Abbaye de Lérins – insular monk wines from Provence

Aerial photo of Abbaye de Lérins. Note the rows of vines to the right. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Abbaye de Lérins is located on the Medieval island Île Saint-Honorat just off Cannes, and is part of the French wine region of Provence. This abbey is inhabited by Cistercian monks, the order that more than any is connected with the historical development of many of the classical wine regions. This is in particular true of Burgundy, where the order originated (in Cîteaux), and the German wine regions along the Rhine. On Saint-Honorat there were monks from the 5th century until 1787, when monasterial activities ceased a few years before the French state confiscated most church properties (including monasteries and vineyards). I have not seen any information about viticulture on the island during this older time. In 1859, Saint-Honorat was bought back by the bishop of Fréjus, and since 1869 the Cistercians again have a monastery on the island, today inhabited by 20 monks. Like many other orders, the Cistercians apply the rules of Saint Benedict to monasterial life, including ora et labora, i.e., “pray and work”, where the work may mean to tend vineyards and to produce wine. (Or to produce beer, for monks of the Trappist order, closely related to the Cistercians and formally known as the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance.) Abbaye de Lérins has 8 hectares (20 acres) of vineyards.

I’ve actually never encountered any other contemporary wines produced by Cistercians – I haven’t really looked for any so they may very well exist – so only for this reason were these wines interesting to taste. Although the winery is not “commercial” in the usual sense of the word, these wines are not really cheap. The three I tasted are the three least expensive of their range of seven wines, and cost € 23 to € 42 when purchased directly at the winery, so expect to pay more in wine shops elsewhere. The most expensive wine in their range is a Pinot Noir by the name of Saint Salonius, costing € 190 per bottle on location! It’s actually rather shocking that a Pinot Noir from an island off the French riviera is more expensive than many Burgundy grand crus! I have never tasted it so I don’t know how it compares to e.g. a Clos de Vougeot, which was the “poster vineyard” of the Cistercians in times past. I don’t know if the prices are due to influence from nearby Cannes, where few things are cheap, or if the artisanal production yields small amounts of wine. In any case, since the winery is run by a monastery, any surplus collected will go to charitable purposes.

The three wines I tasted arrived in hermetically sealed 6 cl glass tubes, and I’ll mention more about that below the tasting notes.

Saint Pierre 2011 (white)
IGP Vin de pays de Méditerranée-Provence, either 60% Clairette and 40% Chardonnay or 75%/25% depending on the source. (One of them probably refers to some other vintage.)

Light yellow colour. Rather discrete nose with ripe pear and some cantaloupe melon with its peculiar aromas that remind me a little of petrol, some almond, and a rather pronounced mineral note. Medium bodied+, quite dry palate, stony mineral notes, some apple and pear in the background, good concentration, medium acidity, and a hint of bitterness that lingers in the aftertaste. 88 p.

This is a wine where the overall impression will very much depend on how much acidity one prefers in white wines. Those who don’t really need that much acidity (“freshness”) to appreciate a white wine may score this higher than I did, but true acid freaks should probably look elsewhere (and probably didn’t spend too much time looking in the south of France anyway). Unlike many whites from Rhône – Clairette is used in some wines from southern Rhône, often in blends – this moderate acidity wine shows quite good concentration without coming across as unctuous or “oily”, which is an interesting profile. The name is well chosen (pierre = stone), since it definitely comes across as stony. The abbey’s own description hints at a wine with more notes of sweet fruit compared to what I found in my glass.

Saint Honorat 2010 (red)
IGP Vin de pays de Méditerranée-Provence, Syrah.

Dark red colour. Deep fruity nose of ripe cherries, some candied cherries, red berries including raspberries and red currants, some liquorice, slightly flowery notes and some toasted oak with hints of vanilla and brown butter. Medium bodied+, palate with cherries and dark berries, good concentration of fruit, good acidity, spice, medium(+) tannins that are somewhat dry and rather noticeable, aftertaste with tart berries and tannin. Young, 89(+) p.

The rather tough palate is a bit Northern Rhône-styled, while the nose is warmer and hints at a more accessible wine with a corresponding oak treatment. So in summary, the wine is probably rather true to its origin, which is France but hotter than Northern Rhône. I think it might be a good idea to cellar this wine for a while, but I’m uncertain about how long. My guess is that these wines develop a little quicker than Syrahs from Northern Rhône, due to their hotter place of origin.

Saint Sauveur 2009 (red)
IGP Vin de pays de Méditerranée-Provence, old vine Syrah.

Dark red colour, a bit deeper hue than Saint Honorat. Deep and powerful nose with ripe dark cherries, some liquorice, some tar and smoke, a hint of animal notes and toasted oak with some vanilla and brown butter. Definitely a darker nose than Saint Honorat. Full-bodied, palate with very dark cherries and blackberries, powerful concentration of fruit, rather good acidity, medium+ tannins that show some polished style, aftertaste with rather tart berries and a lot of tannin. Young, 91(+) p.

Definitely a serious wine! The slightly peculiar oak barrel note (I assume that’s the origin of the vanilla and brown butter aromas) is the same as in Saint Honorat, and the impression of brown butter really stuck once I had started to associate to that aroma. I guess that the hotter and more ripe character of the 2009 vintage is also a factor in the difference between the two wines. The palate actually reminded me rather much of a Hermitage (possibly laced with some Mourvèdre). Also here, cellaring is definitely to recommend, but possibly this wine will mature faster. Given its concentration, I expect it to keep for a really long time, though.

In summary I found the wines to be interesting, in particular due to their origin and their producer, and their quality is reasonable given their not too low price. Those who commonly like wines from the south of France (Southern Rhône and further south) will most likely find wines in the range of Abbaye de Lérins that will be to their liking.

Glass tubes from WIT France

Handla på vingården Abbaye de LérinsThe dealer who sells these wines to Sweden (from France) – Handla på vingården (“Shop at the vineyard”) –  is using an interesting concept. A sample of 3 x 6 centiliter is sold at a rather low price (shipping included), and for those who order “for real” within a certain time, the cost of the samples is deducted from the next order. One new box with three samples from one and the same producer is launched per month.

The glass tubes are from WIT France, and those with a technical interest can read more about them here. I do believe they exist in 10 centiliter format as well.

My impression when I poured the wines into my tasting glasses was that they appeared slightly “closed” or “muted”, and the changed quite a bit with some minutes of intense swirling. This indicates that the wines come from a reductive environment. Since they are obviously sealed under some inert gass (the product information from WIT mentions “oxygen-free atmospheric condition” – possibly nitrogen? Or at least a nitrogen-dominated gass mixture?) in order for the volume under the screw cap shouldn’t give oxidation notes, this is not really surprising. Actually, for a sample of this kind, this is basically good and probably necessary from a quality point of view. However, this means that these samples need to be given more time than one usually gives a sample poured from a regular bottle at a wine fair. I’d recommend allowing wines from WIT glass tubes at least 15 minutes in a tasting glass before pronouncing the final verdict on the wines. Save at least half the amount after having an initial taste, return some time later to see if your impression is still the same, and swirl as much as possible in the meantime. If necessary, let glasses with white wine stand in the fridge part for part of the waiting time so they don’t heat up too much.

Swedish version here.

This entry was posted in Chardonnay, Clairette, Provence, Syrah. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Abbaye de Lérins – insular monk wines from Provence

  1. Pingback: Three French wines tasted from WIT tubes – two red and one sweet | Tomas's wine blog

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