12 April 2021, Bruno Scavo, ASI Diploma Certified
Nice, the 5th largest city in France, is home of the only urban wine denomination of the country. Comprising about 60 ha of vines, the AOP (Appellation d’origine protégée) Bellet is one of the tiniest, though one of the oldest in France, dating back to the 11th of November 1941.
However the name of Bellet first appears in the 17th century, when Antoine Dettat, coming from Lombardy established his estate. It will then become a baronial domain. Fifty years later, during the siege of Nice by Louis XIV, this wine was appreciated by his generals. Further on, doctors used the Bellet as tonic drink to cure digestive disorders…Even the Royal Academy of Sciences from Turin explained in 1847 that its notable qualities came from the limestone soil of the area, giving one of the most exquisite wines of Southern Europe.
Nice only became French in 1860. Before, Nice was a County attached to the Piedmont and Savoy Duchy. This says a lot about how food and wine traditions evolved in this space, sometimes in a much different way than in the rest of Provence.
Phylloxera (1885) and the two world wars will then strike the vineyard of Bellet.
Fortunately, in 1902, a second castle is built on this hill of Crémat, and Antoine Mari, his owner created a new vineyard.
The AOC (Appellation d’origine controllée) recognition followed in 1941. It was thanks to Pierre Thomé, who became the new owner of Château de Crémat and president of the Winegrowers Syndicate that the AOC was given. After the war the two main estates– Bellet and Crémat (see pictures) started rebuilding the prestige of the denomination. INAO tried to eliminate the denomination because of frauds and inconstant quality of the wines. Since 1970, Ghislain de Charnacé of Château de Bellet managed to defend the character and quality of the wines of Bellet. Small producers joined the movement and soon the Bellet wine regained its lost glory!
Bellet PDO is usually studied together with Provence wines in vocational schools and wine diplomas. Geographically speaking it is included into the Provence vinicultural region that is actually distinct from the administrative Provençal PACA region. Most of the Provence vineyards stretch between the coast and the Mediterranean Alps from Fréjus to Marseille, except from the Bellet spot, the Clos Saint Joseph in Villars-sur-Var and some vines scattered around Nice, Mougins, and Mandelieu. One should know that before Phylloxera there were 26396 ha of vines in the Alpes Maritimes and after the aphid stoke the surface got down to 5592 ha.
Nowadays, Nice still adorns this prestigious vineyard, like a flag on its western hill. The appellation technically covers 650 ha, but only 58 ha yield wines. Average annual rainfall is about 830 mm while sunshine rate is very important: 2700 hours/ year.
Located on terraces that overlook the left bank of the Var river between 200 and 400 meters, its climate is Mediterranean both influenced by the sea breathe and by the mountains refreshing winds coming from the north (Tramontane). Due to this double influence, the average temperature shows 4-5°C less than the coast. These winds also protect it from diseases. Large day to night temperature shift also moderate the climate.
The Hills of Nice stretch from North to South and have different aspects and exposures, which together with different altitude create many méso and micro-climates. Water sources and small tributaries of the Var river cut through these hills and create valleys with peculiar features that influenced the different agrarian cultures of the place, either viniculture or specific activities such as vegetables growing, flowers plantings and traditional greenhouse cultures.
Harvest starts at about mid- September and continues late into autumn. However due to global climate changing, season moved earlier these last years. Producers also try to adapt to climate changings and the style of the wines had considerably evolved during the last decades or so. Due to the steep topography this can only be manual and the maximum yield allowed is 40 hl/ha. Vines can produce Bellet denomination beginning with the 5th year of age.
The soil is also unique, consisting of lots of pebbles dating back to the Pliocene epoch, which stuck themselves into a kind of natural concrete made of sand and limestone. Pebbles are made of sandstone rolled along from the mountains down to the area. This soil, together with the altitude and the steep slope, provides good filtering conditions. Its local name is “poudingue”, its qualities were already known since the Greek times!
“Poudingue” soil of Bellet, Clos Saint Vincent
There is no registered “lieu-dit” to be labeled, but the historical neighborhoods of Bellet can all be considered so:
· Les Séoules
· Le Pilon
· Le Grand Bois
· Les Cappans
· Saint Roman de Bellet
· La Tour
· La Pouncia
· Gros Pins
The Bellet denomination produces the three colors of wine: white, rosé and red. Grape varieties are divided into main and complementary varietals. The former must represent at least 60% of the plantings. However, unlike many Provence PDOs Bellet is not obliged to be a blend and mono-varietals made from main grapes only largely exist.
White: main grapes: Vermentino; complementary grapes: Blanqueiron, Bourboulenc, Chardonnay, Clairette, Mayorquin, Muscat à Petits grains, Roussanne (actually Roussan aka Ugni Blanc, an old deformation of the name and anyway it is almost extinct in Bellet, even Joseph Sergi the President of the PDO up-rooted his last plot.
The main grape variety Vermentino (also known as Rolle), is almost the only one used, a few producers using a hint of Chardonnay (about 5%). In any case the exotic Blanqueiron, Bourboulenc, Clairette, Mayorquin, Roussanne should not represents more than 5% of the plantings either.
