinification but even the youngest wines – in our case 2016 – were accessible. They are richly endowed with tannins but there is no excessive abrasiveness or astringency. I was expecting a kind of opulence: the heady aromas of toasted oak intermingled with lifted black and blueberry fragrance and high alcohol. Thankfully, there was no overripeness, the alcohol was well managed and though the nose was typically quite rich and mediterranean the acidity and some of the aromas reminded me more of purebred Northern-Rhone syrahs than overblown Chateauneuf-du-Pape special cuvées.

I sincerely hope I can find some way of buying these wines and taste them again under normal circumstances (the week we stayed in Cassis overlapped with the arrival of the African heatwave which pushed temperatures above 40˚C, the worst possible scenario for tasting big reds). So I have more than one reason to finish with this clichéd but sincerely heartfelt remark: to be continued.