On holiday, people tend to let the setting influence their opinion on what they eat and drink. It’s a decent explanation as to why so many Belgians come back from the Provence with their trunk stuffed with rosé, only to discover at home that it just doesn’t deliver the same satisfaction as it did on a terrace overlooking the Provencal landscape or the Mediterranean Sea with a choir of crickets in the background. Forewarned is forearmed, but if there is one place on the French coast where yielding to temptation could be forgiven, it would have to be in the wonderful village of Cassis.
About twenty kilometers out of Marseille, the village is almost immune to the encroaching trail of holiday villas, as it is on three sides surrounded by the Parc National des Calanques. Despite the inflows of tourists looking for a boat tour along the Calanques or an afternoon on the beach, the atmosphere remains relaxing and pleasant. As if this isn’t enough, you are presented with not only a great view of the rugged and Cap Canaille as you descend towards the village via the D559, but you quickly come across the terraces planted with vineyards between the pine trees. No wonder that you will be yearning for a glass of local wine after taking all this in!
Cassis as a wine producing appellation is an anomaly in an ocean of rosé. Like Asterix’s tiny Gallic village resisting Roman occupation, Cassis has proven to be more or less immune to the luring call of the Provence’s dominant trend. For centuries, the focus has been on the production of white wines, although the wines of Cassis as we know them today have a much shorter history. Up until phylloxera hit the vineyards at the end of the nineteenth century, the variety behind Cassis’ reputation for about 500 years was Muscatel (of which about a fourth simply went towards the production of brandy). The vineyards were replanted with other varieties as the quality of Muscatel on American rootstocks was not the same, and by the twenties, Clairette and Marsanne had come to dominate the vineyards.
In 1936, Cassis was along Châteauneuf-du-Pape one of the first regions to be granted appellation status, and it has changed little over time, remaining at more or less the same size (125ha). The fact that it’s located smack in the middle of a national park acts as a great barrier against property developers or Parisiens looking to build a holiday home. A thirsty local market furthermore ensures that the twelve estates have little incentive to do anything else but grow wine. However, an unfortunate consequence is that the wines do not always come at the best price.
More importantly though, is the wine worth all that fuss? With only twelve estates around, it is quite easy to get a good view of what an appellation stands for simply by visiting the local Maison des Vins. In all honesty, I skipped the red wines as they only account for 3% of the AOP’s total production. The production of rosé wines (about a third) has been increasing slowly, but more to the detriment of red wines than white. Some of them conform to the newly established identity of ‘Provençal bland’ (Chateau Barbanau comes to mind), while others like Domaine du Paternel or Château de Fontcreuse make perfectly acceptable but not very memorable rosé wines.
Cassis is the only appellation in the Provence that is allowed to use a significant portion of Marsanne in its blend. A variety rightly claimed by the Northern Rhône Valley, it is a delightful peculiarity here, especially as the cahier des charges states that, in combination with my other favorite Clairette, it should make up at least 60% of the final blend. The resulting wines are in general quite intense aromatically, with notes of grapefruit, mango and pineapple dominating and a certain weightiness on the palate, yet always with freshness and persistence towards the end.
While the wines of Cassis may be quite distinctive in a comparison with their neighbors, I found it difficult to identify uniqueness on a producer level. The above description applies to the majority of wines tasted, and such conformity is a bit of a bummer. Several producers are trying to go beyond the trap of uniformity though, and I liked Domaine du Paternel’s Blanc de Blanc, which was a bit more elegant than others, and Clos d’Albizzi’s Altaïs, as it was everything you would not expect of Cassis. It was clearly a wine meant to age, a bit fatty on the palate with ripe and even slightly oxidative aromas of nuts and honey. Great with monkfish, but perhaps a bit too much to drink an entire bottle.
One estate that wins points just for its location is Clos Sainte Magdeleine. Its humble gate hides a massively impressive private cape, planted with a walled vineyard that simply oozes charm. If ever your brain was conditioned to detect salinity in a wine, this would be the spot! The estate covers about 20 hectares, and aside from the walled vineyard pictured (taken from a vantage point on the Route des Crêtes (connection Cassis with La Ciotat), they have holdings further inland as well.
The reins of Clos Sainte Magdeleine are in the hands of the Zafiropulos family and the fourth generation, represented by Jonathan Sack, is currently responsible for the wines produced. Although viticulture has long been environmentally conscious and sustainable, formal organic certification is more recent. As the vineyards are located so close to the Mediterranean Sea, cleansing breezes play a major role in vineyard management, and reduce the need for interventions with fungicides for example. The same hands-off approach is also practiced in the cellar, where fermentation is triggered with indigenous yeast, malolactic fermentation is allowed to take place, and elevage is done in stainless steel or concrete as to preserve the characteristics of the grapes, not replacing them with overly woody touches.
The entry level Cassis Blanc 2016 is composed of 45% Marsanne, 20% Clairette, 30% Ugni Blanc and 5% Bourboulenc. Vinification is straightforward, taking place in stainless steel, and the wine so is brought on the market after 10 to 15 months. It is an archetype of what Cassis should be: weighty but with focus and persistence. It is quite low in acidity yet does have some freshness to it. It is not something I would age for more than two-three years though, as I would suppose that it would lose some of its playful charm (18 euro).
Bel-Arme is a more recent addition to the range (making a first appearance in 2012) and directs the spotlight to Marsanne, composing 60% of the final blend along with 15% of Clairette, 20% Ugni blanc and 5% Bourboulenc. The grapes are sourced a bit more inland, all from vines aged 50 years or older, and go through fermentation and ageing in concrete eggs, which supposedly enhances the interaction between the lies and the wine.
The 2015 shows itself best aromatically: white peaches, wild flowers and a tangy, almost salty note after a while. The palate is a bit too rich for my taste, the creaminess from the extended contact with the lies is a bit too much at the moment and while the finish is fruitier with a bit of freshness, overall it is lacking in balance. You can sense that it has the body and the texture to take its time to find a balance, but how that will turn out is hard to say (22 euro).
I get why Cassis was created as a separate appellation as the wines clearly stand apart from what you would normally expect in the Provence. Furthermore, I do like the fact that Marsanne, a grape variety that you do not come across a whole lot outside of the Northern Rhône Valley, gets the opportunity to express itself differently. Overall though, I would say that the majority of wines of Cassis are more of the category ‘interesting to try, not necessarily to drink’, particularly if you take the price point into account. Best to drink them locally to create an unforgettable holiday experience!