WINE FROM NAPOLEON’S BIRTHPLACE

By Rose Murray Brown MW  Published in The Scotsman 29 August 2015

As the one of the largest Mediterranean islands with a sunny dry climate ideal for vines, it might seem surprising that we don’t hear much about Corsican wines.  Holidaymakers returning from this beautiful rugged island having experienced the local wines, found it hard to track them down in the UK, but now a select band of specialist merchants are focusing on importing Corsica’s new improved quality wines from the new generation of winemakers.

Corsica is a fascinating island for the wine drinker as it can offer something very different.  Taking advantage of the cool sea breezes, high altitudes and variety of mountain and coastal microclimates, the burgeoning island wine estates produce a diverse range from herby zesty dry white, pale dry roses, earthy reds to sweet dessert wines.  The only deterrent for Corsica becoming a popular UK supermarket wine is the price level, it is hard to find an inexpensive Corsican wine over here – so expect to pay over £8.

Corsica has its head in France, but its heart in Italy.  It is 100 miles from Provence, but only half the distance (56 miles) from the Tuscan coast.  Its long viticultural history, which began with the Phoenicians, was dominated by the Genoans from C13 to C18, so many grapes are of Italian origin.

The one fact many remember about Corsica is that it is of course Napoleon’s birthplace – he was born into a winemaking family in Ajaccio, a wine region on the west coast.  Once France had gained control of the island from the Genoans in C18, Corsica started to become the new bulk producer taking over from Algeria.  Many Algerians came to Corsica and vineyards were hugely expanded at that time with poor quality grapes.  In recent years, the EU vine pull has dramatically reduced the size of vineyard area down to 7,000 hectares with a focus on quality grapes and quality wine.

With the Italian influence clearly seen in the grapes, Niellucio is the most planted red grape with over 1400 hectares.  This is basically the same grape as Sangiovese – the main grape of Chianti and Brunello di Montalcino.  Believed to have been brought to the island by the Genoans – at its best in Patrimonio in the north grown on clay and limestone soils.

Sciacarello (known as Mammolo in mainland Italy) is a much softer style grape, often blended with Niellucio.  Far less is planted – just 400 hectares – and is also often found in a cuvee alongside Syrah, Mourvedre, Cinsault and Carignan.

When it comes to white grapes, Vermentino holds sway in Corsica – also found in nearby Sardinia, Tuscany and Provence where it is known as Rolle.  Muscat is distinctive here – best in the northern peninsula – but the sweet wines are hard to find in the UK.

Tastewise, I find Corsican wines have an earthy feel to them.  A bit like a cross between Tuscany and Cotes du Rhone with a touch of rustic charm.  So if you are a fan of either Chianti or Chateauneuf du Pape – give Corsican whites and reds a go.  If Provencal rose is your usual tipple, you will find Corsica’s rose similar with more fruit ripeness, but with the cool night winds in the island crucially retaining the natural acidity to keep it fresh.

Eight AOC wine regions include the dramatically beautiful northern Cap Corse peninsula where distinctive Vermentino and Muscat are made on the schist soils.  Just south of here is the most famous appellation, Patrimonio with 500 hectares on its chalky soils ideal for Nielluccio (aka Sangiovese).  Calvi on the west coast has more granitic rocky slopes and then down in the south east with lighter sandier soils in Sartene and Porto Vecchio in the southeast – as well as Ajaccio and Figaro in the south west.  If a wine comes from anywhere on the island, it is labelled Vin de Corse AOC.

The dynamic change and improvement in quality is down to some hard working individuals on the island.  The best known is Christian Imbert of Domaine Torraccia,  Not a native of Corsica, this Frenchman was attracted by the raw savage beauty of the island.  One of the first to focus on quality winemaking here when he began in 1964 based in the south at Porto Vecchio, creating a group focusing on quality grapes and established Porto Vecchio’s appellation, he is now considered the godfather of Corsican wine – he now runs the estate with his son Marc. 

Antoine Arena in northerly Patrimonio region is another pioneer who left a legal career on the French mainland to return in the late 1970’s to his family estate convinced that the future lay in making organic natural wines – starting with his inherited 3 hectares expanding it to 14 hectares now run with sons Jean-Baptiste and Antoine-Marie.

Other names to look for are Domaine Saparale run by Philippe Farinelli in Sartene in the south west of the island, who make very good Vermentino whites at his old family estate.  For easier drinking fresh vibrant wines check out Etienne Suzzoni’s wines from Clos Culombu in north west Corsica – and also in the north is young newcomer female winemaker Lina Pieretti.  Thanks to these passionate winemakers, we can now taste the real promise and potential that this stunning wine island has to offer.


WHITE

Vin de Corse 2014 Domaine Culombu Blanc (£13.49 Les Caves de Pyrene www.lescaves.co.uk; L’Art du Vin, Dunfermline www.aduv.co.uk)
Alcohol 12%

Very refreshing crisp dry zesty white with a herby savoury edge and a lightness to the palate making it an unusual aperitif choice.  A very decent Vermentino made by Etienne Suzzoni of Domaine Culombu (who also made the star buy rose below in our taste test). 

Corse Calvi Fiumeseccu Blanc 2012 Domaine d’Alzipratu (£10.95 www.thewinesociety.com)
Alcohol 13.5%

More body and richness – and higher alcohol here – with that distinctive herbiness from the Vermentino grape.  A bit of maturity here means it has lost its floral aromas and has a nuttier honeysuckle bouquet.

Vin de Corse Blanc 2014 Domaine Saparale (£14.95 Yapp Bros www.yapp.co.uk)
Alcohol 13%                                                            
      
An enchanting floral aroma with a definite sage and spice note on the palate. This is made from Vermentino by Philippe Farinelli on his large family estate up in south west Corsica. 


ROSE

Rose wine from CorsicaThe Society’s Corsican Rose 2014 Clos Culombu (£8.75 www.thewinesociety.com)
Alcohol 12.5%                                                            

I think Corsica makes delicious rose – definitely on a par with Provence.  I particularly liked this very elegant organic example made by Etienne Suzzoni.  A blend of 40% Niellucio, 40% Sciacarello with 20% Grenache – a great rose at a very decent price for a Corsican wine.  BEST VALUE BUY

Coteaux du Cap Corse Rose 2014 Domaine Pieretti (£15.95 www.yapp.co.uk)
Alcohol 12%

Pale dry rose made by one of only two female vignerons on Corsica.  Lina Pieretti owns a small plot of 5 acres right up in the north of the island at Santa Severa near Luri where she makes this elegant dry rose and a sweet Muscat.  This rose is a blend of three grapes: Niellucio, Grenache and Alicante.


RED

Patrimonio Morta Maio Rouge 2011 Domaine Antoine Arena (£22-£29 Les Caves de Pyrene www.lescaves.co.uk; The Wine Society www.thewinesociety.com; L’Art du Vin, Dunfermline www.aduv.co.uk)
Alcohol 13.5%

If you want to experience Corsican red at its best, this mature spicy herby 100% Niellucio from the famous Patrimonio appellation – where vines are grown on clay and limestone.  Very much like a cross between a mature Chianti and Cotes du Rhone.  This is made from the Morta Maio vineyard’s 80 year old vines planted by Antoine Arena’s grandfather in Patrimonio.  STAR BUY

Vin de Corse Rouge 2012 Domaine Torraccia (£13.95 www.yapp.co.uk)
Alcohol 12.5%

Earthy herby, but a little light in body similar to a lighter Cotes du Rhone style.  This organic red is made by Christian Imbert who blends four grapes: Niellucio, Sciacarello, Grenache and Syrah. 
                                                                       

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