Grapevine Archive for Corsica
My Corsican trip is always a bit of an adventure and giving it time is always a bit tricky. It comes at a busy time for any buyer of northern hemisphere wines.
How soon can a buyer taste a new vintage? Of course there is no real answer. After all during the vintage, there is a certain satisfaction from tasting grape juice, or even the grapes themselves. Young wine on the other hand goes through stages when it doesn’t taste that well. That’s often when it’s just been racked or moved around, or indeed when it is still full of solid matter. Early smells and tastes can be misleading; young wines need time to settle a little and become more like the finished article.
So I asked my good friend Etienne: how about early December? Fine came the answer and so it was.
I haven’t fully explored all the travel options yet though I’ve tried a few. There are direct flights in the summer but out of season one has to change, at least once. For the time being my favourite option is to start from Saint Pancras which is conveniently close to home. And yes, it allows me to fantasise about some of the great trains of the past: the Mistral and Blue Train.
There’s an early train to Paris and a quick jaunt on the metro and a fast train to Marseille. The journey itself was relatively uneventful. No murders or vanishing ladies. Vanishing power maybe, as the train came to a halt outside Ashford and remained there for half an hour.
I like Marseille station (I quite like Marseille as well). It’s a station that looks different, definitely imbued with a feel of the orient. There are trees within the station, making it look like a rather large orangery. There’s a friendly intimacy about it and people seem remarkably unrushed. There’s a good place for a coffee and a croissant where people have time to talk.
The two women behind the counter may be busy, drawing one coffee after the other but still have time to exchange smiles and small talk with customers. There’s a tramp seated not far away with his coffee and a sandwich. A heavily armed Gendarme greets a passenger with a kiss. This is all such a contrast with Paris which, by comparison seems cold, fearful and furtive.
Marseille airport is like any other airport and in common with all airports, there are building works and road works; yet it too seems a little laid back. People have time for each other. Even at the security gates, there is an air of friendliness. Not that any of this affected security, which was as tight as anywhere.
Corsica has four airports which is good going for an island with a population of around 350,000.
But Corsica is more than just an island. It is a sort of mini continent with lots of quite different bits and these are separated by mountains making communication on the island slow and difficult.
Politics play a big part here too. City mayors are powerful beasts whose reach has to extend to Paris. Corsica punches well above its weight in most matters. And so there are four airports.
I still have only explored a tiny bit of the island. There is vineyard everywhere, but it is probably true that some of the top and most forward thinking growers are in the north. And so that stretch that separates the towns of Calvi and Bastia, has become Wine Society territory!
Calvi is where Lord Nelson lost an eye in 1794. It amuses people much that Corsica might have ended up a British possession. Indeed for a couple of years George III was king of an Anglo-Corsican kingdom.
Back to wine!
Clos Culombu is not far from Calvi airport, barely 15 minutes’ drive away. It was dark when I got there. The samples of rosé from the new vintage were all lined up on the counter.
Etienne Suzzoni was there, all six-and-a-half feet of him (or more!), and his son Paul-Antoine who as it turned was largely responsible for making the 2016 vintage. Father Etienne is these preoccupied with other ventures; he is after all Mayor of his local town, Lumio.
2016 is a good vintage here. It was explained that it was hot and dry but that crucially that it had rained just enough so that drought was never really a problem. We tasted from a round 20 different tanks, all representing specific parts of the vineyard and different grape varieties, and different ages of vine too. Some of the samples were already blends with two varieties present. For instance, the first tank was of sciaccarrellu with a little syrah, and very good it was too.
Before continuing maybe a few words are needed about varieties. Corsica has a rich and varied ampelography taking in influences from France, Genoa, Tuscany and even Catalonia. Many varieties were lost during the phylloxera epidemic though some have since been rediscovered, growing wild.
In the north, niellucciu is the main red grape variety and is in fact identical to the Tuscan sangiovese. It produces full-flavoured, full-bodied and often tannic wines. Sciaccarellu is a native Corsican variety, grown nowhere else. It tends to make wines that are fragrant, fruity with plenty of grip and is the majority variety further south such as in Ajaccio. Local wisdom says that it is the choice variety for making rosé. Grenache is also indigenous and probably came from Aragon or Sardinia. Syrah and cinsault are more recent imports. Last year, the blend for our Corsican Rosé was mostly niellucciu with a little sciaccarellu and grenache.
