Corsica, Île de Beauté – Part One

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.

Travels in Wine - Corsica

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.

Asterix en Corse

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.

Clos Alivu - Marcel with Eric Poli

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 sometimes buy from their Terra Nostra range);
  • 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.

Where to go next?

Corsica, Île de Beauté – Part Two >

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