Corsican wines: Winning the authenticity game hands down

Wine growing dates back to Antiquity and the island the French call the ‘Isle of Beauty’ is no exception. Six centuries BC, the Greeks referred to the wine of Alalia (Aleria) as one of their favourite tipples. The Romans would soon follow suit, celebrated poet Virgil mentioning the qualities of local wine - ruby colour and pleasant to the taste. We decided to go and see for ourselves.

  

Corsica is big so it’s best not to hang around! After arriving in Bastia at 10:50 am, our first appointment is in Patrimonio early afternoon. Patrimonio is the oldest Corsican appellation (1968). Its Nielluccio-based reds and Vermentino-based whites begin their journey on the slopes overlooking the Gulf of Saint-Florent, protected in the East by Cap Corse. The village of Patrimonio belongs to Corsica’s schist region in the North-East of the island.

 

Very few clay-limestone soils

Geology most certainly offers an explanation for the wines’ organoleptic qualities. This is one of the rare wine growing areas in Corsica with clay-limestone soils, in addition to schist and granite. It is also characterised by widespread use of Nielluccio (at least 60% of blends) which produces structured, powerful reds. In terms of white wines, Vermentino is the undisputed leader, as is often the case, due to the fact that it is perfectly suited to the climate and local geology. The appellation is a bastion for wine growers and boasts around 35 estates. We chose Orenga de Gaffory and its 50 hectares of vines, soon entirely organic, planted on various micro-sites, across 5 localities of the 7 in the appellation area. Clay-limestone is the predominant soil type with schist outcrops, pure clay, pebbles and alluvial soils. The result is staggered ripening dates which make winery management less stressful and offer interesting blending possibilities. The wines are full-bodied, aromatic and chiselled with a real personality; restrained use of wood adds a lot of distinction to the wines. This is a perfect illustration of the appellation style.

IMG_5294 : Philippe Rideau, winemaker and cellar master at Domaine Orenga de Gaffory.

IMG_5305 : Philippe Rideau with his partner in wine, Piotr Nowicki, head of vineyard management

 

Off to Calvi

La Balagne, with Calvi as its capital, has long been a privileged holiday resort due to its beaches, its villages tumbling down the sides of the neighbouring mountains and its exceptional annual sunshine record. From a climatic point of view, moderation is key with very little frost and strong winds keeping the grapes healthy. The wines owe their very genuine characters to the harshness and intransigence of the granite sand soil interspersed with layers of clay or silt, amongst which vines are often scattered in small plots.

Our schedule includes a visit to Etienne Suzzoni's Clos Culombu and its 55-hectare estate with views to die for. This description is perfectly mirrored in the wines and what strikes us from the outset is the great purity of expression with a saline touch, especially in the whites and rosés, which imparts a lot of class. The wines show restraint and the vines are farmed sustainably. The Ribbe Rosse, a red blend with equal parts of Siaccarello and Nielluccio, has that little something extra with its lovely smells of spice and undergrowth. This is undeniably a stellar estate.

 

Etienne Suzzoni with his son Paul-Antoine: the next generation is already in place at Clos Culombu.

 

Heading for the eastern plain

Backed by the East-facing rocky ridges that climb over the two northern thirds of the East coast, the varied soil types here create an infinite diversity of vineyards. The vast majority of them extend over the uplands overlooking the eastern coast, more or less from Bastia to Solenzara, on the island’s only plain over nearly 80 kilometres. This is where the largest vineyards planted to high-yielding grape varieties were established in 1960. But this is also the appellation area, Vin de Corse, where most vines were grubbed up and the restructuring plans were the most ambitious. The soils have distinct profiles: recent alluvium, sandy marl and even a little tufa (limestone of sedimentary origin). The soils are well suited to most of the local grape varieties - Vermentino for the whites; and Nielluccio, Sciaccarello and Grenache noir for the reds and rosés. This extensive region is home to large co-operative entities that are now fitted with cutting-edge technology and produce wines of a very high standard. We gave them a visit, starting with the Vignerons Corsicans winery in Borgo. This is one big family with just 60 member growers farming 1,300 hectares of vines and five estates (Domaine la Villa Angeli, Lischetto, Pasqua, St Antoine and Château de Rasignani) marketed under their own names. These reside comfortably alongside well-known brands such as Terra Nostra. The winery’s reputation, however, is based on its varietal wines, spearheaded by Pinot noir and Chardonnay.

  

We encounter the same spirit at the Aghione winery where director and winemaker Christophe Paitier welcomes us. Here there are only 12 members but 800 hectares of vines and three consistent soil units. The seaside with its sandy soils help the wines retain freshness and is used primarily for rosé wines. This is also the earliest-ripening site. The second, with its richer clay soils is closer to the mountains and more often the source of its whites and light reds. The third vineyard site, at the foot of the mountains, has leptilite soils (a green metamorphic rock) and is unique in that it is located right on the fault line between northern Corsica and its schist soils and the south with its granite. These colder, later-ripening soils are the birthplace of its premium Vermentino and Nielluccio wines. Aghione’s Domaine and iconic brand is of course Casanova, available in all three colours, from the rosé Tendance (Sciacarellu) to the red Premium (Nielluccio), not forgetting the Muscat.

