Harvesting to the rhythm of the bells is normal for the monks at the Abbey of Sainte-Madeleine du Barroux, in the south of France.
In this drought-stricken year, the harvest is expected to be of high quality, which is more than enough reason for these monks to give thanks. The harvest is completed in a cassock in plots that are among the last in France to still belong to an abbey.
These monks spend their days pruning olive trees, cleaning the vines and making bread. Every day is marked by eight sessions of collective prayer.
Monastic communities were originally formed as a means to separate monks and nuns from the rest of society. This community were self-sufficient and the religious were tasked with developing the rugged terrain.
Investing in viticulture not only provided jobs for the greater community but also served as a means to cultivate land that many considered too difficult to farm. All the grapes grown on these hills have been hand-picked for centuries.
“In the past, we organised the harvest in advance, so we knew it would be this day or this other day,” said one monk. “But for six or seven years, we have favoured the quality of the wine, so we harvest when it’s time.”
None of the monks would disclose their identity.
In recent years the monks teamed with winegrowers in the Ventoux region and have abandoned old customs linked to the calendar to create “Via Caritatis” wines.
“We realised that we really had the soil to make great wines and that all we needed was a little more precision in the way of managing the vineyard, said another monk. “So we realised that there were a few small things to fix to get great wines.”
“We launched “Via Caritatis” with this in mind: to make wines, with our winegrowers, which makes it possible to remunerate everyone’s work in a truly dignified way,” he added.
A steadily growing initiative
Credited as one of the best monastery wines in the world, monks in this region have been making wine for over 1600 years.
The late winemaker Philip Cambie partnered with the monks on the “Via Caritatis” project. However, these sloping plots located between 350-600 metres above sea level incur significant production costs. But better grapes mean higher prices, which filter into higher wages for seasonal workers in the long run, and contribute to a more robust economy.
“It (the Via Caritatis project) allows us to regenerate a lot of plots which are on our hillsides, which traditionally, do not have high production capacities,” says winemaker Florian Bernard.
“However it is good for grape varieties which make high-quality juice. This allows us to make high-quality wine.”
The initiative is steadily growing. ‘Via Caritatis”‘ produces 200,000 bottles of wine a year which are priced between €10 – €40 depending on the vintage. And this year they have added ten more hectares of vineyards.
“We had to convince the winegrowers of a small cooperative cellar accustomed to selling their wine in bulk that we were capable of making top-of-the-range products, by teaming up with monks who have a very different pace of life,” explained the father-abbot of Barroux, superior of this community of about fifty religious,
Encouraged by the vineyard manager of a famous estate in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, he is convinced that this harsh and mountainous territory can give “a lot of freshness, very fine wines” if the management of the vine and the vinification are improved.