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As we drove Manu’s truck off the ferry we began our ascent from the base of the mountains to the west of Bastia. A crooked road led us up and out of the town with high walls of deformed schist to our right, black from the previous night’s rain, bent in every direction. The fog was dense and flowed like a river in the strong and unusually cold wind. We hit the top of the pass with nothing to see but a dark, wet road and softly brightened fog. It was a stark contrast to last year’s welcoming first sight of the ancient village of Patrimonio and the dramatic limestone ridges of Monte Sant-Angelo, framed by a bright blue sky and the sea in the background. As we descended the western side of the ridge, we passed a graffiti tag on a schist guardrail that read, “tourists go home,” in thin red spray paint. I remembered it from last year—apparently, the locals are okay with keeping it there, and ironically, I kinda was too. The unmistakable limestone ridge that sits between the beach town Saint Florent and Patrimonio finally popped through the fog. As we entered Patrimonio, we saw the old church tower and passed a red trim white village sign that read, Patrimonio, which had been blacked out with spray paint. Patrimoniu, the Corsican name for the village, was spelled out below, tag free—a common mark of the village signs on the island. Patrimonio may be the most geologically complex wine region on Corsica. The vineyards are a mix of limestone, schist and granite—three of the greatest bedrocks and soil types for wine growing—with a range of soil grains from clays, silts, sands and gravels. Vines are planted on soft sloping hills, down in former riverbeds and up on extremely steep hillsides. This massive variation makes for a broad patchwork of smells and tastes that usually combine under one name, Patrimonio, the first AOC (1968) established on the island. Patrimonio white is made exclusively from Vermintinu, the island’s top white wine. It’s a salty, minerally, spicy textured wine that smells like the sea. The lovely and complex rosés are a blend of Niellucciu (75% minimum to call it Patrimonio) with other red grapes as well as Vermintinu. Red Patrimonio is always led by the powerful and rustic Niellucciu, often blended with small quantities of Sciacarellu, a red grape that makes the most complex elegant reds on the island, and/or Grenache to bring more charm. Our first visit was with a domaine that still had problems with “stuck fermentations” on some 2017 reds. This can happen when there is too much sugar in the grapes, which results in high alcohol levels, and the yeast begins to die before all the sugar is converted to alcohol and CO2; there are many studies and opinions as to what the threshold of a wild/natural yeast is, but it seems that over potential alcohol levels of 14% the risk is high. With too much leftover sugar and no active yeast, other microbes start to eat the sugar, and one of the more famous “bugs” is the spoilage yeast, Brettanomyces, which smells like an old barnyard with all its less than desirable nuances. Volatile acidity, unintended premature oxidation and many more challenges can arise, potentially making the wine more unstable, less attractive and scarred by these early problems. The winemaker didn’t have much time so we went through only the most difficult wines, and none of the good ones. Some were ticking along, while others were dead in their tracks, exchanging freshness for early fatigue. This is one of the big challenges of 2017, and Manu was there to advise his vignerons on how to navigate these kinds of problems. Our second visit at Muriel Gaudicelli’s tiny biodynamic domaine was more convincing because their 2017s seemed to be going just fine. We tasted with her husband, Stéphane, who works with her every step of the way. The wines of the past were already very good, but it seems the newer vintages have taken a leap forward with Manu on board. The new results show a great balance of power and elegance, enough for them to be picked up by Kermit Lynch, a US importer who seems to nearly have a national monopoly on Corsica’s best. It was an enlightening tasting compared to the last year, which I partially attribute to my lack of experience with the wines of Corsica up to that point rather than simply the jump in quality. We stopped for a quick lunch in Saint-Florent, a charming village that sits on the Golfe de Saint Florent. I was again desperate for veggies and fish but the only thing that seemed worthwhile on the menu (at a reasonable price!) was the cannelloni stuffed with Brocciu, a local fresh cheese similar to ricotta. Turns out, it was the perfect kind of warm comfort food for this relentlessly cold and windy day. Our stop after lunch was with Lisandru Leccia. He took over his family’s estate, Domaine Leccia, in 2014 and has already made large strides in the right direction. We had an appointment at two o’clock and arrived early. Out in the vineyards we saw some guys operating a tractor, with one driving and two directing the plow blades behind it. Manu said that even though he’d never met Lisandru, he knows his father and that the bald guy out behind the tractor was likely him. As we started out to the vineyard, we were met by Lisandru’s aunt, Annette Leccia, a woman with an unforgettable smile and warm energy. Lisandru is a near carbon copy of his father, Yves. Both have sharp features, a shiny bald head and dark, thick eyebrows, a quiet demeanor and in Levi’s blue jeans. I met Yves Leccia in Paris two years ago while on tour with my friend, Nicolas Rébut, his sales agent there. We had dinner two nights in a row and I was immediately fond of him. Yves is gentle and hospitable, and meeting his son Lisandru was like meeting him again, when he was younger. Lisandru took us for a tour of his simply designed cellar and talked about the changes he wanted to make to the domaine, including more work with biodynamic principles, starting with the incorporation of higher level organic farming. The wines we tasted out of tank (2016, 2017) showed clear promise and the red was a lot more elegant than what I associate with Patrimonio, despite it being 100% Niellucciu grown on clay and limestone soils—three ingredients that can easily make more of a beast than a beauty. I have no doubt that Domaine Leccia will rise again and become one of the top domaines in Patrimonio. Lucky for us, Jerome Brenot, The Source’s resident Grenouille, sniffed that one out at the beginning of the domaine’s renaissance and we’re now importing his wines. Next Week: Of Corse, Part 3 of 9: Josée and the Alérian Plains