 

Christophe Paitier, director and winemaker of Les Vignerons d'Aghione.

 

Still in Ghisonaccia is the Cave de Saint-Antoine. It boasts 360 hectares under vine and 20 co-operative wine growers. Its vines are located in the foothills, on soils that are a little cooler than beside the sea at an elevation of a hundred metres. Nielluccio accounts for approximately 35%, Sciacarellu 20% and Vermentino about 15% of the varietal range. However, only 30% or so of its wines are labelled under an appellation. The winery’s rationale focuses more on colour and 70% of its wines are rosé. It offers an interesting range of wines supplying the catering industry and supermarkets in Corsica and on the mainland. Noteworthy Vin de Corse rosé wines include the Roi du Maquis, Sant'Antone and Domaine Mielino.

 

We have now arrived at the Vignerons de l’Ile de Beauté winery. Chaired by Christian Orsucci, it is based in Aléria and has 70 winegrower members spread over 1,600 hectares between Vescovato and Ghisonaccia. It is the island’s largest wine company, located a stone's throw from the sea on the eastern plain with its uninterrupted views. Each vineyard is monitored throughout the year by a team of professionals and over 50 people work at the winery outside harvesting to support the winegrowers. The wines are top quality, particularly the Domaines range (Casabianca, Petroni and Vettricie).

 

CO.jpg : Christian Orsucci, chairman of the Vignerons de l’Ile de Beauté winery.

 

Where it all started!

Marc Imbert (Domaine de Torraccia) genuinely loves his island and its terroir.

 

Now for a complete change of scenery - Domaine de Torraccia welcomes us to Lecci. Be warned, this is a place of legend! It was here that Christian Imbert - whose son Marc greeted us - cleared the scrubland, square metre by square metre, to plant quality native grape varieties against the advice of almost everyone. In doing so, he promoted the rebirth of the entire Corsican wine industry. This is the Porto-Vecchio Corsica appellation area, one of island’s most boutique. Bearing vineyards are mainly confined to Porto-Vecchio, Lecci and Sainte-Lucie de Porto-Vecchio, perched on hillsides turned towards the sea. Buffeted by the wind, the vines grow on arid granite sand, conducive to vine growing but also producing diminutive yields (on average 38 hl per hectare). The reds are generally blended from Nielluccio, Sciaccarello and Grenache, and the whites almost exclusively from Vermentino. The estate crafts angular, excessively aromatic wines with a strong personality that never succumb to fashion. The estate range is very well made, like the Oriu labels reserved for island grape varieties.

  

Figari here we come!

The age of this vineyard stems from the Roman’s early interest in this southern region. It extends from the foothills of the Alta-Rocca to the beaches of Figari and unlike its neighbours, the appellation has a relatively harsh climate because of the high winds in the area surrounding the Gulf. Domaine de Tanella illustrates this perfectly. In 1975, Jean-Baptiste de Peretti della Rocca took over this family business established at the end of the 19th century in Poggiale. Covering 57 unbroken hectares, the vineyard is rooted in granite sand, clay and stones. The nearby sea 3 km away helps keep the vines healthy due to the beneficial maritime winds, enabling Jean-Baptiste to switch to sustainable wine growing. Today, with the support of his daughter Alexandra and son Marc-Aurèle, he produces wines that display both finesse and character.

The precise and elegant 2017 white Alexandra Prestige label (100% Vermentinu) is one of the estate’s great successes just like its 2017 rosé Marc-Aurèle (100% Nielluccio).

 

Ajaccio and its vine-clad setting 

The present-day AOC Ajaccio, officially approved in 1984, extends over approximately 240 hectares and 12 localities dotted around the Corsican capital. Vines here enjoy an average of 2,750 hours of sunshine per year, a national record. However, the high summer temperatures are moderated by the nearby sea, an important thermal regulator, just like the mountains which promote rainfall. Most of the bearing vineyards are planted on tiers of granite slopes which offer poor soils with good drainage where vines thrive. This is Sciaccarello territory, a varietal which accounts for 60% of the blend and imbues the reds and rosés with character.

The whites are made entirely from Vermentino, the iconic Corsican grape variety which achieves its finest expression on the island. Clos d'Alzeto, on the slopes of the Cinarca Valley, is one of the highest wine estates in Corsica (500 m). This 42-hectare estate has been run from father to son by the Albertini family since 1820. The vineyards face South and East on deep sandy-granite, sandy, stony and clay soils. Respect for the environment is an absolute priority here and no herbicides are used. The red Prestige (2015) from Sciaccarello vines over 35 years old and 20% Nielluccio is a real gem in terms of typicity. It shows at its best in the pretty Sari d'Orcino cellar with its breathtaking views out over the vineyard!

 

By Sylvain Patard

Photographs: Gilbert & Gaillard - Courtesy of the estates