If you close your eyes and imagine the reds of Provence, you may think of sunny, robust wines that, when young, can startle you with a tannic uppercut if you’re not expecting it. These are reds that can certainly offer much joy early on—depending on vintage, decanting, and how much you like to spar with a burly wine—but pay the biggest dividends a few or more years down the road. By contrast, the reds of Clos Saint-Joseph are complete and gorgeous right out of the gate. I did not anticipate this level of finesse when our staff tasted them for the first time in Berkeley last spring. I frankly didn’t know what to expect, as there are a few features that make this domaine and wine an enigma at first glance. To start, fourth-generation vigneron Roch Sassi is the only producer to bottle his own wine in the village of Villars-sur-Var, 30 minutes north of Nice. Most of the village’s historic, but miniscule 30 hectares of vines are farmed and harvested for the locals’ own personal consumption. Second, this slice of pre-Alps Provence is a sort of satellite, located 100 miles to the east of the rest of the Côtes de Provence appellation, with which it has very little in common: tucked in among rocky, limestone mountains that shield it from the Mediterranean heat, Villars-sur-Var enjoys a much cooler microclimate than most of its peers. Third, Roch’s style of farming—manual, biodynamic—and all-natural winemaking is the exception to the rule in an appellation that has such a global, large-scale demand. Finally, “Saint-Joseph” in the domaine’s name might be confusing if it makes you think of the appellation Saint-Joseph, in the Northern Rhône. There is beautiful Syrah in Roch Sassi’s rouge, but this grape and “Saint-Joseph” are the only overlapping points with the appellation 200 miles away—the name is, instead, for Roch’s great-grandfather Joseph. Our second shipment from Clos Saint-Joseph arrived recently and the 2016 Côtes de Provence rouge is a princely wine. What you have is a crowd-pleaser brimming with class, inviting contemplation, but by no means requiring it. This is a red that has a little of something for all wine lovers. Do you go crazy for the savory aspect of Syrahs from the Northern Rhône? Enjoy a gentle wildness that Grenache and Mourvèdre can bring, like in the wines of Châteaneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas, and Pic Saint-Loup? Do you love the bright, vivid fruit and stony tannins of mountain wines? Somehow, this red has it all, in perfect, mouth-watering, 13%-alcohol proportion.
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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