Cannes for Wine Lovers
What do you think of when I say Cannes? Naturally the Cannes Film Festival comes to mind, but there is so much more to this artsy village than meets the eye. People are usually surprised when I tell them that Cannes is quiet for the majority of the year and that only 70,000 people live there year round. I discovered this while attending the International Luxury Travel Market as part of the press corps. What amazed me the most is there are serious winemakers on Saint-Honorat off the coast of Cannes, France. Award winning wines and liqueurs are being produced by the savvy Cistercian Monks on the pristine island of Saint-Honorat.
The History of Île Saint-Honorat
The island of Saint-Honorat is the smaller of the two Lérins islands. The island was home to Saint Honoratus, a hermit of sorts who was joined by a few companions in the year 410. They led a contemplative and peaceful existence. For the next 300 years calm prevailed until 732 when the Saracen (people of Muslim or Arabic background from the Sinai peninsula) desired a take over of the strategically important barrier island. 500 monks, including the Abbot were massacred ending the peaceful period. The island was attacked eight more times throughout the next 200 years. Benedictine monks settled there in earnest and were forced to cohabitate with French soldiers in the 1400’s in what proved to be a difficult relationship. The monastery was fortified against attack and remains of the fortress are in existence today.
By 1788 the monks disappeared from the island and the monastery was ordered closed by King Louis XVI. Since the island was declared part of the National Property, it opened the possibility for purchase. In 1792, the famous French actress Blanche Sainval and a few other private citizens bought the island and she turned the monastery into her private reception rooms.
In 1859 the Bishop of Fréjus, Monseigneur Jordany, bought the island and in 1869 the first Cistercian Monks (followers of St. Benedict) arrived on the island to begin the rebuilding of the monastery.
Saint-Honorat’s Winemakers of Today
Present day Cistercian Monks (a community of twenty or so men committed to living a Benedictine life of “ora et labora” work and prayer) produce wines and liqueurs of distinction from vines planted and harvested by hand. Eight hectares (roughly 20 acres) of vines are cultivated by the monastics at the Lérins Abby who have a rich history of wine making since the Middle Ages. In addition to their life of prayer and tending to the vineyards, they also grow their own fresh produce to eat, sell and serve at the thriving La Tonnelle restaurant on the island. A small group of visitors are invited to stay on the island for religious retreats with advance reservations and tourists are allowed to visit the island for nature walks, wine tasting and tours of the fortress and the abbey.
The Fruits of the Labors of the Monks
Planted and harvested by hand, the grapes from the vineyards are turned into wines with seven outstanding vintages: St. Salonius, St. Lambert, St.Césaire, St. Sauveur, St. Cyprien, St. Honorat and St. Pierre. Famous chefs from the area, including Chef Christian Sinicropi of Cannes’ La Palme d’Or, serve these robust French wines at their restaurants. Heads of States were served St. Césaire and St. Salonius during the G20 summit in Cannes in 2011, putting the austere winemakers at the top of the international wine scene.
It was a privilege to meet the man behind the marketing of the now famous wines at the ferry dock on Saint-Honorat as he was about to head over to the mainland for meetings. Brother Marie-Pâques (Brother Mary Easter) is the face behind the monks’ brand and is quite the entrepreneur. He hosts seminars on how to effectively promote luxury brands with ethics in mind and how to use the profits to foster humanistic values. He believes it is possible to morally consider oneself a businessman and devote oneself to God at the same time. Living a monastic life, for Brother Marie-Pâques, includes marketing tours and having a Facebook page. Marrying a traditional monastic lifestyle with the needs of staying in touch with today’s society is a delicate balance that Brother Marie-Pâques seems to have mastered.
Profits from the food and wine ventures afford the Cistercians a modest life (vows of poverty are strictly adhered to) and the profits from selling the wine are spread amongst 10 different French charitable organizations. According to Brother Marie-Pâques, giving is the greatest luxury of all.
For more information about Île Saint-Honorat and the Abbey’s wines visit www.abbayedelerins.com.
Special thanks go to the Cannes Tourism Office and my exceptional private guide, Karin Osmuk for a delightful tour of the island and the opportunity to meet the inspirational Brother Marie-Pâques.