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Monday, December 12, 2011

Popping corks in Corsica

When you discover that Corsica was once owned and run by us Brits it’s a bit like discovering that we once owned Bordeaux. If we knew then how good the wine was going to be, why on earth did we give it up? No amount of guns or cannons should have put us off - we should have defended it to the death back in 1796.

Seriously though, although Corsica is nowhere near as famous as France’s great wine-producing regions like Bordeaux, Burgundy or Champagne, its burgeoning industry is having quite an impact on us Brits. Almost all of the main supermarket chains now stock at least one Corsican wine, and a trip to the island quickly explains why. Put bluntly, it’s distinctive, it’s made with real love and care, and it’s cheap.
It’s an unlikely place for a wine industry, as the island is the most mountainous in the Mediterranean and covers just 8720sq km. Incidentally, the island’s most famous native was Napoleon Bonaparte, a man who knew a thing or two about wine – he forced his troops to salute every time he marched past a vineyard.
He was born in Ajaccio, the island’s capital and also the heart of the wine-growing region. In fact, most of the island’s wine is produced on the west and north side, the east being too dry and desert-like. For years Corsica produced pretty ordinary vin de table, but now has invested heavily in the industry and, interestingly, has kept a lot of old obscure grape varieties, which it blends with more well-known ones like Merlot and Chardonnay. The results are impressive, modern-tasting wines that suit all palates and wallets.
We have the good old EU to thank for Corsica’s wine now, as back in 1980 it favoured uprooting vines that were over-producing – the infamous wine lake – and gave money to invest in more quality vines. The total area dropped to 22,500 acres, but the quality improved.
The undistinguished Grenache and Cinsault grape were replaced with Viognier, Pinot Noir and Sauvignon, but the local wine-makers, now armed with degrees and the knowledge of what people actually wanted to drink, blended them. Nielluccio for example is an old grape, probably Italian in origin, which produces a deep red wine with good structure. It’s grown on the chalky soils of the north of the Island. Blended with the trendy Merlot, it is one of Somerfield’s best-sellers, and at just £6 a bottle represents good value.
Similarly, Vermentino performs best in the north, and is added to Chardonnay to produce an interesting wine. The usually bland Chardonnay grape is given a golden, honey-tinted gloss, which gives it far more character. Again it is available in Somerfield. The  Terra Vecchia vineyard welcomes visitors and is well worth a visit, producing outstanding examples of these grape varieties. They are very friendly, and are happy to give you a taste and discuss their wine. Try the 2005 vintages: the Chardonnay/vermentino is outstanding.
Another vineyard well worth visiting is Clos de Bernardi, for two reasons – the great, juicy reds and a lively discussion. Ask the staff about the 2000 rule, which stated that the reds must be 95% Nielluccio, and the whites 100% Vermentino – it’s sure to kick off a robust argument. Up until that point their wines could be blended, so they now feel a tad restricted.
Back in Ajaccio, Domain Peraldi, which overlooks the bay, is one of the best producers, especially of the unusual Sciacarello grape. This is a really old Corsican grape that appears to have been grown there for centuries, and makes a very spicy red that is also a tad heavy on the alcohol. You can always try the rosé instead, which has two advantages – it can be chilled, perfect for a hot day, and it’s a revelation. The rosés on any wine list are usually the last to get tasted, if at all, but rosé is growing in popularity all the time, and this under-rated wine is something Corsica does extremely well.
If you have a car and fancy some exploring, the northern tip of Corsica, Cap Corse, is well worth a trip. Here they make sweet wines from the Vermentino and Muscat grapes. Look for the label ‘Coteaux du Cap Corse’. Antoine Arena’s vineyard is worth seeking out for its luscious Muscat, and Clos Nicrosi, at Rogliano (follow the D80 north from Bastia to Cap Corse, and at the top you will pass through the village), produces one of Corsica's finest white wines. Demand far outstrips supply, so it is very sought after. Domaine de Gioelli, also at Rogliano, produces an unusual sweet red wine called Rapu.
Or, of course, you can also stay in the area. In the heart of the village Patrimonio you will find Villa Puccinasca. Set in an elevated position, with wonderful views over the village and surrounding countryside from the front terrace and garden, it has a large dining terrace with seating. From here the panorama is superb and best appreciated with a glass of the local rosé as the sun sets behind the mountains before you stroll down for a meal in one of the restaurants in Patrimonio.
Corsica has come an awfully long way in wine production in the last 30 years. It was almost ready to be abandoned by France, but then came the split with Algeria, and hundreds of trained wine-makers left to settle on the island. It’s a craggy, rocky place with, it claims, dozens of microclimates, but despite all the barriers it has started to produce wines that have an appeal well beyond the locals. It’s a great holiday destination, and you might just find some wines that will surprise you. As an old Tuscan proverb goes: “one glass of Corsican wine and I climb Stromboli.” And remember to shake the last drops of wine in your glass to the ground, as an offering to the gods.
Getting there
Corsican Places offers holiday packages including direct charter flights from London Gatwick or Manchester. These operate on a Sunday from May until October. For 2009, clients can also choose to make accommodation-only or flight-only bookings with the tour operator.

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