Cassis Wine Region Guide

Where the Mediterranean Meets the Exceptional, Far from the Crowds and Close to the Vine

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Last updated: November 24, 2023

Introduction

There would be no argument if Cellar Tours had to single out one Provencal appellation that defies expectations. It would be the beautiful – and idyllic – village of Cassis; clustered around a delightful bay, its terracotta houses are flanked by limestone-white cliffs that tower over the Mediterranean sea. Yet it remains a closely guarded secret, unlike the overcrowded destinations of St-Tropez and Cannes. In these garrigue-covered hills, winegrowers produce remarkable flavors: 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’ local economy does not rely on the export of sun-kissed rosé. The production of white wines is its chief preoccupation, in addition to a small amount of red and, yes, a smattering of rosé styles. But make no mistake: Cassis is not obsessed with pink. Its charms lie elsewhere.

Winemaking and regional classifications

Cassis is a region of small-family concerns rather than large corporations and massive volumes. As a result, you’re unlikely to visit state-of-the-art wineries and chic tasting rooms; the authenticity of a family welcome and real insight into the ancient traditions of this proud region defines tourism in Cassis. Yet there are very few poor wines being made today, as owners have invested in better equipment – and viticultural practices – to safeguard their reputation in a fiercely competitive global market.

Today, the region is overwhelmingly committed to producing saline dry whites. Styles and local expressions vary dramatically: you can enjoy 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 must carefully and using cooler fermentation temperatures to protect the fruit. Meanwhile, the small volume of red wines resemble southern Rhone in their heady perfume and ripe fruit. Grenache and Mourvedre blends are the most exciting reds being made here – perfect with Camargue lamb. In 2023, no other part of France has such a high concentration of quality-focused estates in a relatively small area. The best of Cassis’s winemaking is exquisite and more than merits a trip to Provence.

Geography and terroir

Vineyard at Cap Canaille, Cassis
Vineyard at Cap Canaille, Cassis

Situated 20km east of Marseille, Cassis continues to make a living from fishing, manageable levels of tourism, and viticulture. Flanked by the Mediterranean, its vineyards are sandwiched between Marseille and Toulon, planted on a series of low-lying hills and ridges that shimmer in the afternoon sunlight. However, Cassis is not a homogeneous vineyard like all Provencal wine regions. 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.

Meanwhile, the Sainte-Victoire and Massif de la Sainte-Baume mountains to the north protect more exposed vineyards from occasionally strong winds, which can soften the worst excesses of barmy summer temperatures. Similarly, the Chaine de Saint-Cyr and Canaille mountain ranges help 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 becoming more popular as growers reject synthetic inputs for more eco-friendly vineyard solutions and pest-control methods. All in all, this is an exceptional terroir for the production of high-quality wines.

The lowdown

Cassis Town
Cassis Town

Proponents of Cassis – thankfully growing in number – will tell you that the region’s white wines have few rivals in Provence. They’re not wrong: expect 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. The wines are also incredibly food-friendly, with a style for every occasion and palate. Very young, crisp, and fruity Cassis often serves as an aperitif – a function it performs admirably.

But, as the wines become weightier and more complex, you can think about a partnership with grilled fish, langoustines, salade niçoise, and roast chicken with herbs. Moreover, even the top labels are seldom expensive, as supply and demand remain balanced. This is not a region driven by price speculation: the world’s trophy hunters have no real interest in Cassis – which is all the better for us.

Yet Cassis continues to seduce influential sommeliers and buyers in the 21st century. This is partly due to local tourism increasing (within sustainable levels) and partly because key stakeholders are more interested in sending their wines abroad. The timing is very opportune as the esoteric has never been more fashionable in hipster circles; a movement away from homogenized wine styles began in earnest in the early 2000s, spearheaded by bloggers. It was based on the premise that a region’s unique cultural identity should be celebrated rather than ‘smothered’ by ubiquitous grape varieties. Granted, you will find a decent smattering of Sauvignon Blanc in Cassis. For the most part, however, this is a showcase for original flavors, indigenous grapes, and longstanding traditions. Good Sauvignon – and indeed rosé – can be made worldwide. But there is only one Cassis.

Cassis gastronomy

Like all Provencal towns, Cassis boasts a good selection of restaurants and bistros run by chefs who place a high premium on seasonality and traditional recipes. However, your options increase dramatically once you arrive in nearby Marseille, where years of immigration have created one of Provence’s most exciting – and diverse – food scenes. The charming Vieux Port overflows with French, Indian, Moroccan, Tunisian, and Italian restaurants – take your pick.

A Gastronomy Guide of Provence: Read more

History

Château de Cassis
Château de Cassis

Cassis boasts a long and proud viticultural history, one of the oldest in France. Around 600 BC, Greek mariners founded Massilia (Marseille) and imported their culture and traditions, including wine. Yet historians believe that vines were cultivated along this stretch of coastline long before the Greeks arrived. Nevertheless, the Romans established Provence’s first wine industry after Julius Caesar captured Massilia in 49 BC. However, the Romans elected to maintain its status as a free port, and so Massilia grew wealthy from trade with Rome’s colonies across the Mediterranean. They called the wider region Provincia Romana, which evolved into the name Provence. It was a glorious center of culture and commerce that survived for over four centuries until the Western Roman Empire began disintegrating in the 5th century.

Historians describe this period as the “Dark Ages” – a pithy and accurate description. Indeed, Provence was invaded by many bellicose tribes, including the Visigoths, Burgundians, and Ostrogoths. In 711, the Muslim general Tariq led a force of Arab and Berber mercenaries into Andalucia (southern Spain). Within a few years, they controlled most of the Iberian Peninsula. However, Tariq’s ambitions were limitless. His armies crossed the border into Roussillon in the 8th century and soon conquered Provence. Yet the Franks launched an effective counter-attack in key strategic positions, and the Moors were pushed back into Spain. In the early 10th century, Massilia enjoyed a revival spearheaded by the powerful counts of Provence.

Cassis, however, remained a backwater vineyard of little renown. Few outsiders – even in France – were aware of the magic being coaxed out of Cassis’ terroir for centuries. 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. 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 proved to be a catalyst for a remarkable – and, with hindsight, necessary – resurgence. After winegrowers realized American rootstock resisted 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, several red varieties were planted, including Syrah, Cinsault, and Grenache. But they form a tiny part of Cassis’ modern identity even today. The region, incidentally, was awarded appellation status in May 1936.

Author

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James lawrence

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