Two Millennia of Winemaking in Corsica

While Corsica has been making wine for some 2,000 years, the island’s modern wine industry is just a few decades old. The region is gaining attention in recent years for its unique terroir and climate, as well as its indigenous grape varietals. The Corsican Wine Board hosted some American journalists and sommeliers a few months ago for a tour of the area and introduction to its wines.

A sense of place

Located in the Mediterranean between France and Italy, just above Sardinia, Corsica has been part of France since 1768. But some 500 years under Genovese rule provide Corsica with a distinct Italian culture that’s evident in the wine.

For instance, the island’s niellucciu red grape is a close relative of the Chianti’s sangiovese. The classic French grapes are also apparent; grenache is prominent in several Corsican red wines while syrah, mourvedre, cinsaut and carignan are also used.

In addition to niellucciu, Corsica’s key varietals include sciaccarellu; vermentinu, which is known as Rolle in southern France and a native of Italy; minustellu; carcaghjolu neru; and muscat à petits grains.

Vermentino grapes at Domaine Orenga de Gaffory.
Vermentino grapes at Domaine Orenga de Gaffory.

Corsicans are also discovering ancient indigenous grapes such as biancu gentile.

A miniature continent, mountainous Corsica is typically sunny and dry, with cool nights and plenty of wind. The soil ranges from limestone and clay in the north and west to granite in the south and sandstone and volcanic in the center. The conditions are ideal for growing grapes.

Clay amphora at Clos Culombu.
Clay amphora at Clos Culombu.

Fragrant vegetation adds to the unique terroir. The flowering maquis—scrub that covers much of the island—scents the air with local rock-rose, heather, lavender and myrtle. The yellow immortelle flowers, best known in the U.S. as ingredients in the L’Occitane de Provence skin care products, in particular impart a sense of place to many of the Corsican wines.

Corsica’s key wine regions are Ajaccio, Patrimonio, Calvi, Sartene and Figari. The last four are viticultural sub-regions of the island’s Vin de Corse appellation, which also includes Porto-Vecchio in the southeast and Coteaux du Cap Corse on the northern Cap Corse peninsula.

More than rosé

The quality and quantity of wine produced under Corsica’s AOC appellations has been increasing, but most Corsican wine is made under the less-stringent IGP title IGP Isle de Beauté. (Isle de Beauté or “Island of Beauty” is also Corsica’s nickname.)

The vineyards at Domaine de Torraccia.
The vineyards at Domaine de Torraccia.

The growing popularity of rosé is good for Corsica, as its full-bodied rosé is one of the island’s signatures. About 70% of the wine produced in Corsica is rosé.

Domaine Poli’s 2016 niellucciu rosé, which retails here for $13.99, was named one of the 20 rosés under $20 picks by The New York Times writer Eric Asimov this past June.

But several wineries are now reducing rosé production in favor of white. For instance, Domaine d’Alzipratu, which currently produces 25% rosé, 35% white and 40% red, plans to increase white and cut back on rosé, says owner/winemaker Pierre Acquaviva, whose father founded the winery in 1968. He sees more potential in the white wines.

Aldo Sohm Wine Bar in New York sells the 2014 Domaine d’Alzipratu Fiumeseccu white of 100% vermentinu for $48 a bottle.

A concrete egg at Clos Venturi.
A concrete egg at Clos Venturi.

“Corsica is producing really good, interesting white wines,” says Pietr Nowicki, the technical operations manager for Domaine Orenga de Gaffory and Clos San Quilico in Patrimonio. He also sees white as the island’s key opportunity, specifically vermentinu.

Several wineries have started mixing vermentinu with chardonnay. Domaine Casanova which sells for about $16 in the U.S., is one. The vermentinu is unique to the region while “the chardonnay is something people can recognize,” says Thierry Lemoine, export sales director for Domaine Casanova producer Les Vignerons D’Aghione.

Overall, Lemoine says, the price-to-value ratio of Corsican wines is high. The reds are not as strong for some, but he and others plan to invest more in their red wines.

Going Organic

Many Corsican wineries, such as Domaine d’Alzipratu, Domaine Terra Vecchia and Clos Poggiale, are converting to organic farming. Domaine Orenga de Gaffory is about a year into the three-year process of organic conversion, Nowicki says; Clos San Quilico completed it last year.

Marc Imbert, proprietor of Domaine de Torraccia.
Marc Imbert, proprietor of Domaine de Torraccia.

Clos Culombu in the Calvi region is already organic and moving toward biodynamic, says winemaker Paul Antoine Suzzoni. His uncle founded Clos Culombu in 1973; his father Etienne took it over in 1988 and built a new winery in 2010.

Clos Culombu just started using red clay amphora and concrete eggs. “We see it as a natural alternative to oak aging,” Suzzoni says, as the clay amphora can breathe and doesn’t impart oak flavor.

Domaine de Torraccia in the Porto-Vecchio region has been organic since Christian Imbert founded it back in 1964, notes his son Marc Imbert, who recently took over the operation. “Everything in the vineyard has been articulated for global warming,” he notes.

It’s important for winemakers to have diversity in the vineyard, especially with climate change, Imbert says. “The weakness of one plant is the strength of another.”

Melissa Dowling is editor of Cheers magazine.


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