In the past, whites used to be more planted than reds, also including: ‘le spagnou, le pignerau, le verlantin et la trinquiera.’ Muscat was very trendy and whites used to be sweeter than nowadays.
Compared to their “cousins” from the Riviera, this whites are less exuberant, but deeper, with subtle flavors reminding peaches and delicate citrus, together with stony notes that can be described by some as “mineral”. I am not a fan of this word personally, and this stony hue especially develops with the age, sometimes reminding the profile of certain Alsace Riesling. Some producers inspire themselves from the Burgundy winemaking, using the barrel to provide great whites for cellaring. Creamier and smoother on the palate, their typical fresh feeling make them digest, while the savory aftertaste gives them length and lots of personality! The “Burgundian” vinification has evolved for some estates into a search for perfect balance between oxidative and reductive, with less use of new oak, better mastering post-fermenting processes and obtaining wines with both structure, complexity and finesse. Other prefer cold temperature vinification to enhance more pronounced, punchier flavours and preserve aromatics.
Rosé: main grape varieties: Braquet (or Brachet) and Folle Noire (Fuella Nera), complementary grapes: Bourboulenc, Blanquiron, Cinsault, Clairette, Grenache Noir, Mayorquin, Roussanne, Vermentino. As you can notice some white varieties can be co-vinified with reds, without passing 5% of the plantings and no more than 10% at the press. The most likely to be seen are Vermentino and Clairrete, but still with less than 10% of the wine. The most original rosés are made exclusively from the local Braquet variety. Some blend it with a hint of Grenache Noir and Cinsault.
Known since the 18th century the Braquet grape was also a common family name in the area. The style of the “vin braquet” was more of a kind of luscious, raisined sweet wine. The pale colour of the grape basically eliminated it for reds, now some producers start reinventing this other colour of the Braquet.
Once again, compared to other Provence Rosés, the Bellet shows a real identity. Its color is deeper, reminding the coral. The nose surprises by its iodic impression, between saltiness and seaweed flavors, as Braquet is a very reductive grape. Then come lots of juicy little red fruits such as strawberry, cranberry or redcurrants, always completed by perfumed orange peel, flowery perfumes of carnation, rose or peony and a touch of spiciness (liquorice, aniseed)! The palate is surprisingly smooth, mellow, still led by a real backbone of phenolics that allows it to compliment some of the mythical dishes of the local cuisine and balance the diminished acidity character.
Whites and rosé have no obligation of oak maturing but cannot go on the market before the 1st of March Vintage + 1
Red: main grape varieties: Folle Noire and Braquet complementary varieties: two coastal grapes: Grenache and Cinsault. The most interesting? Folle Noire, which might have taken its name from “fool”, because of its capricious nature. Late-harvesting, difficult to get to plain maturity, it sometimes tricks the vintners. When they manage to tame it, the Folle shows deep dark fruit and spices on the nose, and sometimes even some airy perfumes such as violets. The texture is always silky, caressing, still its tannin can be firm and coupled with acidity and the aftertaste can bring some pleasant bitterness.
Grenache is prone to oxidation, might lack colour and tannins, and accumulate too much sugar quickly. Lower yields, best adapted aspects and heights can lead it to finesse and at least one producer experiments with it as a mono-varietal labeled as Vin de France, not Bellet. Cinsault is not allowed to represent more than 15% of the plantings, being better suited for rosé. Highly productive, its large berries are good to eat and rarely offer much interest in reds.
Red wines have to undergo 12 months in oak and be bottled after 18 months at the estate
The wine street of Bellet:
This is the southern sector with Domaine Saint-Jean scattered all around Bellet.
1. Domaine du Toasc
The name of the estate is that of the hill where it is situated, the southernmost of Bellet, 5 km from the sea. Historical evidence dates back to 1880. In 1993, Nicoletti family recreated the estate and converted it to organic viticulture, like all their fellow vintners in the area. Cellar door activities have been developed since 2010 and now the estate can even offer accommodation and provide rural tourism. The estate was purchased by Château de Crémat recently, still keeping its own identity.
2. Collet de Bovis
Situated in the southern part of the denomination overlooking the Var Valley, the name “Collet de Bovis” is the original one from the historical land register of the area. The name of the estate is Domaine de Fogolar from the Friulan dialect which means household. The owner, Professor Jean Spizzo thus shows his Friulan origins. He came from his native Italy in 1972 and took up ownership the following year. The first commercial vintage was 1991. Domaine de Fogolar is also a place for culture, organizing many exhibitions, theater plays both in Italian and dialect together with gastronomy events.
3. Domaine Saint-Jean
The story of Domaine Saint Jean is quite recent and unites the destiny of Nathalie Pascioselli, member of an agricultures family of lavender cultivators and her husband Jean-Patrick who is an engineer. Established in 2001, their first vinification dates back to 2006. They first dedicated the few plots to white grapes, planting red varieties in 2008-2009. Their first Rosé wine followed in 2013. Besides 2,5 ha of vines they also own olive groves and craft their own olive oil, all the production being organic certified.
