The picturesque stone village of Villars-sur-Var lies a thirty-minute drive north of Nice, in the heart of the Provençal pre-Alps. Perched high above the banks of the Var River and surrounded by massive limestone façades, the town is an oasis of vineyards amid dense woodland and craggy bluffs: Villars has a long tradition of winemaking, and many residents still vinify a barrel or two every year for home consumption. Roch Sassi of Clos Saint-Joseph is the only grower to bottle any wine eked from these incredibly rocky slopes. His wines fall under the Côtes de Provence appellation, even though the much cooler terroir here has little relation to the rest of the AOC. Villars, in fact, represents a secluded island of Côtes de Provence that enjoys a unique microclimate, the dry Mediterranean heat buffered by cold air currents flowing down from the surrounding mountains. These conditions allow for full ripening at remarkably low alcohol levels, maintaining bright acidity and lively fruit in the wines. A proud ambassador of Villars’ winemaking history, Roch farms his five hectares organically and also has introduced biodynamic practices, such as the use of herbal preparations to boost the vines’ immunity and ward off disease. Rigor in the vineyard means top-quality raw material and less need for intervention in the cellar: “I don’t like working in the cave,” Roch jokes. Accordingly, his wines are fermented naturally and bottled unfined with little or no filtration. Thanks to this rare combination of an exceptional terroir with meticulous viticulture and tasteful, pragmatic winemaking, it was love at first sniff with the wines of Clos Saint-Joseph. Upon first dipping my nose into a glass of this blanc, it became instantly clear that this is unlike any Provençal white I had ever encountered. A delicate aroma of flowers in bloom prefaces its textural fullness—a fleshy complement to the precision and stoniness conferred by this remote terroir. It leaves the palate with a mouthwatering salinity that is all too often lacking in southern whites. The blend features Rolle, Ugni Blanc, Sémillon, and Clairette, fermented and aged in a combination of barriques, demi-muids, and cement cuves.
Roch Sassi of Clos Saint-Joseph (named for his great-grandfather) is the only grower to bottle any wine eked from these incredibly rocky slopes. His wines fall under the Côtes de Provence appellation, even though the much cooler terroir here has little relation to the rest of the AOC. Villars in fact represents an isolated enclave of Côtes de Provence that enjoys a unique microclimate, the dry heat buffered by cold air currents from the surrounding mountains. These conditions allow for full ripening at remarkably low alcohol levels, maintaining lively fruit and bright acidity in the wines.
Perhaps there is no region more closely aligned with the history to Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant than Provence. Provence is where Richard Olney, an American ex-pat and friend of Alice Waters, lived, and introduced Kermit to the great producers of Provence, most importantly Domaine Tempier of Bandol. Kermit also spends upwards of half his year at his home in a small town just outside of Bandol.
Vitis vinifera first arrived in France via Provence, landing in the modern day port city of Marseille in the 6th century BC. The influence of terroir on Provençal wines goes well beyond soil types. The herbs from the pervasive scrubland, often referred to as garrigue, as well as the mistral—a cold, drying wind from the northwest that helps keep the vines free of disease—play a significant role in the final quality of the grapes. Two more elements—the seemingly ever-present sun and cooling saline breezes from the Mediterranean—lend their hand in creating a long growing season that result in grapes that are ripe but with good acidity.
Rosé is arguably the most well known type of wine from Provence, but the red wines, particularly from Bandol, possess a great depth of character and ability to age. The white wines of Cassis and Bandol offer complexity and ideal pairings for the sea-influenced cuisine. Mourvèdre reigns king for red grapes, and similar to the Languedoc and Rhône, Grenache, Cinsault, Marsanne, Clairette, Rolle, Ugni Blanc among many other grape varieties are planted.
Trust the great winemakers, trust the great vineyards. Your wine merchant might even be trustworthy. In the long run, that vintage strip may be the least important guide to quality on your bottle of wine.—Kermit Lynch
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