Two bottles of Cassis overlaid on a vineyard photo from Cassis AOC in Provence, France

First-Taste Guide to Cassis Wine

Get to Know Some of the Most Mediterranean-Influenced White Wines in Europe

10 min read

As one of the origin six appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) for wine production in France, the small but compelling enclave of Cassis represents a different side to Provence wine: namely, white wines from a distinct terroir. In this First-Taste Guide by wine writer, photographer and French Wine Scholar Kevin Day, we take a look at what you can expect from Cassis wine (not the liqueur of the same name), with special insights from local winemaker Jonathan Sack-Zafiropulo of Clos Sainte Magdeleine, and the current President of the AOC.

About Opening a Bottle: Wine Bottles Illustration

While Provençal rosé is often called “yacht wine,” in Cassis, you actually see yachts from the vineyard.

To understand the wines of Cassis and why they are special, it helps to first envision the drama that has blessed its geography. Like a two-mile wide amphitheater facing the Mediterranean Sea, Cassis is hemmed in by cliffs and tussled by a persistent wind. To the east, rising 1,294 feet above the water, is Cap Canaille, an ochre-colored seacliff whose height is second only to Gibraltar in the Mediterranean Basin. To the west, the stark white crags of the Parc National des Calanques separate Cassis from Marseille like a serrated knife blade of coastline.

It is no wonder that Cassis feels detached from the rest of Provence. Its harbor may be ideal, but this is not a place you go to feel connected to the rest of the world. As a result, it is a massively popular vacation destination.

Clos Sainte Madeleine vineyards and Cap Canaille in Cassis, France.
The scenic and ideally situated vineyards at Clos Sainte Madeleine take in an impressive view of Cap Canaille in Cassis, France. ©Kevin Day/Opening a Bottle

It was that notion which appealed most to my wife and I when we visited last fall. We were celebrating an anniversary, and the fact that Cassis had wine was a secondary consideration: we wanted to see the Calanques, a network of white-cliff fjords bedazzled by turquoise waters. (And they did not disappoint).

But on an afternoon tour of Clos Sainte Magdeleine, I quickly came to appreciate the little-known white wines that come from the area. Reflecting Cassis’ individualistic stance toward the rest of Provence, the white wines are light, focused and tinged with a salty note you can’t ignore. While red and rosé wines are allowed under the AOC rules, they are uncommon, hard to find, and really not a focus for growers in the area. So let’s dive into the turquoise-tinged waters and discover Cassis wine.

View of the white cliffs of the Parc National des Calanques just west of Cassis, France in Provence
The Parc National des Calanques as viewed from the sea. ©Kevin Day/Opening a Bottle

3 Reasons to Try Cassis Wine

  1. Taste Something at the Nexus of Soil and Sea – Want to see if the notion of minerality carries over to French wines beyond Chablis? Those of Cassis often carry a sensation akin to subtle salinity, which is a testament to the unique terroir and position of the tiny AOC’s vineyards.
  2. Go Beyond Pink in Provence – Provence is France’s oldest wine region, yet often mired in a morass of sameness thanks to the rosé boom. Cassis has held on to something special thanks to its isolation and unique terroir. That endurance is worth encountering.
  3. Bend the Rules in Your Kitchen – The white wines of Cassis are never going to steal the spotlight from cuisine. Their very nature is to support and enhance a variety of cuisines, especially those that place a premium on ingredients from the sea.

What is Cassis Wine?

The Cassis AOC is a French appellation of protection origin that covers white, red and rosé wines from a small enclave of vineyards on the coast of Provence, a mere eight miles southeast of Marseille. There are only 215 hectares of vines in Cassis, with about 1 million bottles produced annually. Seventy-one percent of the wines are white, 26% are rosé and only 3% are red.

For white wines, a minimum 60% of the final blend must be comprised of Marsanne and Clairette, while the remainder can be complemented by Ugni Blanc, Bourboulenc, Sauvignon Blanc and Pascal Blanc. However, given the limestone-rich soils and coastal terroir, the best Cassis wines say more about the tension between nervy acidity and medium weight on the palate, than they do about grape variety flavor.

