Cassis: Along the Côte d’Azur
by Michel Thibault, Co-Owner of Michel Thibault Wine
The 30 minute drive from Aix-en-Provence to Cassis is a nice warm up to what you’ll discover thereafter. The freeway takes you through the Soubeyran Cliffs and as you exit the highway, the road winds down toward the city, with a plunging view over miles of terraced vineyards, all seeming to use the last spots of cultivable land over the rocks.
Make a quick left and opt for the “Route des Cretes” (mountaintop road). The crest of the mountain will offer you unbelievable views from Cap Canaille extending across all the calanques (small inlets along the coast). The seawater within the calanques is aqua green and the sides are completely vertical stone walls where nothing grows except for “parasite pines” — trees that are obstinate enough to grow from within the rock!
Before you get to the mountaintop though, you’ll see a beautiful vineyard and a large sign indicating Clos Sainte-Magdeleine. The vineyards look as if they want to throw themselves into the sparkling sea below and the green to azure color patterns are just stunning.
The vineyards here were started by the Romans, as is the case in most of Southern France. The appellation “Cassis” is tiny and most of the wines are consumed in the town below — by locals and tourists lucky enough to visit this sparkling azure paradise.
Clos Sainte-Magdeleine is owned by the Sack- Zafiropulos family, who are working the vineyard organically.
Major grape varietals in the primary white wine, Clos Sainte-Magdeleine, include Marsanne and Ugni Blanc (first varietal planted in Cassis) with the addition of Clairette and Bourboulenc. Try it with the fresh grilled or baked catch of the day in the harbor restaurants. Our favorites are Le Maison de Nino and Le Gran Bleu — both sit right on the harbor, with gorgeous views of the sea and passersby.
You have to believe in the symbiotic relationship between this wine grown on the hillsides, falling into the sea, and the fresh fish brought to your table — whether Sole, spotted Seabass or John Dory. The wine is of course citrusy, but also slightly salty, with nice austerity and freshness galore. Additionally, it cuts and absorbs the oils from the fish to perfection.
Technically, the lees are reintroduced into the wine before racking and the wine spends almost a year in stainless steel. The white does go through malolactic fermentation. Vines average about 20-30 years of age.
There is a second, more expensive white wine produced — the Cassis Bel Arme. What is particular about it, is that in the blend there is much more Marsanne, and the vines are 40 or so years old, or about 10-15 years older than the ones used in the regular Cassis. Batonnage is used for this wine which is bottled unfined and unfiltered. YUMMY! The Bel Arme truly is a serious wine, made to accompany sophisticated and elegant dishes.
The Cassis Rosé is produced in even tinier quantities and made from Grenache and Cinsault in equal parts and the balance in Mourvèdre. There is no malolactic fermentation for the Rosé, which is held in stainless steel for about 8 months. Vines are 15 to 25 years old. We drank this wine with seafood appetizers at cocktail hour and it did not fold under the weight of the food as some Rosés do.
Cassis is one of the last villages on the coastline where movie-star-looking tourists have not changed the overall landscape. Sure, there are lots of visitors because the village is so charming. But, this is still one of the jewels of the Mediterranean Sea and Clos Sainte-Magdeleine Cassis shines ever more!