Silence tends to reign during these tastings, considerable levels of concentration being required. Each sample is tasted, one after the other. Each could have something to say in a blend. One sample might have low pH which could be a good thing while another might have high pH, less desirable. Likewise excessive alcohol might not be a great idea. And so I write down a comment or two beside each wine, by the time the last wine has been tasted I have an idea which samples to retain for the blend.
And then starts the fun with test tubes and calculators at the ready. The sciaccarellu wines are all very good and yet, on its own, something is missing.
There are several false leads until finally a blend sticks. Jean Dépagneux, for many years in charge of a business in Beaujolais and Mâcon, always used to tell me that three elements in a blend are better than two.
And then I found it. There was a tank of pure cinsault which didn’t seem much and was easily overlooked. Just 10% was enough to bring the niellucciu and sciaccarellu together. And so the 2016 vintage was born.
The following day the three elements, 60% niellucciu, 30% sciaccarellu and 10% cinsault, were blended together.
What happens now?
The wine now rests; it will remain untouched over the winter and will be bottled after a filtration in the spring.
The first shipment to Stevenage will be in April and I for one am looking forward to trying it!
Corsica is a big place and 36 hours doesn’t allow for much exploration. After Calvi, my route took me east to the other fortress town of Nelsonian fame, Bastia. A high point was the entering the forbidding-sounding Désert des Agriates. North of the main road, there is just a startlingly beautiful emptiness.
I had to meet Marie-Brigitte Paoli who picked me up in her incredibly large land cruiser. The next four or five miles were not easy driving on a deeply rutted track but eventually we arrived at her estate. Hers is called Clos Teddi while her husband’s, next door is Clos Alivu. One cellar serves both and there is one winemaker, a Parisian who came to Corsica as a student to do a vintage and never left!
There are lovely wines here in all three colours and complemented to perfection the lunch which was brought out on a windswept terrace. There was charcuterie, figatellu sausage, spare ribs, an eyewateringly strong cheese, Fiadone cheese cake and garden-picked clementines, a sole guardian of sensible eating!
The wines of Corsica are fascinating and though I’ve spent much of the time on rosé, the whites and reds are also worth exploring. More Italianate then Gallic, they are at their best at the heart of a meal.
If you enjoy finding out what goes on behind the scenes on our wine buyers’ visits to our winemakers, visit the Travels in Wine™ pages on our website.
The sun was setting as we arrived 90 minutes late (see part two) for our penultimate stop of the day to visit Pierre Acquaviva at Domaine Alzipratu in the Corse-Calvi appellation. Pierre’s state-of-the-art winery contains wines not only in stainless steel vat and barrel, but also in amphorae and concrete eggs as he experiments with different styles of wine. Those of you into Corsican wines will already be acquainted with Pierre’s classically made Pumonte and cuvée Fiumeseccu wines. (Currently in stock are Calvi Rouge Cuvée Fiumeseccu, Domaine Alzipratu 2013, Corse-Calvi Fiumeseccu Blanc, Domaine d’Alzipratu 2012 and Corse-Calvi Pumonte Blanc, Domaine d’Alzipratu 2011.)
We first tried tank samples of Fiumeseccu Blanc 2014 (long, with lemon & grapefruit to the fore, and an attractive citrus pithiness) and Pumonte Blanc 2014 (tighter, with tropical fruit and a delicate herbal layer). The rosé versions, each a blend of sciaccarello with some grenache, were long, fresh and fruity. The Fiumeseccu Rouge 2014 had been taken from the individual vats and hand blended to give an idea of what it may taste like (easy to drink, smooth and velvety with plum and liquorice character), while the Pumonte 2013 has already spent a year in oak vats. It was still hard to work out at this early stage, with its tight tannic structure, but there is plenty of freshly scented light red fruit to come to the fore in time.
We then moved on to some of the more experimental wines. Alticielo 2013 is a micro cuvée of a field blend of 60-year-old vines. They are not yet quite sure what all the grape varieties are, but having been fermented and aged in concrete eggs (no corners, so the natural flow of the wine inside the vessel is smooth and continuous), the resulting wine is round with rich, savoury and fresh red fruit flavours and a silky texture. Inizeu 2013 is 100% nielluccio from a single 3,000 m2 plot of vines, also in concrete egg. It’s very smooth indeed with raspberry flavours and a firm yet soft tannic structure. It tastes like it has been in wood and yet it hasn’t seen any at all. At 15.6% abv, it’s not for the faint-hearted, but it is a lot of fun in a glass.
