Crisp, floral and flinty, the wines of Cassis are justly famous, though you might know them by reputation only, for the little appellation is often not easy to come by outside the immediate area.
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This is a guide to these wines; and to the magnificently located vineyards / wineries that produce them.
Around a million bottles of wine a year come out of Cassis. The keen local market mops up most of this relatively modest supply, though many of the vineyards listed below have limited quantities available for export.
Unusually for Provence, where rosé generally dominates, Cassis specialises in white wine, which makes up 75% of its production.
Note: Cassis wine is not to be confused with crème de cassis, a sweet blackcurrant liqueur that's a speciality of Dijon in Burgundy.
A THUMBNAIL HISTORY
Wine-growing was introduced to Cassis - as it was elsewhere in Provence - by the Greeks in 600 BC. A thriving viticulture had developed by the mid-19th century, specialising in vin doux, or dessert wine, produced with the Muscat grapes which had been introduced to Provence by Good King René in the 15th century.
Then disaster struck in the form of the phylloxera epidemic of 1865, which devastated vineyards all across Europe. Wine-making was built up again painstakingly from scratch, using grafted stock from the United States.
Even so, vineyards in Cassis today cover only 220 hectares (543 acres), as opposed to 500 hectares (1,235 acres) before the epidemic.
The new version of Cassis wine was quite different from the original one. Instead of Muscat grapes, wine-makers drew on a range of other varieties, including Clairette, Marsanne, Ugni blanc and Sauvignon blanc.
By some accounts, this was because the Muscat grapes were incompatible with the imported graft stock. Whatever the reason, the fresh, dry wines produced in Cassis today team particularly well with the fish and seafood that dominate its cuisine.
Cassis was one of the first wine-making regions of France to be accorded an Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC), a legally defined and protected geographical indication which identifies where the grapes for a wine are grown. Alongside Châteauneuf du Pape and Tavel, Cassis was named an AOC region in 1936.
WINE TOURISM IN CASSIS
The town has a one-day wine-festival called Cassis fête son vin in mid-May which generally features a wine-makers' mass in provençal at the Church of Saint Michel (pictured), traditional folk-dances in honour of the vine, wine-tasting and an open-air picnic.
There is a second, glitzier event in late September. Previously known simply as La Fête du Vin or La Fête des Vendages, it has moved up a notch or two in the world since 2010, when it was renamed, rather more grandly, Les Vendanges Etoilées (The Starry Grape Harvest).
The "starry" bit refers to the Michelin-starred chefs who give cookery demonstrations and supervise the snacks on offer. In the past these have included Alain Passard of L'Arpège in Paris and Jean-Marc Banzo, formerly of the Cassis restaurant La Villa Madie.
The 2016 Vendanges Etoilées ran from 23-25 September and was quite an ambitious affair with no fewer than 35 top chefs cooking up a storm on the harbour front, cookery demonstrations and lessons for children and adults, open air banquets, a gourmet farmers' market and more. Website for Les Vendanges Etoilées
In the centre of Cassis, the family-run Le Chai Cassidain sells wines by the bottle as well as by the glass and is a popular place for locals to drop by in the early evening when apéritifs come with tasty free home-made snacks. Le Chai Cassidain, 6 rue Docteur Severin Icard, 13260 Cassis. Tel: (+33) 4 42 01 99 80.
Slightly out of town, La Maison des Vins offers a vast selection of wines from Cassis and Provence and will also ship abroad on demand. La Maison des Vins, route de Marseille, 13260 Cassis. Tel: (+33) 4 42 01 15 61. Website for La Maison des Vins
Finally, below we have listed links to the individual vineyards of Cassis. Click here for the appellation's general website.
TWO VINEYARDS OF CASSIS
Today Cassis wine is produced in 12 vineyards, which range in size from six to 40 hectares (15 to 99 acres) and are all located in the hills immediately around the little town. Because of the lie of the land, many of them sit on steep terraces marked out by stone walls (called restanques locally). They are overlooked by Cap Canaille and, in their turn, look south towards the sea.
The sea breezes give the wine a faintly briny quality as well as cooling the grapes and maintaining good levels of humidity, much needed since the area enjoys over 3,000 hours of sun a year.
The Cassis terroir (that mysterious combination of factors which combine to create the character of a wine) is completed by the area's limestone soil.
We visited two of the vineyards in Cassis, although all of them are open to visitors, except for the Domaine de la Dona (it was founded in 1999 by the footballer Jean Tigana and only sells its produce to restaurants and wine merchants).
If planning to visit, especially out of the main tourist season, it is always advisable to telephone ahead.
One of the first vineyards to be re-established in Cassis after the phylloxera epidemic, the Château de Fontblanche was founded in the early 20th century by Emile Bodin. Bodin was a member of the Félibrige movement to defend the provencal language and culture and a close friend of its head, Frédéric Mistral, who dedicated a flowery poem ("Even the bee's honey is not sweeter") to the wines of Cassis.
