France holds the title of world’s largest wine producer. It cultivates, picks and presses grapes to produce nearly eight billion bottles every year. But with Asian demand pushing up prices for big brand regions like Bordeaux and Burgundy, in-the-know oenophiles are making a beeline for the Mediterranean terroir of the French Riviera. And as the local harvest usually takes place between mid-September and mid-October, visitors to Nice this autumn may be lucky enough to catch this year’s vendange.
Nice’s secret appellation
Pinched into France’s southeastern corner, just north of Nice Airport, Bellet (vinsdebellet.com) is one of France’s smallest appellations. The wine-growing region measures a petite 650 hectares in total, of which less than 50 hectares are planted by vines. Bellet earned its Appelation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC) classification in 1941, although historically, this terrain has long been home to some of the oldest vineyards in France. Both King Louis XIV and US President Thomas Jefferson are even said to have imbibed the local tipple. But just decades ago, Bellet’s winemaking tradition teetered on the brink of extinction. During the 1960s, vines were ripped up as Niçois farmers enjoyed a heady romance with the lucrative cultivation of carnations. But growing demand at the end of the 20th century put Bellet’s wine production back on track. Business is booming once again.
Today, 11 small domains loop around the aptly named Route de Bellet. The combination of altitude – grapes hang from vines growing between 200 and 300 metres above sea level – plus a year-round sea breeze means that these vineyards thrive in a lush, sunny, climate-controlled Eden. Typical Bellet grapes include Le Rolle and Chardonnay (white), and La Folle Noire ('the crazy black' red grape), Grenache and Braquet (red).
For a first-hand peek at the action, book a wine-tasting or vineyard tour with organic producer Le Clos Saint-Vincent (Collet des Fourniers, Saint-Roman de Bellet, 04 9215 1269). Here Joseph (‘Giò’) Sergi and his son Julien use exclusively organic and biodynamic methods to cultivate their grapes. Like all three of the Bellet vineyards mentioned here, harvesting is done by hand. Such attention to detail pays off: the vintner’s subtle Le Clos wines were served at the wedding reception of Prince Albert II of Monaco and Charlene Wittstock in summer 2011.
Heralding from a family of lavender cultivators in the southern French Luberon region, Nathalie Pacioselli and husband Jean-Patrick own and manage the petite Domaine Saint-Jean (343 Chemin de Crémat, 04 9396 2840). They’re particularly well known for their exquisite whites and rosés. Sip and sample your way through their delicious vintages at one of the domain’s tasting sessions, paired with a cellar visit.
Third-generation winemakers Bernard and Jacqueline Nicoletti, owners of Domaine de Toasc (213 Chemin de Crémat, 04 9215 1414), have plenty to be proud of this year. At Paris' prestigious Concours Géneral Agricole 2012, they were awarded one gold (for their 2011 white) and two silver medals (for their 2009 red and 2011 rosé). Yet art aficionados will also adore Domaine de Toasc’s simple vin de pays, or table wine. Named Lou Vin d’Aqui ('the wine from here' in Niçois dialect), bottles of white, rosé and red sport labels designed by local artist Ben, whose work crowds the Musée d’Art Contemporain in downtown Nice
. Looking to stock up? Drop into Domaine de Toasc's on-site boutique, which is open to the public from 2.30pm to 5.30pm, Tuesdays to Saturdays.
Seller to cellar
If you’re looking to stock up on a variety of local vintages, plan a visit to one of Nice’s caves, or wine cellars. In the Old Town, Cave de la Tour (3 rue de la Tour, 04 9380 0331) is part wine shop, part local boozer. Eccentric owner Jean-Philippe stocks a range of wines from across the French Riviera, including Saint Jeannet and Abbaye de Lérins, the latter produced by monks on Saint-Honorat Island, just off Cannes’ coastline. Be sure to order up a wedge of pissaladière, the onion-topped tart that’s a staple snack in Nice: locals claim it’s the best in town.
Cave Bianchi (7 rue Raoul Bosio, 04 9385 6579) has purveyed the region’s top vintages since 1860. This wine cellar is tucked just behind Nice’s picturesque flower market. Owner Franck Obadia and his knowledgeable team guide visitors through custom tastings of Provence’s finest wines, including AOCs Bellet, Bandol and Cassis. For a single sipping session, every day at 6.30pm, a professional sommelier leads a group tasting of one regional wine (€7 per person).
On the menu
For visitors keen to sample the region’s finest wines alongside a selection of its tastiest traditional dishes, the French Riviera offers an unrivalled selection of dining spots. Try heading west of Nice to Antibes’ best wine bar, Entre 2 Vins (1 rue James Close, 04 9334 4693). This Old Town snug is decorated with cosy red velvet banquettes, plum walls and cartoon-scribbled wooden tables. Each day, owners Mathieu and Franck serve a small, market-fresh menu of regional cuisine, such as andouillettes sausages or Niçoise socca (savoury chick pea pancakes), along with excellent local wines by the glass.
Just behind Nice’s port, newcomer Vinivore (10 rue Lascaris, 04 9314 6809) is headed up by Montreal-born Bonaventure Blankstein. This contemporary bistro is a wine-lover’s dream. On one wall, a massive chalkboard flags up a rotating selection of the Côte d'Azur’s finest vintages. In the kitchen, chef Chun Wong accentuates classic French dishes – fine-tuned during his time at the double Michelin-starred La Palme d'Or in Cannes – with a touch of Asian flair heralding from his native Hong Kong. Stellar picks include duck breast with Chinese five-spice, or seared scallops infused with kaffir lime.
Oenophiles looking to indulge will adore Bastide Saint-Antoine in nearby Grasse (48 avenue Henri-Dunant, 04 9370 9494). This 18th-century manor is set within a 1,000-year-old olive grove. The restaurant’s extensive wine cellar includes more than 1,600 premier vintages; among them, Le Clos Saint-Vincent’s premier vintage, Vino di Giò, which was created specially for Michelin-starred chef Jacques Chibois. Savour turbot with artichokes, woodland mushrooms and lemongrass, or Chibois’ utterly unique mandarin sorbet topped by jasmine marmalade. Beautiful Provençal rooms and suites are also on site.
Go to our Nice page to read more information about this route, and to book flights to Nice.
Written by World Travel Guide.