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PARIS (Reuters Life!) - A group of southern French monks adhere strictly to the centuries-old rules of their monastery as they pray and work in a small community. But with modern marketing techniques they are lifting the wines they make to must-have items on exclusive tables in France and abroad.
The 20 or so monks of the Lerins Abbey on a small island in the Mediterranean near Cannes make about 30,000 bottles of wine per year, in between their regular religious duties.
The monks have been making wine on the islet since the Middle Ages, living in a monastery founded in the year 405 by Saint Honorat.
Over the centuries, the island and the abbey have seen many changes. They have been raided by pirates with the monks taken away, they changed from Benedictines to Cistercians and the monastery was closed by the French king in 1788 when there were just a few monks left.
The island was nationalized during the French revolution and the monastery sold to an actress who lived there for 20 years. The bishop of Fréjus bought the island in 1859 and 10 years later, Cistercian monks started a new community, using its ideal climate for growing vines to make wine.
In the 1990s, however, the monks decided to overhaul their wine-making process for better quality and marked five different 'terroir' areas on the island.
The abbot, Father Nicolas, took the decision under influence from Jacques Chibois, a top chef at his restaurant La Bastide de Saint Antoine in Grasse, not far away from Cannes and the Lerins islands.
Brother Marie Paques, the bursar or business manager in modern language, had a wine-making education in Hyeres, near Toulon on the Mediterranean coast, before he entered the order.
"According to Saint Benedictus, a monk is only really a monk when he lives off the fruit of his work," he said. "We live modestly from our wines and liquors."
The monks' ambitions are not modest, they strive for excellence in their wine and not just in wines but excellence as a goal in life, in relations with people and with nature.
Every year, the grapes are plucked by hand and Brother Marie oversees the wine-making process with the help of oenologists Michel Novelle and Alain Valles.
The vineyard, located in the central part of the island, is made up of eight hectares. The clay and limestone soil, which is silt-laden and sandy, is particularly rich in organic plant matter. The sea also adds to the singularity of the wines.
All the manipulations are done by hand and the monks use neither pesticides nor chemical fertilizers in order to preserve the eco-system on the island.
Despite the silence of the religious order, the wines have started to make noise on the mainland since the famed Martinez hotel in Cannes served the wines during the Film Festival there.
Their chef Christian Sinicropi married the wines of Lerins to his menu for the jury dinner on May 10 which he dedicated to the chairman Robert de Niro with names of dishes named after his films, with marinated poultry as a starter and filet of seabass as main course.
The wines are also available in Paris at Café de la Paix, Fouquet's or Lutetia.
The monks have a Cuvée Saint Salonius made with Pinot Noir grapes that are also used in the red wines of Burgundy - another region where monks once made wine.
The Cuvée Saint Lambert is made of 100 percent Mourvèdre grapes. This is a grape of Spanish descent, high in tannins and also a main component of the Chateauneuf du Pape Rhone valley wine. The Cuvée Saint Honorat and Saint Saveur is made of the Syrah grape while the white Saint Césare is 100 percent Chardonnay.
The wines have also been winning a few prizes such as the gold medallion at a world syrah contest for the 2005 vintage and the prices are a reflection of their quality and popularity. They sell for 52 euros ($75) to 190 euros a bottle.
Brother Marie Paques recently travelled to Moscow and presented the wines to a dinner of businessmen, ambassadors and officials in the Baltshug Kempinski Hotel there. He also went to the Russian orthodox Trinity monastery of Saint Sergei at Sergiev Possad.
The monks at Lerins also receive visitors for religious retreats and invite companies and individuals to participate in a Charity pact - for a minimum of 1,000 euros people or firms can sponsor a plot of land. The sponsorship money and revenues from the wine sale go to charity.
"There is more joy in giving than in receiving," Brother Marie said.
While his order and habit may be medieval, Marie Paques Galabru has an iPhone, a Facebook page (where he is listed as "bachelor" and where he states that the most important thing for him is what he can do for others) and he sends out a news letter. The wines can be ordered online at www.excellencedelerins.com/ ($1 = 0.696 Euros)
Created by Paul Casciato