It is important to note that Cassis wine has nothing to do with Crème de cassis, the blackcurrant liqueur most closely associated with Bourgogne.

About the Appellation and Its Wines

So how is it that in a region awash with rosé wine, Cassis came to be known for white wines? That single question covers most of what you need to know about Cassis wine, for the answer lies both in the region’s history and nature.

View of Cassis wine cellar and overview of the vineyards from up high.
At Clos Sainte Magdeleine (left), a variety of techniques are being explored to push the boundaries of Cassis’ terroir (right). ©Kevin Day/Opening a Bottle

History of Cassis Wine

Provence lays claim to the longest viticultural history in France … and Cassis is believed to be one of those original vineyard areas.

Cassis has played an enormous role in the history of French wine, having served as “one of the first” at three different, vitally important milestones. Primary of these landmarks is the very beginnings of French winemaking.

Provence lays claim to the longest viticultural history in France, thanks to Greek settlers more than 2,600 years ago who established present-day Marseille and introduced viticultural for wine. With its natural harbor and south-facing amphitheater of slopes, nearby Cassis is believed to be one of those original vineyard areas. Furthermore, amphorae found in the Bay of Cassis has provided archaeological evidence of an ancient wine trade.

But the wines of today owe their pale color to a Medieval pivot. Jonathan Sack-Zafiropulo told me that in 1523, the arrival of a noble family from Florence would change the course of viticulture in Cassis dramatically.

“The Albizzi family were in a fight with the Medici family, and they had been banned from Florence,” he said. “The whole family took a boat and fled across the Mediterranean, and they arrived in Cassis. And what were they doing [for winemaking]? Muscat, sweet white wine. They introduced this culture to Cassis.”

The culture of planting white grapes for wine persisted into the 19th century, but another pivot was in store. A nasty one.

The sloped vineyards of Cassis AOC in Provence, France
Cap Canaille (upper left) and the sloped vineyards of the Cassis AOC. Some vineyards require terracing to be managed. ©Kevin Day/Opening a Bottle

In 1865, Cassis’ would be among the first wine regions in Europe to show evidence of phylloxera, an invasive species of root louse that was accidentally imported from America. Over decades, the scourge would spread across nearly all of Europe and decimate the continent’s vines, which had no natural immunity to the pest. The technique of grafting vines to phylloxera-resistant American rootstock ultimately saved the wine industry, but it prompted a monumental effort in replanting. In Cassis, this meant that Marsanne, Clairette and Ugni Blanc would largely replace Muscat, and a dry style of wine prevailed.

In the early 20th century, industry trade groups around France rallied around the idea of establishing official appellations to protect the origin, production and authentication of place-named wines. L’Institut National de l’Origine et de la Qualité (INAO) was created and in 1936, Cassis was one of the first six Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) created.

Soil and Sea

“The reason why we are producing mainly white wines in Cassis is because we are completely open on the sea.”
Jonathan Sack-Zafiropulo

“In my opinion, the reason why we are producing mainly white wines in Cassis is because we are completely open on the sea,” Jonathan Sack-Zafiropulo told me when we discussed his wines. “And because of this, we have a very interesting freshness with the sea breeze.”

Sack-Zafiropulo should know as well as anyone, as one of his spectacular vineyards juts out onto a small peninsula just southeast of the Cassis harbor. It is among the most dramatic vineyards I’ve seen: The reddish cliffs of Cap Canaille loom over the entire scene, while tranquil azure waters lap at the peninsula’s bluffs below. (While Provençal rosé is often called “yacht wine,” in Cassis, you actually see yachts from the vineyard).

“The limestone we have in Cassis used to be the deepest part of the ocean hundreds of millions of years ago,” said Jonathan Sack-Zafiropulo. “So with the movement of earth, it just went up. So you have an original minerality in the ground.”

Sack believes that this soil is the primary reason why Cassis is devoted so fervently to white white grapes. A sort of when life gives you limestone, make white wine mentality. But furthermore, it is a practical matter.

