The first great thing about French vineyards is that they tend to be in fabulous locations – ripening grapes frame farmhouses in the Bordeaux region; green trellises spill over the hills of Champagne. The second great thing about French vineyards is that they welcome visitors with open arms, and are happy to swap a tour and tasting in exchange for the purchase of a couple of bottles of wine.
But despite these factors, hardly a soul visits the vineyards of Bellet. Two miles north of a teeming Côte d'Azur, these vineyards form one of the smallest Appellation d'origine contrôlée (AOC) regions in France. Unaffected by tour groups, the dozen or so domaines that make up the region offer one of the friendliest welcomes in the country, as well as some unique wines.
Getting there is easy, for Bellet is just a 10-minute drive from Nice airport. Winding steeply upwards, the Route de Bellet passes ochre-coloured farmhouses clinging to the hills and eventually arrives at a plateau 300m above sea level. Peppered with snow from November onwards, it has been planted with vines for more than 2,000 years. Despite the impressive view back to the Cap d'Antibes and Mediterranean beyond, it's more Roman Provence than Roman Abramovich.
My wife and I chose the Chateau de Crémat domaine for our Bellet visit. Here we were met by our host, the improbably named Mr Lust. Not only does the chateau offer tours in English, it has a reputation for pioneering techniques under the stewardship of its devoted Dutch owner Cornelis Kamerbeek. It is also the domaine that first forwarded the idea for AOC status in this hidden corner of the French Riviera.
Mr Lust explained it was the one-off combination of height and wind that lent the wines their unique flavour. Like the glamorous resorts back on the coast, the sea breezes keep Bellet's vines cosy in winter, while a northerly tramontane wind cools them down in summer. This environment supports a zany selection of grape varieties, including la Folle Noir (the "crazy black"), a capricious vine that ripens on a whim anytime from August to October, and can be picked clean one day, only to fruit back to life a week later.
The first part of our tour takes us through the hi-tech pressing room. Here, the aroma of this year's grapes being squished and fermented is warm and intoxicating. Several shades cooler is the cellar, where the wine is aged in scores of casks. To obtain an oaky flavour (and to comply with strict AOC rules) it must sit in the wood for a minimum of 12 months. Mr Lust removes the giant cork on one of the casks so we can give it a good nose – not a service that a more commercial vineyard would provide. Mmm, deep and heady.
And so to the tasting room, traditionally my favourite bit on any vineyard tour. The prize certificates that plaster the walls are a promise of things to come (indeed, the Château de Crémat is the most decorated domaine in southern France). Mr Lust pops open a bottle of 2008 rosé, a blend comprised mostly of the rare Braquet grape. He pours himself a glass too, allegedly for "quality control". It's cool, deep and smacks of peaches and wild roses.
On then to a crisp 2004 white. This is made with about 90 per cent rolle, again a grape seldom used in France, blended with 10 per cent chardonnay. Mr Lust explains that it is very interesting that the wine still tastes so young. More interesting from my point of view is the fact that he empties most of his glass into a metal spittoon under the table. What a waste! Do people still spit into spittoons, I wonder? Only if tasting 20 or so wines at once, says Mr Lust, but a good amount of wine is still poured into each glass to form the correct aroma and tang.
Next up is a 2005 red. By this time we are crowing phrases like "hint of blackberries" and "definitely wildflowers" with a connoisseur's abandon. The wines are getting progressively more expensive, although they were by no means cheap to start with. The precipitous terrain means the crop has to be hand-picked, so these bottles would find their way into a shop for about €20 a piece – and that's if they find themselves on sale at all. With such a limited production run, much of the stock is reserved for the Riviera's finest restaurants. Despite the unique flavour of Bellet wines, there is no dedicated UK importer, which makes it a great idea to come here and sample them first-hand.
Our final wine is a 2001 Château de Crémat red that has racked up a volley of gold medals in tastings around Europe. It is complex, chocolatey and velvet-smooth. Thinking that this could be the start of a fabulous new hobby, I ask Mr Lust if really serious visitors bring notepads. "Of course," he grins, "but if it's not in their little book, sometimes they don't like it."
It is a subject he warms to. Despite a visitors' book brimming with testimonials from as far as Sweden, Holland and Florida, many connoisseurs in the UK would apparently rather drink "a Bordeaux" than concentrate on a smaller AOC, a rare grape or château.
Maybe it is the drink talking, but as he steers us out of the chateau I want to give Mr Lust a bit of advice. Why doesn't he expand the vineyard, chop down a few trees and increase the domaine's production? Our unflappable host smiles gently. Getting AOC status for new vineyards is amazingly bureaucratic, a process he describes as "incroyable". Only when another AOC vineyard gives up production can a fresh one be awarded similar status, which assures the strictly regulated quality present in Bellet and other fine French wines.
After an inspirational 90 minutes, Mr Lust waves us off, but not before asking us back to taste the wines in October. It's a great time to visit, he says, as the new stock is ready to drink and hotels on the Riviera offer off-season prices. Visitors are, as ever, most welcome.
Travel essentials: Bellet, France
Nice is served by Aer Lingus from Gatwick (0870 876 5000; aerlingus.com); by BA from Heathrow and London City (0844 493 0787; ba.com); and by easyJet from Stansted, Luton, Gatwick, Bristol, East Midlands, Newcastle and Liverpool (0905 821 0905; easyjet.com).
Trains from London St Pancras and Kent operate via Paris or Lille (08705 186186; eurostar.com).
Château de Crémat, 442 Chemin de Crémat, Nice (00 33 4 92 15 12 15; chateau-cremat.com). Tours Monday to Friday, 9am-5pm. Ninety-minute tasting visits are €15 a head, booked in advance.
AOC Bellet Region vineyards: vinsdebellet.com
French Government Tourist Office: 09068 244 123 (calls charged at 60p/min); franceguide.comReuse content