White Cassis: a Riviera Rarity

Date: 19 January, 2022 / Author: Andrew James

Clos Sainte-Magdeleine vineyard

The old fishing town of Cassis is a 20-minute drive from Marseilles. It is also a wine region, and the only one in France where the vineyards are contained within a national park. To get to Cassis, you exit the highway onto a winding road that descends through pine forests with breathtaking glimpses of terraced vineyards and white cliffs dropping into the shimmering sea. No wonder the population jumps from 8,000 to 30,000 each summer.

As you near the harbour, the streets narrow and turn to cobblestone, with blue-shuttered buildings in pastel. Seafood restaurants line the waterfront, some so close to the sea that you can almost dip your feet in the water while choosing between lobster, oysters, sea bream and bouillabaisse. Once you’ve made your selection, something unexpected happens. Your server arrives to take your order and asks which of the white wines on the menu you prefer. Wait, you think. I’m in Provence, where the vineyards overflow with red grapes. Shouldn’t I be drinking rosé? Well, perhaps. But Cassis is a Riviera rarity and over 70 percent of it is white. I followed the winding road to visit the local producers and find out what makes these wines special.

Until the arrival of phylloxera at the end of the 19th century, Cassis was best known for sweet Muscat-based concoctions but by the time it was granted AOC status in 1936, the focus had changed to dry whites. One of the founding fathers, Pierre Imbert, was partial to the aromatic Rhône varietal Marsanne and pushed for its inclusion on the list of permissible white grapes along with the Provençal varieties Clairette, Ugni Blanc, Bourboulenc and Pascal Blanc. He may be due thanks, for the increasing importance of Marsanne is part of the reason that Cassis’s whites remain compelling today.

Before World War II, many of the white wines in other parts of Provence were made from red grapes, so the Cassis producers began writing ‘blanc de blancs’ on their labels to clarify their position. Some wineries, including Domaine Bodin and Domaine du Paternel, continue the tradition today. The latter still uses a version of their 1951 label with the words blanc de blancs prominently displayed.

There is a chalky, limestone aroma to these wines, but you won’t confuse them with Chablis or Burgundy: the Mediterranean lends Cassis whites a distinctive whiff of brine and a touch of salinity that makes you want another glass.

Cassis’s 10 wine producers share 220 hectares of vines. They are aided by the imposing 400-metre cliff known as Cap Canaille, which blocks the Mistral wind. The sea also helps by regulating temperatures year-round. While the limestone soil puts its own stamp on the vines, underground creeks – or calanques – provide an important water source in an area with scant precipitation.

You will encounter three different types of Cassis AOC white wines. Some have a higher proportion of Clairette, Ugni Blanc and Bourboulenc. They are refreshing but also crisp, with floral and citrus aromas. Then there are wines with an accent on Marsanne, the grape that contributes roundness and elegance. Look for notes of honey, stone fruits and almond. The third type that has emerged in recent years is well-structured and aged in oak, with the concentration and complexity typically found in Rhône whites. These wines also tend to have a higher proportion of Marsanne. They are meant to be cellared and make no apology for their weight.

To a certain extent, style is dictated by vineyard location, though most producers have various plots that are vinified separately before blending. Clairette thrives on the dry, windswept terraces between Couronne de Charlemagne and Cap Canaille while Marsanne prefers the softer soil in Les Janots, a less-exposed area with good water reserves. All the grape varieties, including the reds, seem happy in Le Plan, a flat area in the north with deposits of clay and marl in the limestone.

It is always possible for winemakers to declassify and make an IGP (or table) wine from other grapes, as Clos Sainte Magdeleine does with Baume-Noire, a 100% Rolle white wine fermented in sandstone jars. These aren’t inferior wines, but they are atypical and therefore beyond the control of the AOC. Château de Fontcreuse has a declassified red made from Syrah and Caladoc, a rare cross between Grenache and Cot. Noteworthy AOC red wines include Domaine de la Ferme Blanche’s 100% Mourvèdre, which is aged in barriques, and Domaine du Bagnol’s equally gentle, but more acidic Mourvèdre-based creation. In a concession to popular demand, most Cassis wine producers now make a rosé as well.

