In the late seventies, Count Henri de Saint Victor and his wife Catherine were seeking to purchase a vineyard somewhere in France. They travelled to the South and had lunch at a little restaurant by the harbour in Bandol, where they were wowed by a bottle of red Pibarnon 1975. They visited the rustic farm in the nearby village of La Cadière d’Azur where the wine was made. They were welcomed by the Italian owners, who were struggling.  Although there wasn’t any running water in this rugged environment, the couple was seduced by the location with its breathtaking views over the vast splendour of the Mediterranean. They were very interested in buying the 16-hectare estate, including a vineyard of 3.5 hectares situated at an altitude of 300 metres. In 1978, in their fifties, the Count and his wife purchased the run-down estate, and left their comfortable Parisian life.

With no knowledge of viticulture and vinification, Henri and Catherine de Saint Victor rolled up their sleeves and became farmers. Right away, they built 6 hectares of terraces, where they planted vines. In the early beginnings, Henri made the wine himself and Catherine helped him to sell to local restaurants and cavistes

The house that they had acquired was uncomfortable and the cellar was too small. They pulled the house down and built the perfect replica of an 18th-century Provençal farmhouse. The cellar was remodelled and new equipment was installed.

Henri and Catherine released their first vintage of Château de Pibarnon rouge in 1978, which was awarded Gold at the famous Concours Agricole de Paris in 1980.

In 1989, Eric de Saint Victor joined his parents after completing biological science studies. He had subsequently honed his winemaking skills at Château Cheval Blanc. When his parents settled in Bandol, he was only 13, but he already knew that he wanted to make wine. 

In 1990, the family purchased an uninterrupted 20 hectares of pine forest and wasteland located in a beautiful amphitheatre-like shape, facing the cellar. The digging went on for months before any vines could be planted. Precise studies of the soils revealed the presence of Santonian blue clay, similar to those of the legendary Château Pétrus and Château Yquem. Two years later, the land facing south-east and north was cleared and remodelled into an amphitheatre, rather like the ancient Greek Theatre of Epidaurus.

Château de Pibarnon now covers over 52 hectares of vineyards. 47 hectares planted with Mourvèdre (70%), Bourboulenc, Cinsault, and Grenache Noir, and 5 hectares planted with Clairette, Ugni Blanc, and Marsanne. Although the vineyards are constantly flooded with sunshine, the nights are cool, and the high altitude enables the grapes to retain high levels of acidity. 

Eric de Saint Victor took over from his father in 2000. Gifted and talented, he is always striving for excellence, with the complicity of Marie Laroze, the cellar manager since 2008. The organically-farmed vineyards are supervised by Eric Schlag den Haufen, who assures their good balanced life and, since 2016, biodynamic farming is slowly being approached. The harvest is manual and the gentle work in the cellar aims at preserving the healthy grapes.

Pibarnon’s wines are extremely refined and precise, mirroring their very unique terroir that sets them apart from the rest of Bandol. When young, the reds are sumptuously approachable, dense but not heavy, and a long ageing reveals a multitude of nuances and extraordinary complexity.

The late Henri de Saint-Victor was more than an aristocrat. Extremely courageous, he was an erudite businessman. In addition to being a brilliant taster, he was the driving force behind the creation of the vineyard. Like a magician with a colossal determination and vision, he succeeded in transforming what was a simple farmhouse into a magnificent Provençal estate.  

Meeting Catherine and Henri de Saint-Victor was an unforgettable occasion. Henri was a strong-built man with large working hands. He was ‘un homme du terroir’ as well as an entrepreneur, as well as a jovial man who enjoyed good food and wine, and who loved Pavarotti. 

Profile © Françoise and Seán Gilley

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