Lume 2013 is a vermentino blended from vat-aged and oak-aged wine. The result is a coconut-laden nose leading to a tight vanilla coated palate of grapefruit zest. Wonderfully different and refreshing. We tried Lume 2014 (yet to be blended) from vat, amphora and barrel. While the amphora version on its own was very rich and almost oily in texture, and wasn’t a good drink on its own, as an element of the blend it will add body, texture and much interest to the resulting wine.
A brief, but very informative and exciting tasting from a very dynamic grower who is going places. Pierre, with his young new winemaker Vincent, is definitely one to watch.
Our final appointment was also in the Calvi appellation with Etienne Suzzoni at Clos Culombu. London members may have met Etienne at one of our Wine Fair tastings back in 2009.The main purpose of this visit was to blend The Society’s Corsican Rosé 2014, but there were also plenty of other wines to taste. We warmed up for the rosé blending with five whites – all vermentino, one of which was barrel-fermented. They all showed exquisite balance, as did the three rosés we tasted. (We currently stock the excellent Corse Calvi Clos Culombu Rosé 2013.)
It was then time to blend. Etienne and his winemakers had selected four vats, each full of wine from a different vineyard which they believed held the elements key to making a blend that would suit members’ palates. Etienne told us the quantities available from each vat, which would clearly have an impact on quite how much of each wine we could put into the blend (although as it happened, we didn’t have to go beyond what Etienne had made available in order to make the amount we need).
We proceeded to taste the wine from each vat in turn, noting its character and how it may assist in the final blend: vat 3 (fatness and a broad fruit-filled finish); vat 13 (perfumed nose, structure, up-front fruit hit and great length); vat 27 (freshness and minerality); vat 46 (red fruit flavour and richness).
The first blend was 40% vat 3, and 30% each of vats 13 and 27. [see pic] We then tried dropping vat 13 for vat 46, but the blend lost its perfume and structure and went over the top in flavour and richness. We then split 13 and 46 with 15% each, but the wine lacked a little freshness. So an extra dollop (5%) of vat 27 was added, and 5% taken away from vat 46 – hey presto! The wine was blended at only the fourth pass (is that a record?), to unanimous approval of the six there present.
(I for one can’t wait to get my taste buds round the finished article. Just before leaving for Corsica, and purely for research purposes, you understand, my wife and I drank a bottle of the 2013 between us over two nights at home. The wine was fresh and still firm, and went extremely well as an aperitif, and then with our mildly spiced fruit and couscous stuffed baked chicken. Bring on 2014!)
After having agreed on the blend, we discussed closures. As last time, Marcel requested Diam, which was fine by Etienne. We did say that in an ideal world we would prefer screwcap. Etienne countered that as 80% of his production stays on the island, and the Corsicans demand traditional closures, he wouldn’t be investing in the necessary machinery but that his son, who is soon to join the business, would doubtless have different ideas – proof of Eric Poli’s earlier prediction of the changes coming with the younger generation.
Etienne’s brother Paul piped up with his reason for cork being his closure of choice. Three years ago a conference and dinner had been held at the winery. The guest of honour was the then French employment minister Xavier Bertrand, He was making a pre-dinner speech that was going on and on and on… the listeners were beginning to nod off, the food was ready and near to spoiling. Paul opened a bottle with a corkscrew, very loudly. The minister turned, said ‘Ah, it must be time for me to sit down’ and promptly did. ‘With a screwcap bottle we’d have still been here!’ says Paul.
We finished our tasting with a vertical of Etienne’s top red wines, named Ribbe Rosso, which means ‘red clay’ in the local dialect, although the clay is more ochre in colour].
2014: sciaccarello element of the blend – a flinty aroma but a firm red fruit structure balanced with the alcohol and a dusting of white pepper flavours.
2014: nielluccio element – sweet and ripe and beautiful, a very pretty baby.
2013: from barrel, great freshness, bright red fruits
2012: polished oak, bright red fruits, long finish and a solid complex structure. One for the long term.
2011: Chewy with forward red fruits. Delicious.
2010: Fresh, tasted younger than the 2011.
2009: Richer and rounder, made in concrete tank. Warming dark fruits, a little spice and liquorice.
2008: Looked a little past it, smelled sweet but tasted dry.
