A boat ride away from glitzy Cannes is a small island inhabited only by Cistercians monks, a peaceful haven with pristine shores where no motor vehicles are allowed. This is St Honorat where some of the best, award-winning wines from the South of France are produced. St. Honorat is the smaller of the two Lérin islands just off the coast of the French Riviera; it doesn’t get visited as much as the bigger St. Marguerite Island, noted for its Iron Mask imprisonment history that inspired the legendary tale and motion picture "The Man in the Iron Mask", yet the island is home to 19 dedicated wine-making monks from the Abbey de Lérin. They grow, trim and harvest their vines, striving to make and market fine red and white wine in 8 hectares of vineyard situated right in the heart of the island.
This is one of the most beautiful geographic locations in France. The island is tiny, measuring 400 meters wide and 1.5 kilometers in length, where monks have lived since the 5th century. Although the vineyard dates back to the Middle Ages, it was somewhat neglected over the years, as it wasn’t always easy for the monks to defend the 400 hectares of land and keep the pirates away from the island. Wine making started in earnest from 1992 with planting and the restructuring of the vineyard.
Today, the community of Abbaye de Lérin is one of the two last remaining wine growers tended by monks in France.
The vine cultures on this Island for whites are Chardonnay, Viognier and Clairette and for reds Syrah, Mourvèdre and Pinot Noir. The reputed wines, in quite the homage to the lifestyle, are named after saints; Saint Lambert, Saint Saveur, Saint Honorat for the whites and Saint Pierre, Saint Césaire, Saint Salonius, and Saint Cyprien for the reds.
Eric Martin who is charge of the development of wines from the vineyards of Saint Honorat said:
“Everything is done here on the island and we always hand harvest. Harvesting this year began August 15 with the Pinot Noire and ended just recently with the Mourvèdre. this year rendered 240 hectoliters.”
Terroir of St. Honorat
Soil, climate and know-how are important aspects of wine cultivation; this is what the French call terroir. And St Honorat certainly has plenty of winning combinations.
Surrounded by sea for cooling on very hot days and blessed with plenty of sunshine, the island has the perfect balance for the grapes they grow. The grapevines are surrounded by wind-breaking rows of trees, a forest of mostly sea and umbrella pine, which together with the palm trees shelter the vines from excessive breeze.
Besides warm weather and low rainfall, soil is equally important for growing quality grapes. The soil on the island is calcareous, composed of calcium carbonate and high in limestone. The vines are sprayed by sea spray, which is good for the plants' leaves.
Mr. Martin touched on this sea spray subject by saying, “The sea salt naturally cleans the leaves so we don’t have to use pesticides, herbicides or insecticides.”
All roots need sustenance, seeking out all the necessary minerals that soil has to offer. Martin explained that soil on the island has a unique particularity - vertical geographical straits that allow the roots to go deep and so easily find the necessary minerals.
There’s no water deficit to hold back the quality of the wine. Mr. Martin said that the island has formed a natural source of water that travels underground from St. Marguerite and up into St. Honorat, producing high ground water.
Outstanding and Award Winning Wines
“Wine from St. Honorat was served at the G20 summit in Cannes where President Obama was a guest and is very much appreciated at the Cannes wine festivals,” Mr. Martin enthused.
At the Sakura Awards, the International Wine Competition held in Japan, the wines did exceptionally well winning the following awards:
- St Césaire: silver medal for 2014 & 2015
- St Sauveur: double gold medal and diamond trophy for 2014 & 2015
- St Lambert: double gold medal and diamond trophy at Sakura awards 2015. Mr. Martin said: “St Lambert had never been presented before; this is the first year the wine participated in the competition.”
The retail selling price for wines from St. Honorat starts at 26 EUR (29 USD), increasing to 190 EUR (212 USD) for the most expensive.
Monks have been making wine and beers in abbeys and monasteries for centuries, producing some of the most diverse and tasteful alcoholic beverages in their class. The setting of this unusual heritage that goes back over 1600 years is extraordinary and a coveted European tradition.
And the future for wines from the abbey?
Martin said they only produce small quantities aimed at a certain niche, but they would really like to start marketing their wine in the United States.