Roman Empire: the foundation of Saint-Jean de Bébian
As a reward for his valour in battle and feats of arms in 25 years devoted to war instead of the 40 the republic required of its citizens, Rome gave the veteran centurion Bebianus (source of the modern name Vivian) the land which now bears his name.
Southern Gaul had many such veteran colonies, or sportula (the name for lands gifted to worthy warriors from those taken in battle).
Bebianus built his villa as was customary on the model of those of Campagna.
This was in the 1st century AD.
Bebianus grew corn, olives and vines, mainly muscat, chasselas and carignan. His wines were highly reputed and shipped from Narbonne throughout the Roman Empire in earthenware jars made not far away in Sallèle d’Aude.
The wines were sent by the Via Domitia and the Via Aquitania to Bordeaux, from where they sailed to England.
But the vine was so successful in this blessed part of Roman Gaul and gave such beautiful wines that the Roman winemakers, seeing the patricians neglecting the home-grown production in favour of them, got the Emperor Domitian to issue an edict in 92AD ordering the vines of southern Gaul to be uprooted. It was not revoked until 289, by Marcus Aurelius, whereupon the vine came back into its own.
After the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century and a period of neglect, the vine flourished once more under the care of Cistercian monks. On the land round their abbey, they grew the grapes to make the wine symbolising the “blood of Christ”. And they turned out to be excellent winemakers. They settled in Bébian in the 11th century, built the chapel in 1150 and soon after, in 1152, started to acquire land.
Though we do not know the name of the monk who first settled in Saint-Jean de Bébian and built the chapel in 1150 for the local peasantry to worship in, his legend has lived after him. He was said to have led a rowdy, dissolute life before repenting and turning to God. But, tiring of solitude and evidently not finding the peace of divine light, the formerly would-be hermit took up with his old habits again. And the faithful who came to worship had a great time getting drunk.
Other men of the cloth soon came to join him and founded a monastic community which started acquiring new land in 1152 and planting vineyards, so much so they eventually stopped producing corn and only made wine.
As the land at the time was in the bishopric of Béziers, and not Agde as it ought to have been, the bishop only visited from time to time and left the monks to run the congregation as it saw fit.
The monks were somewhat forgetful of their monastic duty and lived very well at Bébian.
From the 12th to 18th centuries, Pézenas, which Bébian belongs to, benefited from the curatorial privilege awarded by successive kings of France for the safeguard and defence of wine, whereby it was forbidden to let foreign wines and harvests into the parish. But not to make wine!
The Hundred Years War (1337-1453) brought the Black Prince into southern France and did a lot of damage to the vineyards. Though the edict issued by Charles IX in 1553 restricted winegrowing in favour of corn crops, the Languedoc vineyards held their own. Many estates prospered and exported, including Bébian which extended its buildings. Some parts dating from this time are still extant.
Lucette the novice actress
It is said that Molière enjoyed Bébian wines when he was in Pézenas with his famous troupe from 1646 to 1657. He was given some bottles by one of his actors who had got to know Lucette at Bébian. She was the owner’s daughter and did not like life on the estate or domestic chores. She was thrilled to meet an actor who travelled all the time. The actor used all his charms to persuade her to go to Gély the barber’s shop in Pézenas where the local thespians met up. There she got to know Molière who gave her a part opposite Monsieur de Pourceaugnac in his play of the same name.
An Italian at Bébian
When the Canal du Midi, designed by Pierre-Paul Riquet (a salt-tax collector and official of Louis XIV’s armies), was built starting in 1692, the town of Sète at its mouth on the Mediterranean soon found itself host to a large number of Italian sailors who were mostly poor and in search of a better life.
Sète became the main port for southern French wine exports. The casks were loaded onto ships and sailed to other Mediterranean countries or else onto barges which went up the canal to Toulouse and thence to the Atlantic ports. Matteo Evangelisti worked at the port. He had climbed the social ladder and had his own fleet. He must have known Bébian wines and enjoyed them. Having made his fortune, he bought the Bébian estate so that he could produce wine and control the chain from production to distribution, as befitted a clever businessman.
He added to the buildings and redesigned them in the style of the times. It is said that he also used the place for his secret love affairs.
Etienne de Goudon, royal officer
Matteo could not have owned the estate for very long because Bébian is mentioned in the cadastral register of 1688 as belonging to the heirs of Etienne II de Goudon, son of Etienne I de Goudon, master of the salt storehouse in Pézenas. Master was an important, noble position held by a royal officer who took delivery of the salt sent to the storehouse. He was responsible for arbitrating any disagreements about how the salt should be transported, distributed and divided up.
In the late 17th or early 18th century, a burger of Pézenas called Jean Andrau bought the estate which later became the property of the Mazel family in 1738 when it was bought by François I Mazel, the postmaster and a wealthy spirits merchant.
His son, François II Mazel, counsellor to the king appointed criminal lieutenant of the fief of Pézenas in 1743, developed the estate after it came into his hands upon his marriage in 1750.
Alain Roux. It is to him that we owe the estate as it now is.
In 1952, the property was bought by Maurice Roux. His son Alain began a radical overhaul in the 1970s. Aiming for quality rather than quantity, this visionary planted noble varieties and chose them carefully: syrah from Jean-Louis Chave, grenache from Château Rayas, mourvèdre from Tempier. The old Mediterranean stock (cinsault, carignan) was jealously conserved and was joined by the traditional Châteauneuf-du-Pape varieties of roussanne, marsanne, clairette, counoise, bourboulenc and grenache gris.
When Alain handed over to Chantal Lecouty and Jean-Claude Le Brun, he promised to help them with their first harvest. The last vat was only just filled when he congratulated them on handling things so well and said he was leaving for Caracas that very evening!
Since then, we lost trace of him somewhere between California and New York.
Chantal Lecouty: In buying the estate, she has made it a benchmark in the Languedoc
In 1994, Chantal Lecouty and Jean-Claude Le Brun, who used to run “Revue des Vins de France”, took over the estate to carry on the work begun by Alain Roux. Well-known and respected wine journalists, the owners of the press group which includes the highly reputable “Revue des Vins de France” thus went from wine writing to winemaking. When they purchased Prieuré Saint-Jean de Bébian, Chantal Lecouty said:
“Speaking of the transition from Alain Roux, I think the ethic will be the same: to make great Mediterranean wines. A ‘great wine’ to me means concentration, complexity, elegance and good ageing potential – or how to square the circle! ‘Mediterranean’ means sunshine, typical of the south.”
Karen Turner joined Bébian in 2004 and continued her work as winemaker after Chantal Lecouty and Jean-Claude Le Brun handed over the domain to the current owners in 2008.
Prieuré Saint-Jean de Bébian is one of the oldest winegrowing estates in France.