What Does It Mean for a Wine to Be Corsican?

Not fully French, and strongly influenced by Italy, Corsica is a wine island unto itself. Jon Bonné on what it means for a wine to be Corsican, and how the island fits into the next great chapter in Mediterranean wine.

One balmy November evening, I drove myself onto the overnight ferry in the southern French port of Toulon, and set off to sail 170 miles across the dark Mediterranean. As the evening grew late, I wandered up to the bar, where the mostly Italian crew was making above-average Negronis, in case I needed further evidence that I had left France far behind.

Corsica is often described as penumbral Italy, Sardinia’s Francophone twin. This isn’t some glib comparison. You can hear it in the inflections of Corsican French and the Corsican language itself, with its old Tuscan flourishes, and smell it in the wood-fired pizzerias found in every mountain town.

Many centuries of invasion—by the French, by the Moors, by whomever—have left Corsicans with a vehement sense of pride and a need to keep their Frenchness at a distance. This has manifested itself in dark ways, via the killings and bombings attributed to the island’s National Liberation Front (FLNC), which finally laid down arms in 2014, and in milder ones, like the manifest bilingual road signs with French village names scratched out, leaving only Corsican.

But that fierce pride also has an upside, at least as it concerns the wines. I figured this out just a couple hours after disembarking in the southern port of Ajaccio, a city best known as Napoleon’s birthplace, as I drove into the hills to locate Jean-Charles Abbatucci, whose property sits just a few miles inland from the southeastern coast.

Abbatucci guns his electric John Deere cart and we lurch, precipitously, up the side of a hill to higher ground. As we look out past the vines toward the inlet below at Serra-di-Ferro, he hands me an old plastic-sheathed binder—“the bible of Corsican varieties,” he calls it. I open it up to find a roster of Corsican grapes—sciaccarellu, vermentino, biancone, paga debiti—fastidiously typed up in one of those cursive typewriter fonts that vanished with the 1970s.

The binder belonged to Jean-Charles’ father, Antoine, the result of his work during the 1960s and 1970s, when he headed the Corsican agriculture chamber and fought to preserve native grapes even as local farmers were pulling them out. It is essentially the record of a culture almost lost.

Antoine Abbatucci’s efforts remind me of another essential, and largely overlooked, work by the soil scientist Eugene W. Hilgard, who spent the last part of his 19th-century career cataloging something similar in California. Over many hours spent poring over Hilgard’s work, I discovered the truth about California wine’s past—a version that exulted in a wild diversity of grapes, and one completely different from the chardonnay uber alles revisionism of recent years.

In his father’s work, Abbatucci discovered the same for his native land. Rather than compose an elegy to the past, Jean-Charles, whose family is one of Corsica’s most established, saw the chance for a reawakening. In 1992, he took charge of his family’s farm and over nearly 25 years has been transforming it into a living museum of Corsican wine, expanding the parcels his father planted, starting in the 1960s, with every traditional variety he could find.

That work made Abbatucci a central figure in the rise of Corsican wine, which over the past decade has found an enthusiastic audience, all seeking to discover the next great chapter in Mediterranean wine. He and other standout winemakers like Antoine Arena, who had elevated the northern appellation of Patrimonio, managed to develop a global audience while evading the pressures of Parkerization and the whims of wine critics—without giving in to the “cosmopolitan tastes,” as Arena puts it, that stand to “destroy civilization.”

Admittedly, that sudden popularity made me hesitant to visit. The skeptic in me kept coming back to the cool-hunting aspect of the wines’ quick success, and I wondered if they were just a fad, caught up in the current fondness for so-called island wines.

It’s only when you understand [the island’s] duality that you begin to understand the secrets of Corsican wine. Is it French? There are faint echoes of Rhône and Provençal sunshine in the wines. But it doesn’t fully align with those places. Is it Italian? Certainly not, although it has correspondences. So if the answer is that it’s Corsican, what does that actually mean?

