Monk Wine on the French Riviera

Abbaye de Lérins on Ile. St. Honorat

Abbaye de Lérins on Ile. St. Honorat

I'm in Cannes, a city known for its glitz and glam, movie stars and accompanying paparazzi, and well-heeled that flit from haute couture boutique to umbrella-smothered beach club. I am none of those people, though sometimes play one in my journalist role. Happily I found a slice of solace just a 20-minute boat ride from port on the Ile. St. Honorat, and thankfully there was wine.

Since the 5th century, a community of Cistercian monks have inhabited the island and the Abbaye de Lérins, and a brethren of 22 of them still do. They pray in silence, live simply among dapples of olive and pine trees that protect about 20 acres of vineyards.

There are no cars allowed on the 1.5 mile long island that is tiny enough to walk around in about an hour. But take your time. Linger. Make like a monk. The paths traverse through the verdant vineyards and from the boat dock you arrive at the existing abbey buildings where you'll find a church and cloisters, living quarters, and even a shop selling products made by other religious communities around the world (honey, soap, etc.). Nearby the remnants of an older fortified abbey with crenelated crown juts into the sea. Climb the swirling stairs to the top and you'll often find people lounging in the sun, picnicking, and snapping photos of the island and newer (11th century) abbey.

The remains of the fortified Lérins Abbey

The remains of the fortified Lérins Abbey

But back to the grape juice. These 22 robed dudes stay busy, tending to the six varieties of grapes that grow here: viognier, chardonnay, clairette, pinot noir, syrah and mouvèdre.  The vineyards date to the Middle Ages, and wine was originally produced by the monks for their own consumption. Shocker! But what else are you going to do on the island after morning prayers, eh? It wasn't until the 1990s that they said, "Hey, how 'bout selling this stuff to other winos, too?" Voila, Abbaye de Lérins wine was born.

The monks use no herbicide or pesticides, and salt deposited by the sea breeze allows natural cleansing of the soils and plants. They were organic before organic was 'in' and today produce 40,000 bottles per year under the label Abbaye de Lérins. It's sold at a few shops in Cannes, and served at a few restaurants, too, but it's much more fun to escape the bustle of the mainland for a few hours and drink it at the source.

What does it taste like, you ask?  I don't use all those buzz words about nose and bouquet and palate, and you won't ever catch me saying things like, "This wine hints of rosemary and solitude, with a touch of morning dew." What does that even mean?  My assessment takes three simple steps: "Does it taste good? Will it give me a headache? Can I afford it?"  Yes. No. Yes. SOLD!

In all seriousness, the three wines I tasted were good and I did buy a bottle of the Saint-Pierre white, a blend of chardonnay and clairette, for 22 euros. Even wine snobs can't turn their noses down at that value.

FYI, there is a restaurant on the island, La Tonnelle, where you can book lunch overlooking the Bay of Cannes and neighboring island Ile Ste Marguerite. There's just a soupcon of mainland in the distance to remind you that Ile St. Honorat is so close yet so refreshingly far away.

 

Wine tasting with Samuel at La Tonnelle

Wine tasting with Samuel at La Tonnelle

View of the Abbaye de Lérins and the mainland in the distance

View of the Abbaye de Lérins and the mainland in the distance

 

 

 

 

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Kimberley Lovato

Kimberley Lovato has written about travel, lifestyle and food for national and international publications and websites including National Geographic Traveler, Executive Travel, American Way, AFAR, Condé Nast Traveller (UK), Ryan Air, b.there, Easy Jet Traveller, leitesculinaria.com and frommers.com, among others. She is the author of a Michelin Guidebook on Brussels, where she lived for six years Her culinary travel book, Walnut Wine & Truffle Groves, about the Dordogne region of France, won the "Best Travel Book" nod in 2012 from the Society of American Travel Writers, as did her personal essay, "Lost and Liberated," which also appeared in Best Women's Travel Writing, Volume 8. When she's not plotting her next trip or her annual pilgrimage to France, she resides in San Francisco where she is a correspondent for BBC's Passport Blog, a student in Stanford University's Creative Writing Certificate program, and a brave mother of a teenaged girl.