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As part of his alternative Grand Tour in the mid-1750s, Dr Johnson’s biographer James Boswell journeyed to Corsica. Whilst there he learnt two things: the first regarded the danger of making amorous advances to local ladies; the second was that the island’s wine was rather quaffable. “In some villages, they make a rich sweet wine… (in others) they make wine very like Burgundy… over the whole island there are wines of different sorts. It is indeed wonderful, what a difference a little variation of soil or exposure will make in the taste of wine. The juice of the Corsican grapes is so generous… it will always please by its natural flavour.”
Boswell was not the only man of literature to comment on Corsican wine, however. The Roman poet Martial described it as “black poison”, while Hemingway, in A Moveable Feast, remarked on its potency: “We had a Corsican wine that had great authority and a low price. It was a very Corsican wine and you could dilute it by half with water and still receive its message.”
Out of the three, Boswell was the closest to describing Corsica's wine today, and some of his comments are uncannily perceptive, as we shall see anon.
Corsican viticulture stretches back over 2,500 years, when Phoenician settlers planted the first vines. Since then, the island’s winemakers have had their fair share of vicissitudes, but also some good times. Production was banned under the Arabs in the 8th century, but boosted by Napoleon, who granted Corsican wine tax-free status. Later in the mid-19th century, most of the island’s ancient vines were destroyed by the Phylloxera blight, a devastating setback that affected the whole of France. A century later, in the 1960s, the resettled pieds-noirs from Algeria began planting vineyards and producing large quantities of low quality wine. During the last few decades, however, quality has definitively outflanked quantity and Corsican wine is now receiving the international recognition it deserves. As Jane Anson wrote in Decanter in early 2017, Corsica is "right now among the most exciting wine destinations in France."
As Boswell correctly intimated, Corsica boasts a wide diversity of terroirs, from the low-lying, sun-baked chalky clay in the northwest, to the wind-buffeted, granite-rich soil of the mountains above Ajaccio. The significant variations in climate, altitude and soil type allows the island to produce a wide range of characterful wines from a fairly limited number of grape varieties, the most significant of which are Nielluccio (Sangiovese), Sciacarello (Mammolo) and Vermentino (Favorita).
The (perhaps) more recognisable names in brackets hint at the fact that the grape varieties in question have, quite literally, Italian roots. 500 years of Pisan and then Genoese rule, not to mention the proximity of the island to Tuscany (Elba is only around 50km away) ensured a certain Italian influence on Corsica's viticulture. Thanks to the island’s unique terroirs, however, wines produced with, for example, the Nielluccio grape, have little in common with their Sangiovese cousins made in Chianti, Montepulciano or Montalcino. Sciacarello, meanwhile, despite being a distant relative of Mammolo, is considered by some experts to produce wines that are not dissimilar to certain Pinot Noirs (hence, perhaps, Boswell’s comparison with the wines of Burgundy).
Most of Corsica’s best wines are produced in conformity with the regulations of one vin de pays denomination (Île de Beauté) and nine AOC (appellation d'origine contrôlée) regions: Vin de Corse, a generic appellation that includes the sub-appellations of Vin des Corse-Coteaux du Cap Corse, Vin de Corse-Calvi, Vin de Corse Porto-Vecchio, Vin de Corse Sartène and Vin de Corse-Figari; Patrimonio (the oldest and most prestigious AOC, situated in the northwest and producing fine Nielluccio-based reds and crisp Vermentino whites); Ajaccio (some of whose vineyards sit at an altitude of 600m above sea level); and Muscat du Cap Corse (a vin doux naturel).
Most red wines contain a high proportion of either Nielluccio or Sciacarello grapes, blended with smaller quantities of Grenache, Barbarossa, Cinsault and Carignan. Unusually, white Vermentino grapes are also used in some red wines.
Whites contain a large proportion of Vermentino (100% in the case of Patrimonio AOC) with the occasional addition of Ugni Blanc and other varieties.
An intriguing and perhaps unusual feature of Corsican wine is that an estimated 50% of the island’s total production is rosé (mainly made with Nielluccio and Sciacarello grapes, blended with small quantities of other varieties, both red and white Vermentino).
Many of Corsica’s vineyards are open to the public and it is often unnecessary to make a reservation (though it is always wise to phone ahead if you’re making a special trip). One of the many advantages of going straight to the producer is that wine bought directly from vineyards is exempt of VAT, giving you an automatic 10% reduction on shop prices. Not a bad way to stock up on your holiday wine.
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