Why would the luxury goods giant Chanel buy a wine estate in a remote part of the tiny (car-free) island of Porquerolles? The answer that immediately comes to mind is: because it's part of the Côtes de Provence appellation and wines don't come more trendy than Provence rosé. And if you've got the money to invest in an estate or simply a brand you can endorse with your celebrity status, they don't come much more money-spinning either. Just ask the celebs who've been buying them up like there's no tomorrow ever since Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie bought Miraval a decade ago.
But that's not why Chanel bought Domaine de l'Ile on Porquerolles, according to Nicolas Audebert, the engaging agronomist and oenologist who manages Chanel's three prestigious Bordeaux wine estates, Châteaux Rauzan-Sègla, Canon and Berliquet, and now also the rather different Domaine de l'Ile.
"With no cars or roads, it takes 45 minutes to get the grapes the 6km from the vineyards to the winery"
"We're not there because it's trendy to make rosé. It was a love story." (We're in France remember.) He goes on to talk about the uniqueness of the island, all seven by two kilometres of it, designated the country's first Parc National in 1963. There are mountains, hills, valleys and forests, but no cars, no roads. It takes 45 minutes to get the grapes the 6km from the vineyards to the winery. At harvest time, the pickers they inherited when they bought the estate in 2019 are barefoot. In winter, there are only about 100 people on the island. Many more in summer, or course.
The vineyards, which cover half the domaine – the rest is forest and 5ha of olives – are mainly on schist with varying amounts of clay and sand. The schist gives minerality, the sea air gives salinity, Nicolas Audebert says. There's less clay and sand the higher you go, so that's where he'll plant more Rolle, the variety used exclusively for the domaine's white wine. He wants to increase the production of white and particularly likes the texture and creaminess of Rolle (aka Vermentino).
Nicolas Audebert, head of Chanel's wine estates, says that the purchase of Domaine de l'Ile was "a love story"
Currently they make around 20,000 bottles of white and 120,000 of rosé. When the programme of replanting the original vineyard is complete, there'll be 40 hectares, which will give about 200,000 bottles in total. There are no plans to increase yields from the current figure of around 40hl/ha. There are, though, plans to make a red: Audibert doesn't want to be drawn, but says, "perhaps Mourvèdre and Syrah with some Grenache". A variety he likes and will plant for rosé is Tibouren. They have some that's 25–30 years old, but the vines weren't well looked after, so they're a bit tired.
All the grapes, hand-picked from 4am to noon when it's cooler, are vinified in stainless steel (it'll be interesting to see if that changes – I'm thinking concrete and/or oak) and are fermented, "for now", using cultured yeasts. His aim is to produce wines that are "gourmandise, with creaminess but with vibrancy, minerality and salinity and a bit of bitterness", the bitterness coming from the minerality of the soil.
"Domaine de l'Ile is part of Chanel's Maison d'Art portfolio of small artisan businesses, which includes a glove-maker, an embroiderer and a master pleat-maker"
Going back to the purchase, he says: "We walked the vineyards for 18 months before deciding." They finally bought the property in October 2019 and that vintage was made with the previous owner Sebastien Le Ber (who still has a 10% share). And the love story? Nicolas Audebert was born in Toulon – his father was a naval officer – and the family, who travelled a lot and sailed a lot, holidayed on Porquerolles when they were back in France. He's known and loved it all his life.
But a company like Chanel would hardly buy a small, off-the-beaten-track, certified-organic wine estate on a tiny car-free island just to keep its head winemaker happy, however much they valued him. It didn't. Since 2002, Chanel has built up a portfolio of small artisan businesses, including feathers for hats, a glove-maker, an embroiderer and a master pleat-maker, and Domaine de l'Ile is part of this Maisons d'Art group.
As for the 2020 wines, this is the first vintage that is properly Audebert's and the improvement over the previous year is persuasive. The 2019s were perfectly sound, but of no special interest. The 2020s have more aroma, taste, texture and finesse. When I ask Nicolas if he is happy with the 2020s, he says: "I don't like to say that I am happy with my wines." I think we can say that's a cautious yes.
Domaine de l'Ile Porquerolles Rosé 2020, Côtes de Provence
Blend at harvest: 32% Grenache, 31% Syrah, 20% Cinsault, 12% Mourvèdre and 5% Tibouren. An alluring nose of old English roses and ripe strawberries. The palate is creamy and rounded with peachy fruit streaked with herbal and Seville orange freshness and with saline and mineral notes. 12.5%
£27.50, Harvey Nichols
Domaine de l'Ile Porquerolles Blanc 2020, Côtes de Provence
100% Rolle. Very pale. A lively, fresh nose of juicy ripe pears edged with white peach, gentle citrus and herb. The palate combines creamy roundness with vibrancy, and peach, grapefruit and pine-resiny herbs with a saline, mineral and grapefruit-peel finish. 12.5%