But I booked passage because I sensed that Corsica’s situation was different. Yes, it shared that cultural isolation that has made island wines the equivalent of outsider art. But more than that, I suspected that deep-rooted sense of Corsican pride helped its winemakers to grasp a stark proposition: Corsica could become yet another emerging region beset by adolescent insecurities (see: Toro, Hérault), or it could stand by native varieties like vermentino and sciaccarellu and fend off the enticements of modern oenologists. By choosing the latter path, they were avoiding mistakes that had hampered other once-obscure parts of France, Spain and Italy.

In other words, this wasn’t about spurning fads. It was driven by something more deeply wired into the Corsican mentality. “The reason our villages were never near the sea,” Christian Giacometti tells me as we drive through his vines on the raw granite of the Agriate desert, “is that the Corsicans were always fending off invaders.”

This willful isolation can make it hard to discuss Corsica as part of France. The Corsicans have remained largely free of French tendencies toward glum intellectualism, opting instead for face-value frankness. On any given Sunday, half the male population of Corsica appears to be clad in camouflage, pickup trucks on the roadside and rifles on their backs, hunting wild boar in the brush.

And yet they have a deep appreciation for Corsica’s role in French culture—a stirring belief in what the French call patrimoine. This isn’t simply patriotism, but an inherited commitment to their role in history, back to Napoleon and even earlier. Abbatucci himself embodies this duality. He named his best wines for the French diplomats and luminaries from whom he descends: The “Général” referenced on the label, for instance, is Jean-Charles’ 18th-century namesake, honored in France’s continental wars.

It’s only when you understand this duality that you begin to understand the secrets of Corsican wine. Is it French? There are faint echoes of Rhône and Provençal sunshine in the wines. But it doesn’t fully align with those places. Is it Italian? Certainly not, although it has correspondences, notably the use of nielluccio (sangiovese, genetically).

So if the answer is that it’s Corsican, what does that actually mean? For red wines, it means the resurgence of grapes like sciaccarellu and nielluccio over crowd-pleasers like grenache, although many bottles are more interesting on paper than in the glass. Abbatucci and Arena make the most nuanced and subtle examples, thanks in part to fastidious sorting and delicate handling of fruit. (Abbatucci’s irresistible Rouge Frais Impérial has more in common with deeply structured rosé.) Many others are rugged and overly tannic; nielluccio, especially, seems aggressive, almost like growly Umbrian sagrantino. And I wasn’t convinced by the notion that the reds improve with age; many older specimens seemed tired.

The whites, however, can be a revelation. Vermentino is proving itself as the great white Mediterranean grape, approaching riesling in its complexity. Corsica, like Sardinia, excels with it. But other traditional grapes can shine, including bianco gentile, which can taste of honey and chalk. These go into Abbatucci’s majestic and rare Collection wines. His Général de la Révolution, a blend of paga debbiti, the obscure Sardinian grape carcajolu biancu and several other varieties, has the mineral intensity and richness of Puligny-Montrachet, yet with a wild side—the resinous bite that marks other great whites in these latitudes. (See: Liguria, Santorini.)

But, personally, I’m most optimistic about the island’s rosés. The best Corsican rosé is serious and contemplative, ageworthy, with gravitas and a wisp of tannin. It’s like Provençal rosé before most of Provence stopped caring about anything but the leases on their BMWs. Thus it’s no coincidence that Camille-Anaïs Raoust of Domaine Maestracci makes an E Prove rosé that’s the equal of her whites and reds, or that Gérard Courrèges’ rosé at Domaine Vaccelli, just down the road from Abbatucci, is the standout in his lineup.

Nor is it a coincidence that Raoust and Courrèges, both in their 30s, are already running their families’ wineries. They are part of a young generation that also includes first-generation pioneers  like Christophe Ferrandis, a Marseille native who returned to his father’s native island and founded Clos Signadore in 2001 near Patrimonio’s well-known Domaine Leccia, and Nicolas Mariotti Bindi, who grew up nearby in Bastia. And this is quintessentially Corsican: One way Corsicans have preserved their sense of autonomy is to stress the importance of passing along tradition to the next generation. Hence, today, there is a graceful power shift—from fathers to their sons and daughters—of the sort most French elsewhere are struggling to accomplish.