The old town of Cassis, France and an old vine in the vineyards.
Old town and old vines: a duality of visiting Cassis in Provence. ©Kevin Day/Opening a Bottle

“The terraces of limestone are very poor land — probably too poor to make a red wine,” noted Sack-Zafiropulo. Since rosé depends upon red grapes, Cassis’ rosé wine can only reach its potential in select parcels where the soil fosters the right development.

I wanted to know if the proximity of the sea had anything to do with Cassis’ inherent quality of minerality, too, especially within the vines at Clos Sainte-Magdeleine, which are less than 100 feet away from the sea on two sides.

“Every day, we have the wind from the sea, and the wind can bring — during the summer time when the grapes have grown — a little bit of iodine to the skin of the grapes,” confirmed Sack-Zafiropulo. “But it is not [like that] every year. It depends on the wind, and the conditions we have. If it is raining a lot, it will clean all of that. If it is not raining, you will have that [salinity note] all the time.”

The Cuisine of Cassis

The last reason for Cassis’ white-wine preference lies in the local cuisine: Cassis is a catch-of-the-day kind of town, with daily hauls from the Mediterranean Sea infusing the local menus. Complementing fish and squid, you’ll find also find seasonal produce such as zucchini, tomatoes as well as olive tapenades and olive oil, leading to a diet that is heart-healthy and fresh.

Of course, you could serve rosé with such fare during a visit to Cassis, but given all the elements of terroir listed above, why would you?

Your First Taste

Despite its millennia-long history, Cassis has shown a willingness to adapt with the times, and as a result, it is likely a wine region to watch over the next few years. For one, of the 10 producers in the AOC, nine of them are certified organic. Secondly, as more resources are being invested into understanding the terroir, the wines stand to benefit further.

“In the past decades, most of the wineries made a big investment to renovate their cellar, and all that you need to make a wine,” Sack-Zafiropulo told me. “Which means that it’s almost impossible now to have a bad wine. You can have a wine that maybe is not to your taste, or which is not perfect, but for me, the average of the production is much better now than 10 to 15 years ago.”

Cassis wine tastes less fruity than many of the white wines we often enjoy, but that lends it a certain kind of versatility to food pairings that I think is a bonus. In my tasting notes, the words “stony” and “mineral” usually come first, followed by notions of pineapple-like fruit that is crisp and bright. There is typically a medium weight on the palate, but a decidedly light personality. In terms of depth, you’re snorkeling, not scuba diving with these wines, but don’t be surprised if an older vintage of 4 or 5 years offers more complexity than a fresh release. Below are three of my favorites for a first taste.

Selection of Cassis wines from the Cassis AOC.

2022 Clos Sainte Magdeleine Cassis Blanc

   

Clos Sainte Magdeleine’s mainstay wine (★★★★ 1/2) sees a blend of Marsanne (40%), Ugni Blanc (30%) and Clairette (25%) with a touch of Bourboulenc. This wine is bright and direct with a highly mineral nose decked in lemon peel and pineapple, with thyme-like herbaceousness. Fresh and broad on the palate with a faint bitterness and sour interplay, the wine is wildly mineral yet streamlined.

2022 Domaine du Partenel Cassis Blanc

   

Another good candidate for your first taste of Cassis wine is Domaine du Partenel’s version (★★★★ 3/4) . There is a slightly greener fruit profile here, with the herbaceous note veering more towards the fresh rather than resinous. I particularly liked how the wine’s minerality held everything together through the finish. This Cassis-based estate also makes a Bandol Rouge.

2021 Clos Sainte Magdeleine “Bel-Arme” Cassis Blanc

     

For a broader-shoulder taste of Cassis with some complexity, this wine (★★★★ 3/4) is the next logical step. “Bel-Arme” sees even more Marsanne in the blend than Clos Sainte Magdeleine’s entry-level wine, thanks to a precious holding of 60-year-old vines, and that seems to give the wine more intensity of aroma and flavor. A profile of minerality overlaying pineapple and citrus fruit, resinous herbs and a faint bitter-sour dichotomy make it highly intriguing.

 

Note: Interview quotes were condensed and edited for clarity. The two Clos Sainte Magdeleine wines were tasted as samples and again at the winery during an independently scheduled press visit. Learn more about our editorial policy.

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