It may not be a coincidence that the monks of the Abbaye de Lérins (Lérins Abbey) on an island off Cannes are cistercian. The cistercian monks have played a leading role in France throughout History in the extension of vineyards and in the understanding of winemaking and also of the alchemy between varieties and terroirs. The small island of Saint Honorat is sitting a couple of miles away from Cannes right near another - slightly larger - island named Ile Sainte Marguerite. It is a haven of peace light-years away from the superficial pleasures of the French Riviera city, and so small that you can walk around it in a very short time.
Here on the island, the first monks of the christian era set up a community, following an early Christian ermit named Honorat (born circa 380 A.D.) who settled here to pray. The monastery was created somewhere near 400 A.D. (between 400 and 410 to be precise), and the 5th and 6th century is considered to have been the golden age for this magnet of meditation island, not only for the number of its monks but also the outstanding individuals who joined then (Saint Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland is said to have studied there in the 5th century). Anyway, the Abbey of Lérins has been very influential for centuries among the religious people and the elite throughout Provence, but what brings us this story today is that the Abbey of Lérins is happening to grow vines and make a few outstanding wines....
The picture on the right was shot from the island of Saint Honorat with the island of Sainte Marguerite a short distance beyond the sailboat, and the continent in the far (the mountains).
Today, the vineyard surface of the island monestary reaches 8 hectares. Back in 1975 there were more vineyards, then some of them were replaced by lavander fields around 1985 until the monestary started to make quality wines in 1992 with the help of people like Chef Jacques Chibois who worked at Hotel Gray d'Albion then. From then on, they planted and restructured the vineyard, producing white wines first and the first reds (with Syrah) in 1996. From 2000 they concentrated their efforts to produce high-tier wines.
When they restructured the vineyard, there was some Carignan, Clairette, Ugni Blanc, Cinsault & Grenache. They uprooted the two latter, beginning for their first cuvées with Clairette and Ugni Blanc, but they ended with uprooting the Ugni and replanting Chardonnay. They saw that they could make wine here without being hostage of the Provence rules, because the climate and the terroir allows it. At the beginning they also used some Alicante with which they made their first Cuvée Saint Sauveur, but they discontinued this variety. They planted then a majority of Syrah and then the Mourvèdre, ending with some Pinot Noir, although for this last planting people told them that they were crazy. The vineyards are otherwise intermingled with woods, fruit trees and eucalyptus trees (pic on right).
To see how the vineyards are stretched along the small island, look at this satellite image and zoom in.
There's a point in the conversation when brother Marie-Pâques explains that in the search for excellency and quality at Lérins, there is something more important that the monks want to say to the world : they want to emphasize the importance of peace, justice, fraternity and togetherness with commitment on economic development. They want the "brand" of Lérins to carry this message and values, and they do it on every opportunity like when they travelled recently to Hong Kong which is their gateway to mainland China. They'll do it soon (in may) also in Russia, where they will present their wines to a private event of wealthy wine amateurs. Because the wines of the Abbaye de Lérins are upper-tier and quite expensive, they target the niche market that can afford them, but this is a way too to convey their message among people with influence on society.
The Clos de la Charité plays a central role in the humanitarian actions of the abbey : each vine can be auctionned by generous donors and at the end, it yields enough money to fuel several NGOs (see short article here about the subject-in French). They donated already some 100 000 € through this Clos de la Charité, and there are still many vines to auction in there.
Speaking of the Appellation status, the geographical location of the island gives a humble labelling to the abbey wines, even though their quality largely surpasses this handicap in our opinion : the wines here are either Vin de Pays des Alpes Maritimes or IGP de Méditerranée. Frère Marie-Pâques says that they disregard this side aspect and consider their growing and winemaking jobs like an artisan or an artist conceives his work of Art, with the pleasure of the end consumer as a better goal than a mere Appellation on the label.
Speaking of the yields, brother Marie-Pâques says that the undersoil and nature of the terroir here allow generous yields, like 50 hectoliters/hectare without jeopardizing the quality of the wine. He often asks to the professional tasters in which bracket they think their upper-cuvées wines were picked, and the answer is often something like 17 to 22 ho/ha because they taste like tightly-reined-in yields. On the wholen, their yields here are between 35 and 53 hectoliters/hectare.
The casks here are all from Taransaud, Samuel Bouton says that the reason is regularity in the quality of the fine-grain, mild-toasted wood, which comes from the much sought-after Tronçais forest.
__ Chardonnay 2010. A bit turbid. More opulent wine on the nose, more freshness in this wine with aromas of white flowers, some wheat says B., a bit of wood also but discreet. I ask about the alcohol level which I think could be high although the freshness doesn't make it look so. Samuel Bouton asks us to guess, I hesitate between 13,5 ° and 14 ° because I think that the freshness could make me underestimate the alcohol, and he says that it is actually 14,5° and 15°. Not bad for this level... The substance in the wine compensates largely this alcohol. Frère Marie-Pâques joins us at this stage (he had left us for an urgent task) and tastes the wine. He says that he smells the lees, the wine having been stirred not long ago. The wine is at the beginning of its élevage time.
Speaking of the yearly rain pours, he says that the average is between 300 and 400 milimeters a year but in 2009 they got between 800 and 1000 milimeters depending of the part of the island. This happened to be profitable for the whites, he says.
__Pinot Noir 2010. Cuvée Saint Salonius. There will be 1500 bottles of it. This wine is tha baby compared of the one I tasted last december (it was a 2007), but you feel already the substance, the wonder is all here waiting to awake. Hard to spit, says B. I don't. Samuel shows us also the intensity of the color, a particularity of the island : the volumes are not low in term of yields but the tannins are colored for a Pinot, which gives this particular intensity in the glass. This is, he says, directly tied to the terroir. Brother Marie-Pâques says that there's a short maceration like 7 days, then the pressing is done smoothly, and stopped when the press juice risks turning into unwanted aromas, like bitter or herby notes.
__Cuvée Saint Sauveur 2010 (old Syrah), from a cask too. Deep nose, very ripe aromas. Samuel says that the maceration time here is between 7 and 10 days. Let's remind that all the reds are destemmed. Even if only in its 5th month of life, the wine is gourmand, with these supple tannins and this freshness and a good length, qualities that are rare to get that early. Samuel says that the terroir of the island and the immersion in the maritime air explains that. THere will be some 4000 bottles of Syrah for this vintage.
__Mourvèdre Noviciat 2010. Very beautiful wine, with juicy tannins that are already a pleasure to masticate in the mouth and swallow. Samuel Bouton says that what makes the excellency of Bandol Mourvèdre wines is the marine breeze which licks the slopes of the Bandol slopes and compensate the summer heat and scorching sun. Here on Saint Honorat, the vines literally bath permanently in the sea breeze from all direction and that's what makes this Mourvèdre so beautiful.
Cuvée Saint Pierre (white), public price 22 €
Cuvée Saint Honorat (red) 32 to 35 € (depending of the vintage)
Cuvée Saint Sauveur (old Syrah) 41 €
Cuvée Saint Cézaire (Chardonnay) 51 €
Cuvée Saint Lambert (Mourvèdre) 90 €
Saint Salonius (Pinot Noir) 190 €.