If Cellar Tours had to single out one Provencal appellation which defies expectations, there would be no argument. It would be Cassis. Its relative anonymity is only to its benefit – unlike the overcrowded destinations of St-Tropez and Cannes, Cassis basks in relative tranquility for the vast majority of the year. Situated 20km to the east of Marseille, it makes a living from fishing, manageable levels of tourism and viticulture, which is Cassis’ main business. It is an endeavor that local growers excel at; in select sites and select years, Cassis produces flavors that are remarkable – a signature herby scent of lavender, merged with the most intriguing tropical fruit, notes of garrigue, sunflowers, and honeysuckle. Moreover, unlike the majority of appellations in Provence, Cassis is not obsessed with making rose. The production of white wines is its chief preoccupation, in addition to a small amount of red, and yes, a smattering of rose styles.
The village itself is one of the most beautiful in Provence. Clustered around a delightful bay, its terracotta houses are flanked by limestone-white cliffs which tower over the Mediterranean sea. Moving inland, the landscape is carpeted with vines; Cassis boasts a long and proud viticultural history, one of the oldest in France. Around 600 BC, Greek mariners founded Marseille and imported their culture and traditions with them, including winegrowing. Yet historians believe that vines were cultivated along this stretch of coastline long before the Greeks arrived. Today there are approximately 220 hectares under vine, producing about 1 million bottles per annum. The region was awarded appellation status in May 1936.
Nevertheless, for centuries few outsiders – even in France – were aware of the magic being coaxed out of Cassis’ terroir. It was only in the 12th century that a written account of winemaking in Cassis was recorded; by the 1700s, Cassis had staked its reputation on growing Muscat. The grape, ubiquitous across Europe, was used to make a signature dessert wine style by raisening the grapes in sunlight to concentrate sugars in the must. Indeed, Cassis thrived until the outbreak of the phylloxera epidemic in the latter half of the 19th century. The region’s entire viticultural landscape was devastated- Cassis was out of business.
Yet phylloxera was to prove to be a catalyst for a remarkable – and with hindsight necessary – resurgence. After winegrowers realized that American rootstock offered resistance to the disease, vines were replanted across Cassis. However, Muscat was abandoned as it could not grow on the imported rootstock. This led growers to experiment with other Provencal varieties, such as Ugni Blanc, Marsanne, Clairette, and Sauvignon Blanc. Over time, a small volume of red varieties was also planted, including Syrah, Cinsault, and Grenache. But even today, they form a tiny part of Cassis’ modern identity.
Proponents of Cassis – who are thankfully growing in number – would tell you that white wines are the region’s trademark. When tasting Cassis, enthusiasts look for a combination of fresh tropical and citrus fruit, garrigue, herby scents, a suggestion of honey, and above all, a vigor and racy acidity. Even less exalted producers approach the connoisseur’s ideal.
However, like all Provencal wine regions, Cassis is not a homogeneous vineyard. Terroir varies considerably, with crucial differences in soil, aspect, and altitude all worthy of greater discussion – and perhaps one day, a more rigorous hierarchical classification. The most significant moderators of the warm Mediterranean climate are the mountains that flank the village in all directions. The Sainte-Victoire and Massif de la Sainte-Baume mountains to the north are responsible for protecting more exposed vineyards from occasionally strong winds, which can also help to soften the worst excesses of barmy summer temperatures. Similarly, the Chaine de Saint-Cyr and Canaille mountain ranges help to shelter vines. Ideal vineyards are located on elevated cliff sides, north-facing, and protected by the aforementioned mountain ranges. Higher altitude sites help to moderate the severe summer heat and maintain acidity in the grapes – calcareous soils offer the best of both worlds: good drainage and water retention capabilities. Organic and biodynamic viticulture is also becoming more popular, as growers reject synthetic inputs for more eco-friendly vineyard solutions and pest-control methods. Cassis is a region of small-family concerns rather than large corporations and massive volumes.
The net result is an excellent palate of white wine styles, from fresh and distinctly saline whites to more structured, honeyed examples. The weight of Cassis wines varies enormously – you can be enjoying a racy Sauvignon Blanc blend one minute, and then a rounded, generous wine the next, based on Marsanne and Clairette. In general terms, winemakers always tend to preserve freshness in the wines, handling the grapes and must with care and using cooler fermentation temperatures to protect the fruit. That is not to say that more ‘rustic’ examples of Cassis do not exist – they do. But no other part of France has such a high concentration of quality-focused estates in such a relatively small area. The best of Cassis winemaking is exquisite and more than merits a trip to Provence.