Pictured above, the Fontblanche estate is situated a little inland, under the omnipresent Cap Canaille. Bodin's great-grandson, Nicolas Bontoux, who now runs it, gestures towards a distant cement factory and tells us that the campaign to stop it from being built too close to the vines inspired his combative great-grandfather to found his own newspaper.
In common with other Cassis vineyards, Fontblanche focusses on white wines, of which it makes three. One of them is the tangy and unusual Cuvée Notre Dame des Lumières which Monsieur Bontoux (pictured) developed in 2009 in collaboration with Jean-Marc Banzo, the Michelin-starred chef formerly based at La Villa Madie.
However, wine consumption in restaurants has dwindled somewhat, partly due to economic pressures and partly because of France's increasingly tough drink-driving laws.
In Cassis, only two roads lead out of town, Bontoux says, and so it's easy for the police to lie in ambush for drivers who are over the limit.
Fontblanche also makes one rosé wine and one red. Asked why no-one in Cassis produces sparkling wines, Monsieur Bontoux explains that wine-makers often do this to use up a grape surplus, unnecessary in Cassis where production is so small and demand so high.
However, he confides that he has considered trying to make an old-style Cassis sweet dessert wine just as an experiment and would also like to develop a more complex red wine that would improve with aging (local reds are unexpectedly good, but are best drunk young).
Our second vineyard visit was to the Clos Sainte Magdeleine, right on the edge of town just beyond La Villa Madie (you could easily walk to it from the harbour).
It's superbly situated (aerial view, pictured) with both flat and terraced vineyards right on the sea, and an Art Deco mansion, pictured below, in gardens planted with oleander bushes and almond and olive trees.
Vines have been cultivated on this land since the 14th century, allowing it to lay claim to being the oldest vineyard in town. The previous owner, Jules Savon, was, alongside Emile Bodin, the driving force behind the revival of Cassis's vineyards after the phylloxera epidemic.
In the same family for four generations, the Clos Sainte Magdeleine today produces around 50,000 bottles of white and rosé wine a year (no reds), of which around 25% is exported abroad. In 2012 it received the "label bio", an official certification limiting the use of pesticides.
Extensive building works were undertaken in 2011-2012, at the end of which the underground cellars were thoroughly modernised and a large tasting room completed. Its proximity to the town centre makes the Clos Sainte Magdeleine ideal for individual visits though it's particularly well set up for tour groups.
We've mapped out other wine routes in Provence with vineyards that offer tastings. Click here for a list of suggested wine routes and maps in both Northern and Southern Provence.
Click here for our general guides to the wines of Southern Provence and the wines of Northern Provence here for our guide to the very different wines of nearby Bandol and here for ten fun facts about provençal rosé.
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You may also find this Wines of Provence IGN Map useful if you are planning to drive around wineries in the region.
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Le Clos Val Bruyère, Château Barbanau, 13830 Roquefort. Tel: (+33) 4 42 73 14 60. Website for Le Clos Val Bruyère
Château de Fontblanche, Route de Carnoux, 13260 Cassis. Tel: (+33) 4 42 01 00 11. Website for the Château de Fontblanche
Château de Fontcreuse, 13 route Pierre Imbert, 13260 Cassis. Tel: (+33) 4 42 01 71 09. Website for the Château de Fontcreuse
Domaine de la Ferme Blanche, RD 559, 13260 Cassis. Tel: (+33) 4 42 01 00 74.
Clos d'Albizzi, Ferme Saint Vincent, avenue des Albizzi, 13260 Cassis. Tel: (+33) 4 42 01 11 43. Website for the Clos d'Albizzi
Domaine du Bagnol, 12 avenue de Provence, 13260 Cassis. Tel: (+33) 4 42 01 78 05. Website for the Domaine de Bagnol
Domaine Saint Louis, chemin de la Dona, 13260 Cassis. Tel: (+33) 4 42 01 07 26.
Domaine Couronne de Charlemagne, quartier les Janots, 13260 Cassis. Tel: (+33) 4 42 01 15 83. Website for the Domaine Couronne de Charlemagne
Le Clos Sainte Magdeleine, avenue du Revestel, 13260 Cassis. Tel: (+33) 4 42 01 70 28. Website for Le Clos Sainte Magdeleine
Domaine du Paternel, 11 route Pierre Imbert, 13260 Cassis. Tel: (+33) 4 42 01 77 03. Website for the Domaine du Paternel
Domaine des Quatre Vents, route de la Gare, 13260 Cassis. Tel: (+33) 4 42 01 01 12.
Domaine de la Dona, 25 avenue Pierre Imbert, 13260 Cassis. Website for the Domaine de la Dona