I received a message from my client “Anton”, a leading sommelier and “Gastro-Entrepreneur” in Moscow, asking if I was familiar with a wine made at a Monastery on an Island off Cannes in the Mediterranean. He’d seen a news story on Decanter.com about their Pinot Noir recently beating several great burgundy wines in a blind tasting, including Domaine Anne Gros Richebourg and Denis Mortet’s Clos de Vougeot.
The tiny Isle St Honorat takes just twenty minutes by car and speed-boat from my summer home, so Anton decided to leave the extended Moscow winter, and take a trip to the French Riviera where together we went to make our own assessment of the vineyard, winery, and the now famous “divine" wine.
At first it felt rather strange to be accompanying my host, Cisterian Monk Frère Marie Pâques, who, dressed in his habit, walked me through a technical tour of their vineyard. Two things were very noticeable early on, first was the evident pleasure that Frère Marie Pâques and his brothers derive from their viticultural activities, and the second is the level of commercial acumen which they apply in interacting with the “outside” world. I never envisaged that my wine career would lead me to be wandering around a vineyard with a monk, interrupted by occasional calls on an iPhone.
This tiny island is approximately twelve hectares, of which eight hectares are planted with vines, up to sixty years old. The older vines are generally Clairette, accompanied by Chardonnay for the white wine, with Syrah and the more recent plantings of Pinot Noir. The entire island is owned by the Monastery, there are no more vehicles or roads, its heart is the abbey, and on the north side a small boat harbour and very good restaurant, a commercial enterprise of the monastery. Currently the sales of wine, made mainly to island visitors and a few wine shops and restaurants along the Cote d’Azur, represent approximately 25% of their commercial income, the remainder being derived from the restaurant and the eau de vie (fruit spirit) which they also produce very successfully. Clearly our hosts were enthusiastic to see what we as wine professionals thought of the wine, and the tasting from barrique in the chai situated within the cloisters was most interesting. All the wines go through some degree of barrel ageing.
The gentle introduction came through the Clairette, a pleasant slightly aromatic, lemon tinges in colour, and its freshness is appealing for afternoon enjoyment then followed by a more classical rich Chardonnay, with good weight and power, the wines here seem to be very alcoholic. It’s an interesting paradox to see modern style wines that Parker might well rate very highly, made in a vineyard and by an organisation that goes back to the 5th century!
The red wines are indeed something special, comprising Syrah that will stand up against most wines grown south of the 45 parallel, and then the Pinot Noir, Cuvee St Salonius. Again it is power rather than elegance that is the order of the day.
It doesn’t come as a surprise to me, that when set against a background of fine burgundy, this wine will have attack! But frankly I don’t think for me it is what I expect from fine Pinot. I struggle to find complexity or elegance, but it is good.
But if you're looking for a great Syrah, then the Cuvee St Sauveur does the trick. It is very well made from 19 year old vines, 12 months in oak barriques. The power of this wine is quite remarkable, with spicy liquorice and deep black fruit loaded on to a firm structure.
The surprise was yet to come – the price! I’m afraid that at 190€ per bottle for the Pinot, it’s hard to see how the wine can compete in the competitive open international market. Whilst we might be willing to pay hundreds or even thousands per bottle for DRC and other fine burgundy, I think it’s a long time yet before anyone will see the value or "must have one" qualities of this wine beyond its novelty factor.
For me the Syrah, at around €40 per bottle, is well worth it, and especially with such a dinner party story about where the wine came from.
I had one final question to Dom Vladimir, the Abbot of St Honorat, who incidentally is of Russian decent and formerly an officer in the French diplomatic service, this helped enormously with my client "Anton”: from champagne, we’ve got Dom Perignon and Dom Ruinart, can we expect to see Dom Vladimir with bubbles? Who knows, with these Vintrepreneurs, and a little Divine Intervention, perhaps anything could be possible!
You can listen to my experience on Isle St Honorat on our podcasts, which are available for download here
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