2006: More Rhône-like than Italianate. It’s drying out a little now, and comes from the old cellar where conditions were warmer, and so the wines aged a little more quickly.
2005: there were widespread fires in the maquis that year – the smoke taint in the wine is very pronounced, increasingly so as the fruit dries out leaving other flavour elements to the fore.
2004: The first vintage. We didn’t taste it. None left!
It was late – we’d been either on the road or tasting (104 wines) for 12 hours, and it was time to go to dinner with Pierre from Alzipratu and Etienne and his team in the port of Calvi. It was 6 hours after that Corsica feast of a lunch with Eric, and we still weren’t very hungry, but we talked some more and learned a lot more about Corsica and the wines from this jewel of an island.
I would thoroughly recommend that you visit the Île de Beauté, a name that it fully lives up to. Both Clos Columbu and Domaine Alzipratu are particularly well set up to welcome people to their estates with their brand new wineries and tasting facilities, so what are you waiting for?
60-year-old Antoine and his wife Marie own four vineyards – Carco, Hauts de Carco (a new vineyard created in 2005), Grotte di Sole (Sunny Grotto, so named because the shadows cast in and around the cave acted as a sundial to the local shepherds) and Morta Maio. They are in the process of organising their own retirement, having split the vineyards between their two sons Jean-Baptiste and Antoine-Marie. ‘Two separate companies will avoid intra-family disputes in the running of the business,’ says Antoine. (Personally I can’t see him ever fully leaving them alone nor keeping his counsel, whether the sons want him to or not! He is one of the real characters in the wine industry).
For sale very soon will be their Bianco Gentile 2012, Muscat du Cap Corse 2012 and Morta Maio Rouge 2011. For info, my almost indecipherable (even to me!) hastily scribbled tasting note on the latter reads ‘Depth, warmth, balance, structure, concentrated plum and cherry fruit – grand vin with a future!‘ The roundness and structure was a common thread in through the 2014, 2013 and 2012 tasted, as well as in this 2011.
On the day we tasted 27 Arena wines. Antoine led us a merry dance from vat to vat, making sense out of what appeared to be a rather chaotic layout in the cellar, and even he seemed to lose his way on occasion! Dodgy cellar navigation apart, it was a fascinating odyssey that took us through some very good wines indeed. Tasting the 2014s in vat and barrel, and comparing to 2011 and 2012 in bottle enabled us to ascertain how the new wines should develop.
Antoine was instrumental in the resurrection of bianco gentile as a variety, and the wines we tasted were delightfully fresh and lifted in a citrus style (including the one mentioned above soon to be listed). While made to be drunk young, they age well too, as we discovered when tasting a 2007 which had taken on weight and richness with a quince character.
We could have stayed all day talking and tasting, and indeed Antoine was most disappointed that we couldn’t stay for lunch, as it had already been organised at our next appointment. Given his generosity and loquaciousness I dread to think how we would have ended up at the lunch table. As it was we left 45 minutes later than planned because of his insistence that we tasted some of the wines derrière les fagots (behind the woodpile), that is to say those wines he will never sell but which he keeps for personal consumption. These included:
• A 2003 late-harvest vermentino picked with a potential alcohol of 23%, then left in a barrel outdoors for a year before being brought in to the cellar – rich, sweet and absolutely delicious – Madeira-like, even though unfortified.
• An old-vine version of the above from 83-year-old vines (which have since been grubbed up) blended with younger grapes from the Carco vineyard, vinified in a large barrel then placed in small barrels right at the back of the cellar. There is only one barrel left of this luscious, deep brown, sweet oloroso-like wine which has lovely lifted acidity. Antoine only dips into it very occasionally when serving it to ‘honoured guests’.
• A muscat, again from 2003, picked in November at 35% potential alcohol. Although unfortified, it is very similar in taste to a Rutherglen muscat from Victoria in Australia (a wine that Antoine, interestingly, had never heard of!).
After this visit, which left us rushing off and Antoine wishing we didn’t have to, we moved on to the halfway point of the tour, arriving in the picturesque port of Saint-Florent on the west side of the Cap Corse. Waiting in his wine shop to greet us was Eric Poli of Clos Alivu and his wife Marie-Brigitte. We have been listing his Patrimonio wines for a while now, and currently list the Patrimonio Blanc, Clos Alivu 2012. We tasted the 2014 versions of the white from tank (vermentino – very easy-going and attractive, rich in style with a fresh mineral edge and a very long finish of crisp green apple and pear and rosé) and the rosé (90% nielluccio, c. 5% sciaccarello, c.5% vermentino – well integrated, light in character, displaying lively red fruit and already very moreish).
