That’s all I could say as I drove off the ferry and snaked up the switchback mountain road from Bastia, towards the wine region of Patrimonio on the north-west side of the island. My first impression was a zap-back to my time living in the Virgin Islands… even without getting out of the car and talking to anyone, it reminded me so strongly of a Caribbean island; the sense of individuality and a somewhat “moderated” attitude towards the French authorities that govern Corsica.
The geography hits you right between the eyes, even before you land. Rugged mountains that soar to nearly 8,000 feet, with their feet bathed in mottled shades of azure sea that’s as beautiful as any tropical paradise. Coming down the equally sinuous descent on the western side, the patchwork of vineyards is revealed amongst the rocky outcrops and peaks behind the coastal range.
First stop: Antoine-Marie Arena. What a way to begin! I have to admit I’d never even tasted a Corsican wine before coming here, and my preconception was of rough, tannic wines and probably sour, green whites. Wow! again… was I ever humbled! Arena, his brother Jean-Baptiste and parents Antoine and Marie, farm their land organically/biodynamically and produce some delicious wines (see the Tasting Notes Category in this blog).
This is real natural agriculture, from dragging massive boulders off the steep hillsides by hand to clear for planting, to the raising of the wines – all in S/S vats, no barrels – with minimal intervention. Alcoholic fermentation can take up to a year, and the malo is left to its own devices, relying on the natural acidity from the grape and the minerality of the terroir to give the wine definition. The result is whites that are fat, round, aromatic but which reflect the essence of the limestone/clay terroir in their almost Chablis-like minerality, and reds from the Nieullucciu grape that have wonderful ripe fruit with smooth tannins that can be good young or aged.
Antoine Arena was studying law in Nice in 1975 as his parents insisted that their children seek a better future than their farming heritage in Patrimonio in the north of Corsica. Protests from locals against the government’s resettlement of “Pied Noir” expatriates from the former French colonies in North Africa had come to a head when 15 of them had occupied the premises of a Pied Noir winemaker in Aléria on the east coast, to protest the illegal use of sugar and the subsidies that were accorded these “immigrants” that locals were not eligible to share. Arena quit his studies to join the political protest and take over the family’s 3-hectare estate, eventually clearing enough land to grow it to its present 14 hectares (plans for this winter are for more hillside clearing).
Video clip: Choosing old vines for “massal” selection
Arena is one of the very few Corsican producers imported into the USA; most of the wines I’m going to mention are not (yet) brought into the States, but are available in most of Europe.
Arena’s primary mentor back in the ’70’s was Christian Imbart of Domaine Torraccia in the south-eastern region of Porto-Vecchio. Imbart and three of his friends created the Union of Winemakers, with the goal to preserve both the local industry and the indigent varietals which were in danger of disappearing in the face of the massive planting by the newcomers from Algeria. Christian’s son Marc has recently taken over the reins of the family estate, after nearly two decades of travelling and working in such diverse places as Chateau Latour in Bordeaux and Jekel in California.
Here in the south the soils are granitic, and the Torraccia wines reflect this as well as Arena’s do their native limestone, the whites underscored by wet stones and flint that keeps the fruit and fatness in perfect balance. Imbart makes his reds to age, and the 2001 Oriu Rouge was at a beautiful stage (see notes) as we enjoyed it over lunch on the terrace of his house. The landscape down here is less dramatic than Patrimonio, with rolling hillsides and valleys that give glimpses of the Mediterranean in the distance, and Imbart is committed to “natural” farming methods with minimal use of pesticides and herbicides.
These two producers at opposite ends of the island are typical of the current generation of Corsican winemakers who are striving to produce quality, environmentally-responsible wines. I’ll be adding notes on the rest of my trip in my next blog. Check the “Tasting Notes” section for more information on the wines and their availability.