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Today, Cassis AOC white wines may not be the only game in town, but they are still, in my opinion, the one that provides wine lovers with the most drama and tension. While the reds are agreeably soft, the whites are marked by that inimitable salinity that gives them freshness and structure.

The intricacies of Cassis don’t defy description, but the wines taste better than they read. Still, I will leave you with recommendations, tasting notes and comments from each of the seven wine producers I visited. Find these wines and drink them. Or better yet, follow the winding road through Calanques National Park to the Cassis harbour and enjoy them at the source.

Clos Sainte-Magdeleine Tradition 2019
Made from equal parts Marsanne, Clairette and Ugni Blanc, with a touch of Bourboulenc.  Floral and saline with a hint of citrus. Perfect balance and elegance from start to finish.
I want to make a white wine with the maximum of typicity. Clay, limestone, the Mediterranean influence, and the slopes facing the sea, and to do that in one bottle.’ (Jonathan Sack)

Domaine du Paternel Blanc de Blancs 2020
38% Clairette and 31% Marsanne. Light-bodied, with a pink grapefruit nose, tingle of acidity and saline finish.
Because we are close to the sea, the temperature does not go too high in the summer or too low in the winter. And the soil permits us to make wine with acidity. That’s why it’s very good for white here.’ (Olivier Santini)

Domaine de la Ferme Blanche Excellence 2019
Equal parts Clairette and Marsanne. One-third of the wine is aged in oak. Notes of marzipan, mint and pine resin along with a myriad of flavours and a lingering aftertaste.
Our goal was to make another white that was more complex and can be aged much longer than our Classique. That’s why it’s in a dark bottle. It is more gastronomic than the Cassis white that you associate with oysters. This one is good with river fish, like trout, in a cream sauce.’ (Jérômine Paret)

Château de Fontcreuse Blanc 2020
A full-bodied wine made from 60% Marsanne. The heady perfume is balanced by a dry, mineral aftertaste.
You will feel the weight and roundness of Marsanne, then the freshness of the other two varieties coming behind it with a drying sensation so that it can accompany fish. It is both floral and mineral.’ (Jean-François Brando)

Domaine du Bagnol Tradition 2020
45% Marsanne and 35% Clairette. Fermented in cement tanks. Aromas of acacia and sea salt against a fresh palate.
Our wines are good with fish. We drink this one a lot with sea urchin. In the Mediterranean Sea they are protected so we can only catch them in winter. After that they grow and reproduce. You can only get them from the fishermen at the port.’ (Lisa Genovesi)

Domaine La Dona Tigana Cuvée Prestige 2019
A powerful, decadent wine composed of 90% Marsanne. Barrique-aged with aromas of apricots, almonds and vanilla. Richly textured and dignified.
My father Jean Tigana was a professional football player. He was born in Mali but came to Marseilles with his big brother and was always dreaming about Cassis. He started in wine in Bordeaux then planted his vines here in 1994.’ (Canelle Tigana)

Clos d’Albizzi Blanc 2020
With 40% Clairette, the aromatic profile is floral and citrus. Round and saline, it offers the best of both worlds.
Marsanne is interesting for the structure and body. Clairette for finesse. We use several different tanks. We have a concrete egg-shaped vat, and it’s interesting for our old Ugni Blanc. Normally, thanks to the shape of the egg, the wine moves by itself. We also use barrels between eight and 12 years old. We think that Cassis wine is not good in new oak because the wine is very fine and elegant. It’s not like Chardonnay in Burgundy. You don’t need long-aging in new barrels.’ (Jacques Dumon)

Andrew James is a professor of English literature at the School of Commerce at Meiji University in Tokyo, Japan. He is currently on sabbatical leave in France at Université Grenoble Alpes in order to write a book on Bandol wine. His great interest as a wine researcher is understanding the evolution of wine-speak, and the reflection of culture in wine language.

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