Corsica: Napoleon’s Vinous Dreamscape

If you took the eno-expertise of France and blended it with the climate of the Italian Riviera and stirred in the heritage of Greece, you might  suppose that you’d just created vine Valhalla—a test tube appellation with Goldilocks conditions where everything is just right.

Not quite.

Clipboard telCorsica, an island off the coast of Italy, began producing wine half a century before Christ was born, when Phocaean traders from Anatolia planted vines in Aléria on Corsica’s western shore.  The island was sold to France in 1768, a year before the birth of history’s most famous Corsican—Napoleon Bonaparte.  Ironically, under his empire, the island was virtually ignored and it appears to have devolved into a sort primitive, feudal community that made Cosa Nostra-ruled Sicily seem like Teletubbyland.

corsica map LPThat may be an exaggeration, but between 1821 and 1852, 4,200 murders were reported in Corsica; the number that were handled via family vendetta is unknown. Throughout this period, and extending well into the twentieth century, the primary grape planted throughout the island was Sciacarello, a variety generally used as a blender (once vital in Chianti).  As a stand-alone, it produces a simple, strawberry perfumed wine that rarely reaches any depth of sophistication.  As such, the wines of Corsica, despite all the previously mentioned stars aligning, have not planted many flags of glory.

As a land mass, Corsica looks like someone’s left foot with all the toes amputated except the big one.  It’s pointing directly at Liguria, one of Italy’s smallest and most rugged and least renowned wine regions, but that’s a story for another day.  Although separated by ninety miles from the Italian mainland, Corsica was dealt a double whammy in the late 1900’s as phylloxera devastated vines as the indigenous population began to emigrate in huge numbers. It wasn’t until the Algerian War of Independence (1954 to 1962) attracted a reverse wave of immigrants in the ‘50s who began to revitalize the Corsican wine industry.



But that industry was primarily Corsican wine for Corsican people, and a whole lot of it. The rest was used to top off Europe’s infamous ‘wine lake’; a glut of mass-produced wine from warm climates like Languedoc-Roussillon, Castile-La Mancha, Apulia—and Corsica.  Over the past few decades, these regions have loosed so much plonk on the European continent that prices have plummeted and there has traditionally been so much left over that the EU paid subsidies to turn it into industrial alcohol.

In the later years of the twentieth century, some of the subsidies began to be handed out to growers willing to reduce the numbers of vines they tended, and in Corsica, by 2003, that resulted in 17,300 vine acres being uprooted.  Combined with modern techniques like temperature-controlled fermentation, the quality-over-quantity mindset has begun to take hold.

Cutlass-wielding Abbatucci

Cutlass-wielding Abbatucci

Abbatucci is a name you see everywhere in Corsica’s capital city of Ajaccio—there have been lauded Abbatuccis making Corsican waves since the French Revolution.

These days, it’s Jean-Charles Abbatucci who is raising the flag of revolution throughout the wine world, leading the charge with his portfolio of exclusive gems made almost exclusively from rare Corsican varietals, some of which he actually saved from extinction.  Today, his largely man-made ecosystem, comprising about 170 acres, includes terraced groves of olive trees, dry-farmed vineyards, no pesticides, and the unique (and ostensibly, unproven) technique of blasting the grapes with recordings of Corsican folk songs, both in the field and in the winery.

To lovers of native varieties, though, Abbatucci’s wines can be a double whammy.  First, there are hardly any of them available in the United States and the really exemplary ones are very expensive… triple digits in some markets.

labelI consider myself extraordinarily lucky to have been able to sample one of only 2000 bottles of Domaine Comte Abbatucci Ajaccio Cuvée Collection ‘Ministre Impérial at a shop where it retails for around a hundred dollars a bottle.  This strange brew, a blend of Morescola, Morescono, Aleatico, Cacajolo-Nero, Montanaccia, Sciaccarello and Niellucio. A gold medal if you’ve heard of any of these grapes; the brass ring if you’re familiar with all of them.  Niellucio is another name for Sangiovese, but the rest are—as far as I can determine—indigenous cultivars which Abbatucci’s father collected from mountain growers in the early 1960s.

The resulting wine takes on contours unlike virtually any wine I can bring to mine—with a single, odd exception.  It took me a brain-racking moment to recall the organoleptic checklist of certain Norton-based wines from Missouri. In seasons where the grapes fully ripen, there is an exotic combination of flower perfumes and exotic berry spice that mingles; it is the very elusiveness of identification that held my interest until memory dished up the strange variety—a Vitis aestivalis.  Meanwhile, the wine unfolds with a creamy, red berry palate filled with wild raspberry and red currant in the foreground.

David Shildknecht

David Shildknecht

Yet David Shildknecht of Wine Advocate—a dude who overwrites even more shamelessly than yours truly—speaks of this wine’s “virtually endless finish.”   In fact, the one drawback to the wine I noted was the quick fading of the fruit; delightful and exuberant up front, but dropping off quickly, as though lopped in two by a Corsican cutlass.  The finish was indeed long, but composed primarily of wood; a flat, neutral, popsicle-stickiness.  I am assured that Shildknecht was reviewing the same wine, but I couldn’t find a vintage on the label—only a cork with a 2010 stamp, which is what I’m trusting.

It’s an interesting mind game, though.  Nobody who writes in efflorescent bombasticisms as ‘a kaleidoscopically interactive, saliva-inducingly saline, uncannily energetic wine’ is a tasting tenderfoot and nobody who works for Parker is a piker, so how did we come to such diametrically opposite conclusions about a wine’s conclusion?

I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusion.

It would be best if you simply tried the wine on your own and decided who you should trust in future: A highly literate pro who holds a respected position on one of the world’s most influential and widely read wine forums…

Or Shildknecht?

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1 Response to Corsica: Napoleon’s Vinous Dreamscape

  1. Pingback: Liquor Industry News/Links 01-17-15 | Franklin Liquors

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