Corsican wines; a well kept secret
- Friday 16 January 2009
I was instantly enchanted by Corsica when I first visited more than 20 years ago. I had nopreconceived ideas about the island’s wines, and in those days very few left its shores. Nor were they ever the subject of a book or article.
It was a veritable voyage of discovery, for Corsica boasts a host of original grape varieties. Some of those varieties were finally recognised earlier this year when the bestsub-£10 red blend of the Decanter World Wine Awards went to a Corsican wine. But was it a one-off, or is there more where that came from?
Corsica’s history has inevitably had a huge influence on the island’s wines. The most famous Corsican, the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, may have been French, but, until three months before Napoleon’s birth in Ajaccio in 1769, the island was controlled from Genoa in Italy,
and before that it was part of the city state of Pisa.
Consequently, one of the most important grapes is Nielluccio, a variety thought to be a close cousin of Tuscany’s Sangiovese. The principal white variety is Vermentino, which is also called Malvoisie. And Sciacarello is a red unique to the island.
The name translates in the Corsican dialect as ‘the grape that bursts under the teeth’, and indeed it has a tough skin, with plenty of juice. The most significant event for Corsican viticulture in the 20th century was the influx of pieds noirs from North Africa when Algeria gained independence.
They had been wine growers, aiming for high yields with varieties such as Carignan, Alicante Bouschet, Cinsaut and Grenache, and they expected to find conditions in Corsica similar to those in North Africa. They did not.
When they pulled up large tracts of maquis or scrub land to plant vineyards in what often
turned out to be quite unsuitable terrain. The vineyards proved unprofitable, often replaced by equally unprofitable kiwi fruit.
But they left their mark, such that Grenache, Cinsaut and Carignan continue to feature in the island’s appellations. And some of the pieds noirs have made a success of wine growing, notably the Skalli family, now the largest private vineyard owner on Corsica with the 220ha Terra Vecchia Vineyards on the eastern coast below Bastia.
Although Corsica often displays an intense insularity, it has not been immune to an interest in international grapes. When they were first introduced, by Skalli and others, they were produced as 100% varietals, but there is a growing trend to blend them with traditional
grapes, as in Skalli’s Nielluccio-Merlot blend (the aforementioned International Red Blend Under-£10 Trophy winner at the DWWA) and its Chardonnay- Vermentino.
Xavier Logette, Skalli’s export director, talks of the problems of growing Nielluccio for vins de pays. ‘The yields are too low and it is difficult to ripen,’ he says. The solution is to blend it with higher-yielding Merlot, ‘then you have a wine that can compete on price with the international competition’.
For Logette, that is the way forward for Corsica. Not surprisingly, this attitude causes purists a certain amount of unease. Those who uphold the island’s traditions are anxious that international varieties do not infiltrate the appellations, and for the moment they are holding their ground.
Syrah is allowed in AC Vin de Corse, but the interlopers are really only grown on the coastal plain between Bastia and Porto Vecchio for vins de pays, where two cooperatives dominate production.
Christian Imbert, owner of Domaine de Torraccia, the only estate of note in Porto Vecchio, is adamant. ‘It’s simple; the only way forward is to concentrate on traditional varieties. It’s completely mad to plant the varieties of mainland France that are grown elsewhere more cheaply.
Our trump card is our typicity, and that is what we must work on.’ And that has been the trend. A decade ago, there were 9,000ha of vines, of which just 1,050ha made the appellation. Today 3,200ha of 7,000ha are the Corse AC.
The principal Corsican appellation is Vin de Corse, or simply Corse, which can cover the whole island. In fact, thecentre of the island is very mountainous and most of the vineyards are in coastal areas. Vin de Corse includes several crus.
Travelling clockwise from Ajaccio, they are Calvi, Coteaux de Cap Corse and Muscat de Cap Corse, Porto Vecchio, Figari and Sartène. Both Patrimonio and Ajaccio are appellations in their own right. Corsica also produces vins de pays under the apt name of Ile de Beauté.
But the true originality of Corsica is to be found in wines such as Patrimonio,
the liveliest of the Corsican appellations, with 30 growers making red, white and rosé. For one of the leading growers, Antoine Arena: ‘This is where Nielluccio is at its most characteristic, on limestone slopes.’
For the red, Nielluccio must now represent 90% of the blend, with Grenache decreasing rapidly as a restructuring programme encourages the planting of Nielluccio. But for my tastebuds, the Vermentinos are even more exciting and original.
In Arena’s hands, they were a revelation, with wonderful herbal flavours. He is optimistic for the future of Patrimonio. ‘Above all we must maintain its typicity; Vermentino is an expressive wine, so we must not copy others.’
The one problem is its proximity to St-Florent, which he describes as the ‘St-Tropez of Corsica’, and Bastia, putting pressure on the land for housing requirements. Sciacarello is more at home on the granite soil of Ajaccio and Sartène.
You may occasionally find a pure Sciacarello, but it lacks colour, so is often blended with Nielluccio or Grenache. And it can produce some delicate but full-bodied rosés. One of Sartène’s leading producers is Domaine Fiumicicoli.
Its progress has been fascinating. There has been a generation change and the new regime
has taken advantage of replanting subsidies to convert 15ha of Carignan, Cinsaut, Nielluccio and Grenache into Sciacarello and Vermentino.
There is some Syrah, but owner Simon Andreani is anxious to preserve Sartène’s uniqueness. There is no doubt that Corsica’s main problem is its insularity. The independent
producers sell as much as 80% of their wines on the island, and they are heavily dependent on the tourist trade, making 90% of all sales in the summer months.
But, in times of economic trouble, tourism is not reliable, and the island’s internal problems, with the occasional terrorist bomb or arson attack, don’t help. Corsica is beginning to look outside the island, even if only as far as le continent, as most Corsicans refer to mainland France.
But as Imbert remarks, ‘the Corsican is not a salesmen, but a shepherd or a warrior. The more dynamic tend to emigrate, if only to mainland France.’ The future is the export trade and their efforts are beginning to pay off.
There is a much greater range of Corsican wine available in the UK than ever before, though they tend to be expensive, for the simple reason that production costs are high and yields low.
Despite the problems, you can’t help but feel optimistic for the island once you have drunk its wines. As Pierre Aquaviva from Domaine Alzipratu in Calvi says: ‘Progress has been the past decade, but we shall make even greater progress in the next.’
Domaine Antoine Arena,
Muscat de Cap Corse 2007 ★★★★
Ripe, grapey nose. Quite full and sweet
but not cloying, with lovely balancing
acidity. From now. £27.20; Top
Calvi 2007 ★★★★
Refreshing, sappy fruit and a rounded
palate. Nicely understated and
refreshing, with good acidity. The
second wine to the more expensive
Clos Columbu, and better value for
money. From now. £8.58; CPy
Coteaux du Cap Corse 2007 ★★★★★
A delicate nose, with hints of
raspberries. Surprisingly full-bodied,
with elegant raspberry fruit and some
herbal notes. Both mouthfilling and
elegant, with a dry finish. From now.
Domaine de Torraccia, Cuvée Oriu,
Porto Vecchio 2005 ★★★★★
The top cuvée of this pioneering
estate. A blend of Nielluccio and
Sciacarello, aged in oak barrels. Warm
and spicy on nose and palate. Some
warm, leathery fruit. Mouthfilling and
satisfying, with a tannic streak on the
finish. 2008–2012. £19.50; Yap
Sartène 2006 ★★★★
Spicy berry fruit nose. Medium-weight
palate, with soft tannins, and spicy
fruit. Sunshine in a glass. From now.