Winemaker Frère Marie stuck his nose into a glass of Syrah and grinned. Then he swirled some wine in his mouth and spat into a floor drain.
"It's velvet," the 59-year-old Frenchman with short-cropped hair and beard proclaimed, eyes sparkling.
For more than 20 years, Marie has made some of coastal Provence's most prestigious wines—served in the glittering luxury hotels of the Côte d'Azur and at the Cannes Film Festival. But while his wines travel, Marie doesn't get out much.
He is monk-cellarmaster of the Abbaye de Lérins—a Cistercian monastery on the tiny (less than a mile long), idyllic island of Saint Honorat, about two miles and a 15-minute ferry ride off the yacht-jammed Cannes coast.
Here he lives a spartan life with 20 other monks in an historic abbey basking in sun and sea breezes and surrounded by clear turquoise waters. The community is one of a dwindling number of Cistercian monasteries in Europe (and possibly the last in France) that make and market their own wine. The abbey produces more than 3,300 cases from 21 acres of vineyards in the backyard of one of the world's great playgrounds of excess.
The Cistercians were founded in Burgundy nearly 1,000 years ago on austere spiritual principles. But that austerity didn't stop them from learning how to make great wines or developing techniques like single-parcel fermentations and massal selection of vines.
"Clos de Vougeot was created by us!" enthused Frère Marie Paques, the abbey's 57-year-old business manager, who joined Marie and me in a barrel tasting in the abbey's 19th century cellars one morning last week. "Clos de Tart was created by Cistercian sisters."
The two men tasted through recent vintages in barrel (whites from Chardonnay, Clairette and Viognier and reds from Syrah, Pinot Noir and Mourvèdre) with gusto. They could have been any pair of winery associates, except for the telltale black-and-white habits.
"We have wines that are the price of grand cru Bordeaux or Burgundy," Marie Paques said, shrugging, defining a problem the winery has faced in Europe's economic crisis. "But we don't have the notoriety of Margaux or Romanée-Conti."
The abbey's seven wines retail from $34 for a Clairette-Chardonnay blend to $258 for a spicy Pinot Noir at their two boutiques on the island, where monastery liqueurs and olive oil are also sold and the monastery contracts out operation of a seaside lunch restaurant.
In the United States, where the abbey lacks a steady importer, its wines are hard to find. One of the few American retailers carrying the monks' wine is the eponymous New York shop of noted French sommelier Jean-Luc Le Dû.
"It's an excellent Syrah," Le Dû says of the Abbaye de Lérins Saint Honorat 2010 ($44). "You can tell it's a winery that puts a lot of care and love in its wines. But it's also a wine that has a story to tell."
Though the abbey has records mapping monastic vineyards from the Middle Ages, it wasn't until 1992 that the monks decided to produce and market high-end wines.
Before then, the dwindling community had been pulling out vines to grow lavender. But lavender oils produced little income, and the monastery faced financial crisis. So the monks—encouraged by local chef Jacques Chibois, a handful of Provence winemakers and French enologists—turned to wine.
"They all told us: 'You have a great terroir. If you make a grand vin you can earn your living,'" the older Marie said.
Saint Honorat is a flat, partially forested island with a terroir shaped by cool evening sea breezes that temper hot days, by fresh alpine water springs that rise under the island through a geological quirk, and by vertically oriented sheets of limestone that allow vine roots to dig deep for water.
The abbey invested in modern winery equipment, planted a mix of historic Burgundian and Provence varieties and sent Marie, a novice, to an enology and viticulture course. But most of what he learned has been through the monastic tradition of work and contemplation.
"It's an ethic," said Marie, who is planning a vineyard of Rolle (Vermentino) based on his vineyard experiments. "When you do something, you do it well."