When I think of France, I generally stick to the hexagon between Spain and the rest of Europe. However, that’s forgetting Corsica, home to some interesting grapes and wines. France without Corsica is like Australia without Tasmania, though sadly I don’t know that there are many carnivorous marsupials on Corsica. While they do have their own species of Fire Salamander, I’m more interested in their unique wines, such as this Antoine Arena Patrimonio 2009.
Corsica, of course, is a French island in the Mediterranean to the southeast of mainland France and to the north of the Italian island of Sardinia. While part of France, it has it its own widely spoken language (more like Italian than French), and a unique culture. Along with that are some grapes that are endemic to Corsica, including the one used to make this wine, Nielluccio. However, before I get into the grape, a bit more about Corsica and Patrimonio.
Corsica has a long tradition of winemaking, dating back to the Phoceans, who imported grapes to the island. The wine trade has had its ups and downs over the centuries, with a notable down being when the island was under Islamic rule around 700AD, and a notable up when Napoleon Bonaparte, a native son of Corsica born into a winemaking family, allowed Corsica to export its wine without duty throughout the French Empire. In more recent history, the second half of the 20th century saw Corsican wine production grow in quantity at the expense of quality, with it being one of the many sources of the European wine lake. However, since then a combination of vine pulls and the shift toward modern winemaking and application of technology has limited production and improved quality throughout the island.
Corsica has nine AOCs, including a catch-all that geographically covers the entire island. In addition, there is also vin de pays designation that covers the island, Vin de Pays de l’Île de Beauté, for wines that don’t conform to the AOC requirements which account for the bulk of production. This wine is from Patrimonio, a nook of a region in the north on the west side of the northernmost outcropping. The region was the island’s first AOC, established in 1968. Red wines are predominantly Nielluccio, with Grenache and Sciacarello permitted as minor components, while whites are exclusively Vermentino. Rosé wines are largely Nielluccio, though in a rare case of red and white grapes in the same wine, some percentage of Vermentino is also allowed.
The climate of Patrimonio is Mediterranean, with very little rainfall leading up to vintage. With most of the vineyards near the coast, there is very little diurnal temperature variation, as the warmth of the predominantly sunny days is retained by the sea and radiated in the evenings. There are four main soil types on Corsica, with the west coast having granite, the east coast being more sandy and alluvial, the northern outcropping largely schist, and Patrimonio chalk with clay.
Nielluccio is a new grape for me, in that I had never even heard of it until I came across this bottle. It is thought to be a Sangiovese clone, brought to the island by the Genoese when they ruled it between the 14th and 18th centuries, though not everyone subscribes to that belief.
I’m having a difficult time pinning down details on the grape itself, as Jancis Robinson describes it as having low colour in her Vines, Grapes & Wines book but as having intense colour in the OCW. Likewise, it is described as “lacking guts” or structure in the former reference, but having “good, structured tannins” in the latter. The discrepancy is likely due to the former book being published in 1986, versus the OCW being published in 2006, with 20 years of improvement on the part of Corsican wines in between. She apparently has a new book on grapes being readied for publication, and I can’t wait to get my hands on it.
That said, like Sangiovese, it buds early and ripens late, meaning late frosts and autumn rain are both hazards. It does well in limestone soils, such as those of Patrimonio, but it has not found a home as yet outside of Corsica.
Antoine Arena, the producer, is one of the most renown winemakers of Corsica. While he left the island as a young man in search of employment in mainland France, he returned with the rise of the Corsican nationalism in the 1970s, determined to make his home in the land of his birth. Since then, he has been a strong advocate of Patrimonio, particularly for the Paris market. He now works with his two sons, Antoine-Marie and Jean-Baptiste, producing three each single vineyard Nielluccios and Vermentinos, as well as a blended rosé, a Bianco Gentile (near extinct Corsican grape), and a Muscat à Petit Grains.
The vineyards are organically grown and over the last ten years have shifted to biodynamic. Most of the work in the vineyard is done by hand, and a bare minimum of sulphur is used on the vines. Grapes are harvested by hand, aged only in steel, and are bottled unfined and unfiltered, with the use of minimal sulphur (often none).
In the glass, this wine is clear and bright, medium ruby in colour, with quick thick legs. It’s clean on the nose, with medium intensity, a developing character, with herby notes as well as spicy blackberries and cherries. On the palate it’s dry, with medium plus tannins – really grippy – medium plus acidity, medium body, medium plus alcohol, and medium plus length. It has notes of red berries, some chocolate, a bit of pencil lead, a little spicy meat in the middle, and a mocha finish.
At the bottom of the last glass was a wash of sandy diamonds – I should have decanted. Interestingly though, what was left behind was all crystal, and not the black deposit normally thrown in red wine. I know the wine is neither filtered nor fined, but possibly not cold stabilized?
This is a very good wine – interesting and complex – but pehaps not for everyone. It had a certain spicy character that I enjoyed, but the tannins felt a bit dirty, and I don’t mean just teeth staining. I don’t know if rustic is the right word, but if it isn’t, it’s not far from it. The thing is, I know it’s a set of stylistic choices that made this wine the way it is, and in that it’s very good quality and well executed, and while I’d be happy to have another bottle, I can easily imagine people whose opinions I respect not being as keen on its earthiness.