The red was the 2013 vintage made from 100% nielluccio. It was still tight and tannic, but with a lovely savoury edge to the lightly sour raspberry and plum flavours. Nielluccio needs a year or two to start showing its true colours. While not generally built for great longevity, Eric told us of a 1985 he recently drank at home which was still on excellent form.
We also tried some of his single variety IGP Île de Beauté wines. I particularly enjoyed the crunchy and savoury red fruit of the sciaccarello, as well as the peach- and pear-laced bianco gentile which he classifies as a simple Vin de France. He says that ‘with not so many rules and regulations around for this, I can play with it more in the vineyard and the winery.’
A brief stroll to the marina and it was time for a rather hefty and long but quite delicious lunch of typical Corsican fare (majoring on charcuterie, ewe’s cheese and chestnuts), with a vermentino and nielluccio from the Ajaccio appellation (which were ok, but not a patch on the wines we were tasting during the day). We had a spectacular drive south through the mountains and the maquis and along the dramatic north-western coastline which included an interesting traffic jam before once more heading for the hills.
Corsica is an absolute jewel in the Mediterranean and lives up to its soubriquet of l’Île de Beauté. Closer to Italy than France geographically, culturally and viticulturally, wines from its top producers stand shoulder to shoulder with the world’s finest and most food-worthy wines.
On this whistle-stop 12-hour tour of the north of the island Society buyer Marcel Orford Williams and I, accompanied by southern French expert and friend of The Society (and our chauffeur for the day) Charles Blagden, visited five producers. The main objective of the day was to blend the 2014 edition of The Society’s Corsican Rosé, the third iteration of this wine, but there was much else to see and taste before then.
Before leaving, I had done my research and read ‘Astérix en Corse’ from cover to cover… but seriously, the history and geography of wine on the island is very interesting, and different to other French regions, particularly with regard to human geography.
60% of Corsica’s production is given over to rosé, 30% to red and just 10% to white wines. There are nine quality wine appellations on the island together with IGP Île de Beauté and Vin de France. These are Ajaccio, Corse Calvi, Corse Coteaux-de-Cap-Corse, Corse Figari, Corse Portovecchio, Corse Sartene, Muscat de Cap Corse (solely for fortified sweet wine), Patrimonio and Vin de Corse.
Corsica has a long and proud grape-growing and winemaking history. Like the rest of Europe it was affected by phylloxera in the second half of the 19th century, but a more recent effect on the quality of its wine happened in the 1960s. Following the war in Algeria, in 1962 800,000 French nationals were repatriated, mostly to the south of France including Corsica. Several turned their hand to wine-making – mainly bulk table wine grown from high-yielding vines in the North African style – light, rosé and generally not very good.
When, in the 1980s, the world’s wine drinkers began to wake up to quality, Corsica had no wines that suited this market and the high volume industry very quickly died off. During the 1970s the area of the island covered in vines was over 30,000 ha (over 75,000 acres). Today just 5,600 ha (14 000 acres) are given over to quality wine production.
When the new wine producing regime came in, standard ‘international’ varieties such as merlot, chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon were planted – ‘a necessary evil’ according to Eric Poli, owner of Clos Alivu in Patrimonio and president of the CIV Corse (Comité Interprofessionelle des Vins de Corse), in order to play catch-up with the rest of the winemaking world. Nowadays Corsica’s signature grape varieties are vermentino for whites and nielluccio (known in Tuscany as sangiovese) and sciaccarello for reds, but more typical southern French varieties such as syrah, grenache, cinsault and carignan are also planted. Ancient Corsican varieties such as bianco gentile for whites and morescola for reds are being resurrected, adding to the vinous ‘landscape’.
There is excitement in the industry as the first generation since the upping of quality in the 1980s begins to take over from their parents. Eric Poli believes that over the next 10 to 15 years there will be a huge difference in quality due to new plantings coming to their peak together with big improvements in both vineyard husbandry and winemaking. There will be an altogether different view of ‘Brand Corsica’. ‘I don’t know how it will be different,’, he says, ‘but I sense the will to move on and where there’s a will there’s a way – although we don’t yet know the way!’
