An Unexpected Find: An Urban Winery in Marseille, France

This story originally appeared in the Napa Valley Register.

Marseille, France, the second largest city in France after Paris, is known for its busy harbor and urban energy. Located along the Mediterranean Sea, visitors come for the beaches, the port, the ancient history, the cultural diversity and the food. So, when I had a day in Marseille, we wandered the streets stopping into boutiques, walked along the port and enjoyed some meals. And then we happened upon a winery in the middle of the city.

As we walked along Rue de l’Évêché, we passed a market, a salon, a few restaurants and then, surrounded by these businesses, was Microcosmos Chai Urbain, an urban winery owned by Fabienne and Lukas Völlmy. Originally from Burgundy, Fabienne, who holds a B.S. in chemistry and a master’s degree in enology, and her husband, Lukas, opened Microcosmos Chai Urbain in 2012 in the old part of Marseille. Buying a winery can be cost prohibitive to a young winemaker starting out and Fabienne was inspired by the urban wineries in San Francisco and Abe Schoner’s maverick, one-man wine-making Scholium Project.

She said she wondered, “Was it possible to do here? We live here [Marseille] and all around the city there are vineyards close by.” Provence is 30 minutes away. With vineyards in Provence, along the Mediterranean coast and in the Rhone Valley, they have access to a vast wine-growing area.

Fabienne previously had worked at Clos des Fées in Roussillon, Chateau d’Esclans in the Var region and at Moulin de la Roque in Bandol. These experiences have all contributed to her winemaking choices today. To begin with, because she is from Burgundy, she appreciates single varietal wines and does not blend. Her choice to work with low-yielding parcels of old vines comes from working at Clos de Fées. Her time at Chateau d’Esclans taught her how to make luxury rosés.

At Bandol, where she worked with the cooperative Moulin de la Roque, which produces wine from more than 1,000 different parcels, she gained a preference for working with small-parcel selections.

Working with different vineyards, Fabienne purchases fruit from vineyards in Provence, prioritizing organically farmed grapes. To keep transportation at a minimum, they stay within 100 kilometers around Marseille. She looks for special parcels and old vines and all the fruit is picked by hand. At Microcosmos, they use a single parcel for each wine and do not do any blending. “I just want to do something different here. One parcel in each wine … I think it has more character and is interesting. But what do I know? I am from Burgundy,” she laughed as she told me about her wine.

Once the grapes are manually picked, they are transported back to the winery in Marseille where additional sorting and fermentation take place. With delicate treatment of the grapes, minimal input is required by the winemaker. The focus is on making wines that are balanced but express their individual personalities.

While each micro-cuvee is an expression of its terroir, Fabienne and Lukas are creative in the name of their wines. The name of the winery, Microcosmos, is an homage to the Greeks who first brought vines to Marseille. Vega, the vermentino from Coteaux Varois, is named after the brightest star in the constellation Lyra. The Marvin II, a mourvedre rosé, is named after Marvin Gaye as it is a wine that is full of joy and a mix of culture. The Hocus-Pocus vermentino is macerated and fermented on the skins. The Tempête dans les Montagnes Bleues means storm in the blue mountains. This syrah is fruity, bright and elegant and reminds them of the tempest they witnessed on a visit to the Blue Mountains while on a trip to Australia.

Currently producing 5,000 bottles of wine, it was an unexpected to find an urban winery in Marseille. The wines are currently exported to Canada and England, and hopefully soon to the U.S..

Read the original story in the Napa Valley Register.