Food and Drink

Dutch winemaker saves old French vineyard

John Laurenson Apr 6, 2012

If you’re sitting down to a Passover seder or Easter brunch this weekend,  and you’re choosing what wine will it be? A California Pinot? A French Bordeaux?

The South of France — along the Mediterrenean — has the Languedoc region for wine. And nestled there in Nice is a vineyard with some shall we say “strange” grape varieties. John Laurenson traveled there and discovered this story of a winemaker who saved a unique city vineyard from ruin.

Priest: “Au nom du Père…

John Laurenson: Mass at a church in Nice. On the altar – a little surprising this – a bottle of wine. The service is in honour of Saint Vincent of Saragossa, patron saint of winemakers. This martyr was crushed to death in a wine-press. Outside, there are over a hundred acres of vines.

A small miracle given that we’re inside the city limits of Nice, France’s fifth largest municipality. It’s wine-growing district is called the Bellet and grapes have been grown here since the Ancient Greeks passed through twenty-five hundred years ago. But at the beginning of this century this unique vineyard nearly went the same way as Saint Vincent.

Ghislain de Charnacé speaking in French.

Ghislain de Charnacé, who lives and makes wine at the Bellet Chateau, says these vineyards narrowly escaped being built over with luxury villas and swimming pools. Galloping urbanisation means demand for real estate here is huge.

Traditional dancers spin and swirl after the church service as local winemakers uncork a few bottles. Surveying this happy scene, it’s hard to imagine the crisis Bellet has been through. But a little while ago one of the local winemakers was caught buying in grapes from another region. Bellet almost lost its appellation controlée status which guarantees that a certain wine comes from a certain place.

De Charnacé, the grandson of the Baron of Bellet, was fighting pretty much on his own to maintain quality and keep wine-making going here. The vineyard was in a hole. But then a stranger with lots of money came along to help it out.

Cornelius Kamerbeek: My name is Cornelius Kamerbeek. I’m a Dutchman who came 12 years ago here in Nice and my great passion since 30 years has been to become a winemaker.

Kamerbeek bought one of the vineyards and the chateau that went with it. In the greenhouses he found cuttings of two ancient grape varieties that exist only here. They’re called Folle-Noire and Braquet. And wine cellars (“caves” he calls them) that date back to the Romans.

Kamerbeek: The vineyards of the Chateau de Crémat were in a bad shape so my first aim was to restore the vineyards. Secondly, the caves were too small. After 25 years of no investment there was a lot of work to do.

Up on the slopes they prune back the vines at this time of year. From here you can see the sea and the snowy Alps. There’s something special about this place – that combination of soil and climate, local grape variety and know-how that the traditional French winemaker tries to express in his wine.

Ghislain de Charnacé: Good!

These days there’s plenty to celebrate. New winemakers have moved in. Most under forty-five years old. And that’s not all…

Christian Estrosi: Here in Nice I have to protect all the, er, territory.

Back outside the church, Nice mayor Christian Estrosi agrees, over-generously as it turns out, to an interview in English.

Estrosi: er…

Linguistic skills aside, he’s done a fine job protecting the Bellet vineyards. He turns down all applications for real estate development here. The future of France’s city vineyard is at last assured.

Estrosi: The culture of the wine.

In Nice, I’m John Laurenson for Marketplace.

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