Eric himself, in fact, as president of the CIV Corse is paving the way. When quality wines started to be produced, the appellation law stated that a vineyard would lose its appellation if vines were ripped up and replaced (even if these vines were underperforming and despite the inevitable positive repercussions on quality!). In 1999 Eric put forward a paper to the INAO (the national body governing wine appellations) asking for immediate reclassification of such vineyards away from IGP Île de Beauté and back to their original appellation. Such is the red tape at the INAO (and perhaps the perceived lesser importance of Corsica as a wine region?) that Eric’s proposal will be discussed only in 2017. Still, word has it that the proposal will be adopted.
The first visit of the day was to UVAL, the co-operative of Les Vignerons Corsicans, just south of Bastia on Corsica’s north east coast. This co-op was created in 1975, founded on a winery that started up in the 1960s following the post-Algerian conflict repatriation. There are now 40 growers who came together for reasons of economy of scale and the desire to improve quality. At the winery, explained general manager Franck Malassigné, they focus on three activities:
1. The making of blended wines from the growers under different brand names and styles (we buy from their Terra Nostra range, and currently stock Corse Rouge, Terra Nostra Nielluccio 2010);
2. The vinification of grapes from selected vineyard plots which are worthy of being a wine in their own right, rather than being blended;
3. The distribution and commercialisation of wines from small independent producers who lack the size and wherewithal to market their wines on their own.
We tasted 16 wines, mostly samples still in tank from the 2014 vintage, including Terra Nostra vermentino and nielluccio. There were three other wines of interest, including a cunning pinot-noir-nielluccio blend and a single estate vermentino, but it remains to be seen whether or not they make the final cut both in the tasting room at Stevenage and on price!
Leaving the flat eastern coast of Corsica, we started on our first hairy mountain drive of the day to the Patrimonio vineyards.
We launched The Society’s Corsican Rosé last year and so successful was it that it made sense to take in a day in Corsica to taste and make the blend. Nothing could be easier. Drive to Marseille airport, pick up a late flight and be fresh for an early morning start in the pretty port of saint Florent and an appointment which turned into breakfast, elevenses and lunch all combined at Clos Alivu.The estate is owned by Eric Poli who like so many of his fellow countrymen seem to have fingers in lots of pies. This is his flagship estate, wines in all three colours, beautifully presented and made. And while on the subject of pies, we were not allowed to taste for too long without sustenance. His wife Marie-Brigitte, vigneronne in her own right, brought in copious amounts of food. There was cheese, bread but above all some delicious warm sausage called Figatellu which one has with warm bread and lashings of homemade clementine marmalade. This was just as well as the hour or so wait ’till lunch would have been unbearable.
The next stop, not far away was at Domaine Arena which has become one of the best-known estates on the island with a scattered vineyard converted to organic Farming as a way of proving that Corsica and especially the tiny Patrimonio Appellation could challenge the best. The range of wines produced is large with many coming from single, quite distinct vineyards.
There is always politics in Corsica but with municipal elections at the end of March, there was more politics than usual, particularly with two of our growers standing for mayor!
After lunch at a bastion of supporters for Jean-Baptiste’s Arena’s candidacy for mayor of Patrimonio, we took a decidedly scenic route across the north of the Island to Calvi, across the stunning Désert des Agriates.
The first stop, at the foot of a snow-capped mountain, was at Domaine Alzipratu where Pierre Acquaviva runs a perfectly constituted estate with a modern and well-equipped cellar. The wines in all three colours are vivid, generous and full of flavour. The estate itself had been founded by Henri Louis de la Grange, whom I knew better as a biographer of Gustav Mahler.
Then to the last stop of the day at Clos Culombu, again with politics, as Etienne Suzzoni was evidently busy planning his assault on the mayoralty of the town of Lumio. The centerpiece of the evening’s meeting was of course the blending of the 2013 vintage of The Society’s Corsican Rosé. With test tubes and glasses at the ready, we tasted and blended, eventually arriving at a wine that made us all smile.
Then inevitably, dinner and more politics and more delicious Corsican rose!
Which of the following would you find most reassuring on a wine label: chjarasginu or rusulinu?
I sense a chorus of ‘neither’, but stay with me because you may soon come across one or the other.
In fact, both are Corsican words for rosé. Etienne Suzzoni proprietor of Clos Culombu, near Calvi, tells me that the first is true-blue authentic, the second less so but at least commercially recognisable. As a proud native speaker of Corsu, his mobile is abuzz with consultations on this subject, as if he wasn’t busy enough bringing in the harvest, and making time for me during one of my regular holiday fixes of feral pig, chestnut cake and wild myrtle ice-cream.
