Wines of a Mediterranean island: Corsica

The world of quality wines continues to grow.  Even France, the homeland of fine wine, is expanding its vinous borders, developing new areas where high quality and distinctive wines can be found.  Historically Corsica has been famous for its turbulent political past (it has the misfortune to be in the centre of the much contested Mediterranean), its mountains and fabulous coastline, and nowadays for its tourism but not its wine.  A Wine Society offer gave the chance for Andover Wine Friends to catch up with what has been happening in the last twenty years.  This latest chapter in Corsica’s story has seen quality minded growers, EU subsidies to put out low quality vines and to equip wineries with contemporary equipment and a welcome focus on indigenous grape varieties produce some wines of real distinction. 

The history of wine making in Corsica is long and complicated. It is ironic that while neighbouring Sardinia, now part of Italy, is dominated by Spanish varieties, Corsica, now one fine rosépart of France, majors on Italian varieties.  It appears to have its own grapes but in reality these are Corsican names for varieties from nearby Italy.  Nielluccio is not a name known to wine lovers but what about Sangiovese?  It turns out that Nielluccio is the Corsican name for Tuscany’s most famous variety, while Sciacarellu is Corsican for the minor Tuscan blender Mammolo (see J Robinson and co, Wine Grapes). Vermentino, the most important white grape on the island, is at home here, in Sardinia and on the adjacent Tuscan and Ligurian coasts. So the story here is of an Italian heritage.  Not only is Corsica physically closer to mainland Italy than to France, its local varieties speak of the centuries of rule by first the Pisan republic and then, for the longest period from the Renaissance onwards (with breaks for French rule) the Genovan republic.  As late as 1764, in an extraordinary episode, the Genovan republic secretly sold the island to the Duc de Choiseul, a minister of the French navy.  Once French troops were in place, the island was ceded to France in an ‘open’ treaty.  The next two centuries were hardly plain sailing and periodic bids for Corsican self-determination (and unrelated recent Mafia stories) tell us that the post-second world war French rule has not been uncontested. 

The recent history of wine on the ‘island of beauty’ as the French christened it has had two hugely contrasting phases. Following Algerian independence from France in 1962, displaced vine growers looked to French Corsica for a for place to continue to supply the French bulk wine market.  This role was taken up successfully in the wide open spaces of Languedoc-Roussillon but failed miserably in the mountainous territory of Corsica, completely unsuited to bulk wine production – apart from the reliably dry climate.  The great majority of wine making continued to be of the most basic sort, simple alcoholic drinks intended for local and not overly discriminating tourist consumption. But hill-side vineyards, the night-time cooling effect of the Mediterranean sea, a warm, disease-limiting climate and those slightly disguised Italian grape varieties all meant that there is potential for quality wines with a sense of place.

Vermentino in the glassIMG_4698
To illustrate the point let’s look at the two star wines of this tasting. The very first wine we tasted was a Vermentino which was intended as a gentle introduction to the evening.  Ettiene Suzzoni is the guiding spirit behind Clos Culombu Blanc, a 100% Vermentino wine, made in the Corse-Calvi appellation, vintage 2011.  Calvi is on the north west coast of the island where the beauty of the scenery is matched by the thrilling freshness of this wine.  A subtle, lemon perfumed nose gives on to an exhilarating palate which manages to knit together a mineral streak, fine lemon fruit and a certain waxiness.  A good, clean, refreshing finish completes the picture.  At the pretty modest price of £12 this is up there with some of the best Sardinian and Ligurian Vermentino, in a light elegant and supremely refreshing style.  There is not a hint of the flabbiness and herbaceousness of some Tuscan coast examples.  Vermentino loves the sea! 

The best red – both my opinion and a two to one vote by the tasting group – was Clos Alivu, Patrimonio rouge AC, 2010, by no means the most expensive wine of the evening.  Made from low yieldi ng 50 year old vines, is is 100% Nielluccio (ie Sangiovese), deep in colour, fragrant with red fruit on the nose and then blackberry, sour cherry and meaty on the palate.  The most innovative comment was ‘slow roasting lamb’ – tasting note or wishful thinking?  A good, drying finish betrays the presence of Sangiovese tannins, with decent length, no oak in evidence, so either no wood ageing or in such neutral barrels that you don’t notice (and incomplete wine making information).  In contrast to most Tuscan Sangiovese styles, this has attractive black fruit notes normally only associated with quite old wines.  A wine of real character for £12.50. 

Other wines tasted

Cuvée Pumonte, Domaine d’Alzipratu, Corse-Calvi AC, 2011 – a highly creditable attempt at a top quality Vermentino with no oak ageing.  Most wines of this variety are mid priced and intended for drinking young. This is a much more concentrated and powerful version, but avoids oak which would distract from the lemon fruit and herby tones.  I am sure it has some potential to develop because of the concentrated fruit and balancing acidity but quite how it will age only time would tell. 

vermentinoClos Culombu Rosé, Corse Calvi AC, 2011 – fruit from 30 year old vines, with some cold maceration to extract aromas before fermentation begins; aged in stainless steel for five months before release.  Fine pale salmon in colour, as in the picture above.  Grape varieties not declared but from the savoury, slightly grippy palate, it would not be a surprise if it was mainly Nielluccio.  This wine split our tasting group: some did not warm to it, others loved the assertiveness and the perfume. 

Terra Nostra, Corse Rouge AOP, 2011 – a entry-level red made from 100% Nielluccio with black fruit to the fore plus the tell-tale signs of banana and black cherry, suggesting that this is made with a version of carbonic maceration, in other words for a young drinking, fruity wine.  As Sangiovese is not really a fruit-forward grape this seems misconceived and did not score well with our tasters. 

Cuvée Fiumeseccu, Domaine d’Alzipratu, Corse-Calvi AC, 2010 – This was fascinating to try as it is mainly Sciacarellu (better known but still pretty obscure as Mammolo in Tuscany), accompanied by Nielluccio and a bit of Grenache.  Some blackberry fruit again with a slightly unusual ‘wood’ note (not toasted oak, something more mundane). The palate was noticeably softer than the Sangiovese-dominant wines.  On the whole this was deemed to be interesting rather than pleasurable – but I would want to spring to its defence as a red wine of some character. 

red blends x 2Cuvée Culombu, Cuvée Collection Rouge, Vin de France, 2010 – this was the other of the reds which really impressed people, at a higher price point (£20). According to another commentator it is a blend of Nielluccio, Sciaccarello, and 10% each of Syrah and Grenache. (None of these wineries has a really informative website.)  Fine red berried fruit on the nose, a moderately tannic structure on the palate, good length and a certain lightness and elegance of touch.  Curiously the wine seemed simultaneously to have velvety texture remininscent of good red Burgundy and enough tannins to make you think that it could benefit from 5-10 years in the bottle. 

We finished with a sweet wine which owed more to France than to Italy, a vin doux naturel.  Antoine Arena, Muscat du Cap Corse AC, 2011 also split people. Some liked the grape, apricot and jasmine aromas and moderate sweetness, others thought that some of the VDN of Roussillon could give it challenge at a much lower price level.

This was a great introduction to the new, quality wines of Corsica – and I shall be on the look out for more. 

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