High above the hills of Nice, past the crowded villages frequented by tourists, is the small commune of Saint-Jeannet. Nestled among the grand limestone baous (Provençal word meaning steep rock), Saint-Jeannet sits perched like a jewel with stunning views to the sea. Built sometime in the 11th century during the High Middle Ages, the village is privy to a beguiling history. There are prehistoric and oppidum sites amid the baous, hidden caves where villagers took refuge in times of trouble, and local lore of witchcraft. Fans of Alfred Hitchcock may recognize John Robie’s villa in scenes from the 1955 classic To Catch a Thief, starring Cary Grant and Grace Kelly.
The journey to Saint-Jeannet (about two and a half hours driving from Marseille) requires some grit. On the drive up the hill, there are non-stop hairpin curves and what look like bottomless ledges. Holding our breath and white-knuckled all the way, we arrive at our destination, Vignoble Rasse, a small family vineyard just below the village. We are here to participate in the final grape harvest and festival of the year, known locally as L’acabado. Greeted with a robust welcome, unlike the formal domaines of Bordeaux or Bourgogne, this vineyard immediately feels intimate. People mingle over coffee and pastries in the kitchen. A dog chases chickens throughout the vines.
For three generations, the Rasse family has tended the vines on this land. Their vineyard, however, dates much farther back in time. A prehistoric site, Collet du Mourre, which was reoccupied in Gallo-Roman times, is within shouting distance from the vines. The remains of two Roman stone presses rest nearby an olive grove on the property. Legend has it that one massive olive tree is approximately 2000 years old. History is palpable here.
This weekend, we are meeting with the Rasses and a group of about 70 friends and volunteers who gather annually for the harvest and celebration. The family currently grows seventeen varieties of grapes on the vineyard and produces red, white and rosé wines. The pride of their production, Baussum, a grand reserve red; intense garnet and vermilion to the eye, is made from a blend of their finest Syrah, Cabernet, and Merlot grapes. Aged in the traditional method in a cellar for a total of six years, it finishes with notes of blackcurrant, wild blackberry, grilled almond and licorice.
We are here this weekend however, to get an education on their Tuilé wines; a unique tradition that is the utter opposite of everything most of us have learned about wine making. The process is so contrary to the norm that the Provençal term is “Vin de Fada” which translates to “Bewitched Wine.”
Manuel, the eldest Rasse son, describes the technique. Instead of aging the wine in barrels in a cool, dark cellar, the pressed juice is put into clear, glass vessels called dames-jeannes and placed directly into the sun on the tile rooftop, hence the name tuilé (meaning “tiled”). The result is an aromatic, oxidative wine, rich in color. Oxidative wines are intentionally exposed to oxygen to create a more complex product, with notes of caramel and dry nuts, spicy and smokey; however, a refined knowledge and careful attention are required for this technique. The rosé is fermented for 3-5 months and the red for one year. These wines have recently gained popularity because of a renewed interest in artisanal processes.
Manuel remarks on the flavor, “The red reminds you of Sherry or Port, but it is not a sweet wine. The rosé is similar to Armagnac. It is not a wine for every day, but for a special occasion.” Tuilés pair very well with rich or spicy dishes. Indian, Mexican or tagines go well with the red. Blue or gorgonzola cheese is delicious with the with the rosé; also very good with foie gras as an alternative to Sauternes. We are eager to have a taste, but the harvest is the priority this morning. We hit the vines along with the Rasses and their posse.
The story of the Rasse family can only be described as legendary. Denis Rasse, Manuel’s father, is one of thirteen children. His mother, Danielle, is 95 years old and still lives in the original home near the olive grove. His father, René, planted wine grapes where there were only table grapes before, but it was Denis who started the tradition of Tuilé wines.
Denis met his wife, Luz, quite serendipitously when he was asked to give her a ride to the airport after she visited France from her home in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He begrudgingly agreed, then changed his tune when they met eyes. Today, the charming couple are business partners and parents to four children who are all involved in the family business.
Denis and Manuel oversee the farming side of the business and work reciprocally with Manuel’s girlfriend, Lucia Abdala, who serves as the resident oenophile. The two met in Mendoza, Argentina when Manuel traveled there to work in a vineyard. Lucia oversees the blending and fermentation process. The other children, Teo, Marie Émilie, and Nicolas collaborate with Luz organizing tastings, events and promotion. The family emphasizes the balance between the roles of the men and the women and what each brings to the table. All is egalitarian and nothing is decided without a consensus.
As we make our way through the rows of vines, cutting the last of the grapes, Manuel explains to us that they farm using biodynamic viticulture, a holistic method that considers the life of the soil, the roots, the leaves and the fruit. Vignoble Rasse sits 400 meters above sea level, in the shadow of the Baou Saint-Jeannet, the vines planted in nutrient rich clay. Plentiful sun, day and night temperatures that vary by around 10-15 degrees, is an ideal climate for red reserve wines. The baou is the source of a natural spring system and the clay soil retains water, so the vineyard is self watering. In 70 years, the family has never once watered the vines until this year. With the severe drought this summer, watering was necessary to save the younger vines with shallower roots. Manuel tells us, “The most critical time of the year is the harvest. The pruning, preparation of soil, tasting, and watching the weather; the harvest requires the most focus of any time during the year.”
A beautiful October light graces us this weekend. The temperature is summer like and we have worked up quite an appetite. It doesn’t take long with all hands on deck before the cutting is finished and the harvest is complete. Now the feast begins!
We see an incredible spread of food coming out of the kitchen and placed on tables outside. There is a big fire pit ablaze in honor of the Argentine side of the family, and beef asado is grilling. Luz carries a platter with homemade polenta and tomato sauce. And of course there is fresh chimichurri to accompany the asado. A large table with homemade pies awaits us for dessert.
Teo, the Rasse’s second son, greets us, wine in hand, and as we clink our glasses to celebrate the day, he cheers, “Longo Maï!” When we ask what this means, he tells us it is a Provençal expression meaning “May it Last” and the motto of Saint-Jeannet. People take their seats. Family and friends relax under the Mediterranean sun. We hear mostly French and Spanish being spoken, but there are guests from all over the world – Argentina, Peru, Canada, Spain, and Germany and Texas, USA. We all dig in to the feast before us.
The renowned French poet and screenwriter, Jacques Prévert, visited Saint-Jeannet in 1950 for the grape festival. He was so enamored with the place that he wrote a long poem, entitled, Vignette Pour les Vignerons. This small excerpt perfectly describes our delightful weekend at Vignoble Rasse.
“Nothing but sun and shade
caressing all the trees
nothing but life embracing the countryside
nothing but the blood of the vines
with its red grains its white grains
flowing in the body of the earth
Nothing but the voices of men and women
questioning each other
answering each other
Nothing but the voices of animals and birds
and of children
It’s a party in
This article was originally published on November 02, 2022.
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