As one speaker of a minority language to another, I understand Etienne’s dilemma, and share his dislike of the confected – the Wenglish, as I’d call it – but I do want the world to embrace Corsican rosé, whatever it’s called. It is, without doubt the island’s finest liquid asset, though the haunting, herb-infused whites and ethereal dessert muscats are delightful, and the reds vastly improved since my first visit three decades ago, when I found quality to be in inverse proportion to the number of obscure gold medals sported on the label.
Raising the red bar is high on Etienne’s agenda as I note from a handsome new red-cedar winery, built two years ago. I expect, and am not disappointed, to see serried ranks of gleaming steel, but I’m intrigued by the glass-walled barrel-cellar and its unmistakable whiff of medium toast and red wine. Watching over it is Saint-Vincent, patron saint of winemakers, plastered in the best sense, and doubly valued, says Etienne, as the least expensive fixture in the room and, since he never sleeps, the hardest-working member of the team!
There’s exciting news in the vines too, where plantings of old, indigenous grapes are bearing promising fruit. I taste, for the first time, a scented white blend wherein the more usual vermentino, or carbessu as it’s called here, is joined by riminese, biancu gentile, razzolu, cudivarta and cualtacciu among others. A juicy red, based on young vines of the island’s two primary reds, nielluciu (aka sangiovese), and sciaccarellu, cut with carcaghjolu, minustrellu, murescone and aleaticu is a delight. Watch this space.
Meanwhile, back to the rosé, no petit vin d’été, but a belting bottle that we list all year round for good reason. Its dry, crisp, herbal character, wonderful fragrance and deep concentration lift fish, fowl, lamb, beef and even game. Tomatoes and garlic are no problem. Splurge on some top-of-the range charcuterie and a soft, herby, sheepy cheese and you could almost feel the sun on that fragrant maquis – just when you most need to.
Janet Wynne Evans
Specialist Wine Manager
This is the beach at Lumio and, across the bay, the citadel that guards it and the town of Calvi. Less than hour before, my plane was landing on the runway that serves the town’s little airport. By the evening, I was on first name terms with all the great and the good of the area, mayors, presidents of wine syndicates, even the commanding officer of a Foreign Legion regiment that is based in Calvi. Not to mention his charming wife. Things seem to happen fast on the Isle de Beauté…
What followed was two days of intensive eating and tasting, interspersed with slow, scenic drives. The food is worthy of note because it was exceptionally good, with wonderful seafood, cheeses and, above all, hams and sausages that placed the wines into context perfectly.
And so to the heart of the matter: the wines. As in any walk of life, one tries to avoid preconceptions. Corsican wines enjoy a mixed reputation, rather like the wines of Provence. Production is not large and is easily consumed locally and by the hordes of thirsty tourists. History also plays its part.
Viticulture in Corsica is as old as its civilisation but, for most of that time, on a small scale. Grapevines were just another crop which farmers shared with other fruits, cereals and livestock, and even fishing. Since the war, the biggest change came following Algerian independence, when hundreds of French expats settled in Corsica. Viticulture was greatly increased but often the grapes that were planted were those found in Algeria or other areas of France. It is amazing to see so much chardonnay, chenin and pinot noir, also syrah and carignan.
Luckily when the appellations were created for Corsica, the base for all the wines would be provided by three traditional varieties. For the white, only vermentino could be used, except in the north where an especially fine and delicate vin doux naturel is made from muscat. For the reds and rosé, the varieties are nielluccio, none other than the Tuscan sangiovese, and sciacarello.
Corsica is a complicated place, and not just for its politics! The combination of sea and high mountains means that there are countless nuances of terroirs which growers are only now beginning to appreciate. Most of those I spoke to starting with Etienne Suzzoni at Clos Culombu are all starting to conduct geological surveys of their vineyards.
From studies already conducted, two things emerge. First is the realisation that not all varieties are planted in the right places. Secondly, there are a whole load of grape varieties that were forgotten when the appellation was created but which in many cases were important. My two days on Corsican soil also included wines from these forgotten grapes, and what wonderful wines they proved to be.
I didn’t come back empty-handed and brought back a small selection of wines gathered from between Calvi and Patrimonio in the north of the island which members will be able to savour.
I shall need to go back!