Joseph Sergi is an unlikely producer of high-end wine in an unlikely place.
Sergi’s first career was as an auto body repair technician in Nice, France. He later ran a brasserie outside town with his in-laws. Then in 1993, when he was 30, Sergi and his father-in-law bought a small 1950s-era wine label and a 5-acre vineyard in the only AOC located within a city limits—Bellet, in the hills of France’s fifth-largest city, Nice.
The idea was to make a little wine for the restaurant and the local market. But things didn’t work out that small.
What began as a sideline quickly became a passion for Sergi, who sold the restaurant and worked as an intern in Burgundy. Over the next two decades, he bought up more land, clearing forests and bramble to plant, and acquired some neglected old vineyard parcels.
Today, Sergi's biodynamic 25-acre Clos Saint-Vincent sells out its 2,500-case production—a mix of white, red and rosé wines that retail for $30 to $70—in markets from France to Japan to the United States. What’s more, his wines are served in some seriously noteworthy venues—from the 2011 wedding reception of Prince Albert of Monaco at Alain Ducasse’s Le Louis XV to the wine list of Paris gastronomic institution Le Taillevent.
Sergi, 52, is also president of the 10-member association of Bellet producers, who make just over 16,500 cases a year from some 150 acres of vineyards. The appellation's wines include complex Vermentinos (called Rolle locally), fulsome rosés from the local Braquet, surprisingly fresh reds from Nice’s oddball variety Folle Noire (“crazy black”) and blends that may also include Cinsault and Grenache for the reds and Chardonnay, Bourboulenc and other varieties for the whites.
Bellet is one of France’s oldest and most obscure appellations. Created in 1941, it sits on the western edge of Nice, nestled on the steep slopes on the eastern side of the Var River (which, prior to 1860, was the border between France and the Italian kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia). The terraced vineyards climb to 1,500 feet among narrow winding roads, forests and homes. Most of the wine produced is sold in Côte d’Azur restaurants.
“Bellet is one of the crus of Provence,” says Sergi, who counts the AOC among the region's special sites, along with other small appellations like Bandol, Palette and Cassis (though there is not an official ranking, as Provence has for individual estates).
A charismatic fireplug of a man in T-shirt and jeans, Sergi stands in a sun-splashed vineyard detailing the terroir—the rocky puddingstone soils, the southwestern exposure, cool morning winds from the alpine foothills 10 miles north and warm afternoon breezes from the Mediterranean Sea two miles south.
The microclimate, says Sergi, adds freshness to the wines, which bear more of a resemblance to those of the Northern Rhône than the appellation's immediate neighbors. “When you taste blind, no one will guess that Bellet is a wine from the south,” Sergi says.
The area’s saline Vermentinos can age up to 15 years, its rosés are meant to stand up to a hearty meal and, Sergi says, “Folle Noire is a rustic variety, but it can carry a lot of finesse.”
Growing up around Nice, Sergi had made rustic wine for the family with his father, a mason from Calabria, Italy. After he began commercial winemaking in Bellet, Sergi was most influenced by area sommeliers, who helped him improve and inspired him to learn in Burgundy.
Today, Sergi works with his son, Julien—and the aid of consulting enologist Véronique Girard of the Centre Oenologique de Bourgogne—in a cellar below the family home. They make five wines, fermenting all with native yeasts and using large Burgundian barrels to vinify the whites and age the reds. The main line is called Le Clos and includes a red (rounded out with 10 percent Grenache), white and rosé.
In addition, Sergi launched a line called Vino di Gio in 2003 with encouragement and financing from Sylvain Bastian, the former sommelier at the gastronomic La Bastide Saint-Antoine in Grasse. It consists of a pair of tiny-production, single-variety wines from old-vine Vermentino and Folle Noire.
“In the beginning, you think you are the best vigneron in the world because you know nothing.” Sergi laughs. “Then you take some slaps from tasters and their critiques. And you say, OK, now it’s time to get to work.”
Travel Tip: If in Nice and visiting the Bellet wineries, stop for lunch at Bellet’s 154-year-old, family-run restaurant Chez Simon.