4. Château de Crémat
The name Crémat was inspired by a fire that damaged the hill. The Château that will be baptized so was built in 1902 by Antoine Mari in a medieval- Hispanic style. It passed under American ownership from 1920 to 1929 and the crisis ended this period. Owner Belle Irène Bretz lost fortune during the 1929 krach and was obliged to sell to the new owner, Pierre Thomé who actively participated to establish the denomination and even tried to create a vintners’ cooperative. After difficult periods after the birth of the AOC in 1941 generated by the war and fraud, Jean Bagnis tried to reestablish the lost glory of the Bellet wine and save it from dissolution by the INAO. Federating the other vintners, bottling at the Château, investing into technology and buying new plots, Château de Crémat almost remained the only commercial wine producer of Bellet. Bought in 2000 by the Dutch insurer Cornelis Kamerbeek, the Château is renewed and all the facilities brought at the edge of technology.
This is the middle sector with eastern aspect:
5. Clos Saint-Vincent
In 1993, the Sicardi and Sergi families acquired ownership of the Clos Saint Vincent.
The revival of this estate started by the extension of the vineyard up to the nowadays 10 hectares and by focusing on the production of quality grapes.
Clos saint-Vincent is quite unique: it is the only winery whose vineyards are planted on the three different hills of the appellation (Crémat, saint-Roman-de-Bellet et Saquier).
Here no chemical is used, the land is cultivated according to organic and biodynamic methods: lunar cycle, plants and herbal teas, animal compost such as manure or crushed silica. All the wines as well as the olive oil are biodynamic, certified by Biodyvin.
White cuvée Clos Saint Vincent 2009 was served at the marriage of Prince Albert II to Charlene Wittstock, the estate’s wine usually accompany many of the prestigious events and galas of the Principality, such as Ball de la Rose and charity gala of the Monegasque Red Cross.
Jo Sergi is also the nowadays President of the Bellet PDO.
Joseph Sergi “the Genius loci”, owner, vintner and winemaker of the Clos and winemaker of the year in 2012
Harvest time – 2014 (together with my wife Julia and my daughter Sophie)
6. Via Julia Augusta
This is an old estate whose name is inspired by the ancient roman road that runs through Bellet. It long belonged to the Barnoin family and used to be called “Clos Saint Joseph”. Inherited by Madame Yannick Le Strat it was in bad state, but fortunately her husband, Robert Cohendet, an IBM retreated came with the good energy and by 1978 started to revive the estate. He even changed the name into the nowadays one. Their son Nicolas, continued to improve the quality. The 2 ha vineyard also included plots purchased from the ancient Massa estate.
The following estates are situated in the middle sector too, with western exposure.
7. Domaine Vincéline
Vincent Dauby used to work at Clot dou Baille where he lived the twilight of this historical estate with tragic destiny. He then married Céline and they now take care of this tiny estate of less than 1ha, maybe one of the smallest in Bellet experimenting with low intervention techniques. The name of the winery is the contraction of both their given names.
8. Domaine de la Source
The name comes from a water source flowing through the estate. The Dalmasso family started with ownership of flower plantings in 1960. Little by little they turned this traditional Belletan activity into vine growing and eventually winemaking. Their first commercial wine was sold in 1991, even though previously wine had already been produce for domestic use. One should know that by 1991 only Château de Crémat and Château de Bellet were marketing their crop and Domaine de Flogolar launched its first vintage the same year. The children, brother and sister Eric and Carine became in charge of the production in 2003.
9. Château de Bellet is the northern-most and the most isolated in the Saquier hamlet.
This is the oldest estate, whose name is not only synonym with the wine of Bellet but also with the history of this place. Pierre Roissard and Anne-Rose Dettat-Doria’s son Jean-Pierre Roissard acquired a property called ‘Bellet’ and created his baronnial residence there on 12th September 1777. The current Baron, Comte Ghislain de Charnacé succeeded his father in 1970. After 40 Vintages crafted, he sold the Estate and the chapel, but not the baronial house in 2012. Ghislain continued to be responsible for vilification acting as a consultant until 2015. In 2014 Coteaux de Bellet merged into the ownership.
De Charnacé was one of the first in Bellet to use barrels for white wines in the early 1990s.
Red Cuvée Baron G 2008 was served at the marriage of Prince Albert II to Charlene Wittstock. In 1980 the “Chateau de Bellet” 1978 had already been served during the Versailles summit of heads of states and also for the NATO summit in 2005. In 1990 De Charnacé was “Winemaker of the year” and he was president of the Bellet PDO until he passed the presidency to Jo Sergi, head of the denomination nowadays.
Other estates have disappeared or have been integrated into different ownerships, some old families got extinct.
Clot dou Baille
Collet de Roustan
Domaine de Fontbellet
Les Coteaux de Bellet
Lorgues, C, and R, (1990), Provence de la vigne et des vins, Nice, Editions Serre
Luret, N, (1994), Guide des Vins de Provence, Marseille, Editions Jeanne Lafitte
Ninon, J.J, (1998), Le vin de Bellet d’hier et d’aujourd’hui, Nice, Z’éditions
Ninon, JJ. (2001), Bellet, le vignoble Niçois, Nice