“I offered to do a doctorate,” says Raoust, who completed double studies in agricultural engineering and enology. “But my parents didn’t want me to.” They wanted her to come home and take over the family business. I watch them both play pétanque out back while she shows me around. They’re clearly content with their choice.

Jean-Charles Abbatucci had a similar filial compulsion, to resume the work Antoine left behind when he died in 1976. Today, the family’s 18 hectares of vineyard land, most planted with indigenous varieties, are a living practice of what Jean-Charles calls his “humility in regard to nature.” This is not simply his adherence to biodynamic farming. He also insists on using draft horses and planting barley between vine rows, and is careful to keep the feral patches of underbrush—maquis, myrtle, wild fennel—that he swears add a truly Corsican set of aromas to his wines. On this, he’s not wrong. The island’s wines often show an arid, herbal side—a Corsican twist on those garrigue scents in southern Rhône wines.

Arena, meantime, is working hard to pass on his own traditions. Over the next couple of years, he will split his well-known Patrimonio domaine in two, giving half to each of his sons, Antoine-Marie and Jean-Baptiste, in part to escape the pitfalls of French inheritance law. (As we taste through his cellar, he points out whose wine is whose.) Arena has a particularly keen sense of this mandate to preserve family lineage: He gave up a law career on the mainland in 1975 and returned home amid the nationalist violence subsuming the island. His father, who once plowed his vines with an ox, was so angry he didn’t speak to Antoine for three months. Perhaps that’s why Arena gets downright Oedipal (“You have to kill the father”) when he starts talking about the importance of continuing traditions.

All this talk does raise a tricky question, though: Just which traditions? On the one hand, Corsican wine has a deep history, more than 2,000 years’ worth, and by one estimate had more vineyards in the Middle Ages than Bordeaux. Even two generations ago, per Abbatucci père, vines were planted in nearly every village. Throughout the last century, Corsica somehow evaded most of France’s bad habits; the island was largely devoid of the co-ops and negociants that simultaneously bolstered and weakened the French wine industry.

On the other hand, its modern wine history is surprisingly short: Patrimonio, the first appellation, was approved only in 1968. And ironically, the island’s vineyard surface has been shrinking ever since—down to around 6,000 hectares from a high of nearly 25,000 in 1970. Some of that is easily explained: Quality goes up, old-fashioned farmers bow out. But that also explains why Corsican wine was essentially unknown until about 15 years ago—and often viewed by the French as little different from cheap Algerian rotgut. Even today, half of Corsican wine remains simple vin de pays, which might be why people like Arena harbor resentment against enologists who hoped to turn Corsica into an sea-swept Languedoc by replacing indigenous grapes with high-yielding varieties.

One way the next generation could tackle that concern is to highlight Corsica’s sheer diversity. It’s not a single region, after all, so much as many tiny appellations sprinkled across a precipitously mountainous island. (The tallest peak, Monte Cinto, rises 8,878 feet just 15 miles from shore.) Without a doubt, the scattered vineyards of the Ajaccio appellation in the south vary from those in the granitic Balagne plain near Calvi, nearly three hours north. But even the different parts of Patrimonio, with its 410 hectares of vineyard, make markedly different wines.

In the barren granite soil of the Agriate desert, Patrimonio’s westernmost sector, Christian Giacometti’s son Simon today makes his white Batolaccio and red Sempre Cuntentu, both fragrant with scents of flowers and pine nuts. They are wildly different from wines grown on limestone and schist in the valley near Monte Sant’Angelo, just six miles east.

I left the island convinced that its young winemakers, driven by that fierce island pride, are determined to answer those tricky questions of identity.

This sort of tenaciousness is particularly pleasing to an old hand like Arena. We sit one shock-blue autumn day just above his Hauts de Carco parcel, sharing an impromptu lunch of boar salumi, and the conversation turns again to his own father, who eventually realized that his son’s desire to reclaim the family property was, in fact, the best opportunity to preserve the Corsican way. “Before he died in 2000,” Arena tells me, quietly, “he came across the street and shook my hand. And he never gave out compliments. But he said, ‘Antoine, you are the future of this family.’”

In Corsica, there could be no higher praise.

Tagged: corsica, Jon Bonne, wine