By Chantal Sarrazin
A drop of white in an ocean of rosé: the image of Cassis is deeply entrenched. Influenced by the Mediterranean climate, these white wines are infused with minerality drawn from the clay and limestone soil. At Clos Sainte-Magdeleine, this feature is amplified by the élevage.
Seen from above, Clos Sainte-Magdeleine in Cassis looks like an emerald-green towel spread on a white beach. All around the vines is the intense blue of the Mediterranean. Here and there the silvery leaves of olive trees provide a contrast to the azure landscape. This is not a mere vacation spot—it is heaven on earth! “The sea enfolds our vineyards on every side,” smiles Jonathan Sack-Zafiropulo, whose eyes are as blue as the water. He is one of just eleven producers in Cassis, a Lilliputian appellation of 210 hectares with its toes in the water that is flanked by the Cap Canaille to the east and the Massif des Calanques to the west. Our host, the fourth generation to run the extraordinary Clos Sainte-Magdeleine, shares his family’s story. “My great-grandfather bought it in 1920 from a négociant in Marseille. He was from a Greek family of shipowners.” This little story ties into the big one. At the same time they were founding Marseille, the Greeks were also planting the first vines in thebay ofCassis, over 2000 years ago. “This is one of the earliest confirmed vineyards inProvence,” Jonathan proudly notes. What were the wines like at that time? No one knows…. But Cassis has since found its voice, or rather its color: white. Three of every four bottles here are a lemony color, while all their Provençal neighbors are blushing.
The change came after Phylloxera wiped out the vineyards in the mid-19th century, when vignerons replanted to white grapes. This choice helped them to obtain AOC status on May 15th, 1936, along with the pioneering Sauternes and Châteauneuf-du-Pape. It also placed Marsanne in the spotlight: this variety now constitutes 30-60% of all white Cassis. “They chose it because they wanted a white grape that wasn’t grown anywhere else in the region,” Jonathan says. “It comes from the north and adapted very well to the seaside. It gives round, fleshy wines that develop honeyed notes on the finish as they age.” At Clos Sainte-Magdeleine this grape shares the clayey seaside with Ugni Blanc. Jonathan’s grandfather and father also planted Marsanne on the terraced vineyards on the side of the Cap Canaille,France’s highest maritime cliff. At400 meters altitude these parcels are colder and rockier. With more limestone here and less clay, the vines are forced to send their roots deep into the earth.
These vines are less generous than on the flat land, yielding barely 30 hectoliters per hectare. At these heights we also find more Ugni Blanc, a little Bourboulenc, and some Clairette, which prefers the cooler temperatures here. Sainte-Magdeleine’s whites are a blend of the two terroirs, with the Marsanne providing structure and the Clairette contributing acidity. Though the vigneron wishes Rolle and Grenache Blanc were permitted in this appellation, he has learned to expand his palate. In two years he will plant Sauvignon, whose fruit aromas will hone the wine’s profile. “We had some in the past, but it ripened before the other varieties so we ripped it out. Now that our cellar equipment has evolved we can handle that challenge.” While waiting for that aromatic boost, the best of the region is already concentrated in the estate’s white wine: a floral bouquet with a mineral touch, a rich, fleshy mouthfeel, and fresh undertones of citrus, spices, and a hint of iodine. “The iodine flavor is the marker of the wines from this appellation,” Jonathan Sack-Zafiropulo explains. “It comes from the ocean spray that leaves its salt on the grapes.”
There are other advantages to having the sea so close by: the breezes that waft through the vineyards restrict the spread of mildew and oidium. Sainte-Magdeleine therefore converted to organic agriculture easily. The estate was officially certified on January 1st, 2012. And other producers have made the same choice—almost half of the appellation’s vineyards are now worked organically. Jonathan dreams that one day the appellation will be 100% organic. After all, the vineyards are within the newly established Calanques National Park…
In order to bring out the Cassis character, the white wines are matured in neutral vats. Two vintages, the 2010 and 2009 (14€), are currently available. Over time, the precious minerality will become more prominent, along with notes of iodine, honey, and citrus. The freshness will last, bringing elegance and taking on a spicy character. Right now, the 2009 is more ethereal than its successor. “Our white wines go perfectly with fish and shellfish from the Mediterranean,” notes the vigneron. “With age, they marry well with delicately spicy dishes and Japanese cuisine.” These unusual nectars make Cassis a unique spot that is not to be missed when visiting Provence!