It’s summertime and while we tend to veer toward drinking bubbles, rosé and white, reds still have their occasion. The six red wines in our offer come from six different organic and biodynamic growers. What I’ve chosen is only one of the many wines each of these growers makes. So, don’t stop with these, dig into their other wines by clicking their link, because there is so much pleasure and fascination to be found in each wine we import directly from these producers. I’ve written a brief summary about the wines in The Skinny. If you want more, like I always do, you’ll find a more extended piece below that I enjoyed writing, titled, A Faux Seasonal Affair, which also includes a more in-depth overview of the wines. The Skinny 2017 A. Peraccia Ajaccio Rouge "Prestige Cuvée" There’s x-factor for days in this exotic and spicy red from Corsica. Thanks to its proximity to the sea, the granite soils and most of all, the lovely Sciacarello grape, this wine is a dandy. It looks and expresses like a wine from the Reynaud family of wines (I know the Rayas comparison is overused, but these wines really go that direction), but tastes Corsican. It’s one of the most compelling wines we import and we’re only able to get very small quantities. 2016 A.D.N. Patrimonio Rouge Patrimonio is often Corsica’s most rustic, manly, hairy-chested wine, but A.D.N.’s takes a leap into a more elegant world with this wine primarily composed of Niellucciu, the island’s adapted version of Sangiovese, the famous grape from Tuscany. This wine is suave, with gobs of crunchy bright red and black fruits and lots of texture, and the full range of the island’s smells and sunny demeanor. 2013 La Madura Saint-Chinian "Grand Vin" If one were to measure a wine’s merit by the length of its finish, layers of complexity and quality of craft, this wine would rank near the top. It’s a clean and full-throttle old-school style red mix of Mourvèdre and Syrah aged in concrete and old oak barrels. There’s not an ounce of slack here, just layer upon profound layer of texture and nuance; and it's savory to the bone—perfect for a night of long conversation in the cool summer night air. 2017 Jean David Seguret Rouge This is singing Provençal dialect in a bottle. Jean David concedes all to his nature-filled terroirs and the old-vine Grenache, Carignan and Counoise blend in his Seguret makes the wine deep and vibrant but a refreshing take from one of the Côtes-du-Rhône’s best kept secrets. If you miss more crunchy redness in your southern French wines, this is a good place to recapture it, as these wines are picked with ripeness that truly hits the mark. 2018 Pas de L'Escalette Coteaux du Languedoc "Les Petits Pas" It is only a matter of time before Languedoc reds shake the misconception that they are all bruisers. It is indeed the biggest region for French wine production—often of the mass variety, but this size also brings diversity in the terrain that can translate into some zones that make for crunchier style reds. Escalette’s organically farmed vineyards are in one of the coldest zones of the appellation, far from the Mediterranean. This is a sweet spot on rocky mountain terrain that preserves the tension and high-toned aromas in this Grenache, Syrah and Carignan blend. 2017 Roc des Anges Côtes-du-Roussillon "Segna de Cor" This biodynamic winegrower is going to almost single-handedly change France’s Roussillon. (Yup, big claim…) Their wines have snap and freshness, and stick out like a beacon of hope for this region known for its exhaustive reds and fortified wines. For any serious wine drinker or Francophile, these can’t be passed over if one wants to stay in the know. This wine is a mix of Grenache, Carignan and Syrah. A Faux Seasonal Affair (The Extended Skinny) I have many fond memories of Southern France, and I relive most of them at least twice a year with Pierre and Sonya, the extraordinarily talented cooks and two of the most loyal and generous friends I’ve ever had. Mas La Fabrique is their private country home in the Provençal village, Graveson, located between the ancient papal city of Avignon and the Roman city, Arles, to the south. Here the fire in their kitchen is never dormant for more than a couple of hours and the subject of food never ceases. Meals are planned days in advance and sometimes weeks. Even more than a month before I come, Sonya begins to press me for exactly what meals I will partake in and on what days. If only I were as good at business planning as they are with their meals. The contents of La Fabrique’s meals are sourced from local purveyors, including the fabulous outdoor market located in the former Roman outpost, Van Gogh hospital locale and current celebrity hotspot, Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, and whatever you can’t find there you can get a little further south at the mile-long market in Arles, another Roman and Van Gogh hangout. The best nights in Provence are in the summer, when dinners are outside under the starry night sky and the occasional chaotic whistle of the forceful woosh of the cleansing mistral winds through the cypress trees and the constant, mesmerizing chirp of countless invisible cicadas. Once past the aperitif, which usually involves rosé on ice (yes, I do this sometimes too…) and the almost certain first course of cold fish, seafood or vegetables followed by fresh, taut and salty white wines, the main event begins. Of course a lighter red is the right start because its still hot out and the sun is still strong, but when the mountains and trees begin to shield the sun, and the cool, sometimes thick, soft air eases the parched earth and the trees and flowers, and the wind fans a welcome damp freshness to the skin, a chilled, sweating bottle of southern French red is the proper transition into the night. Many people carry the idea that it’s sort of a faux pas to drink full flavored, richer reds in the warmer evenings, but I don’t subscribe to this at all; we just have to wait for it to cool down a bit first and drink the red with a deeper chill than room temperature. Some think southern French reds, and other reds like them, only fit into occasions almost exclusively for cooler months. While it’s true that these heavier wines naturally compliment richer, stronger flavored dishes served with more regularity in cooler times, my summer night meals in France are often chock full of flavor and richness too, especially when the produce has regained its natural, non-greenhouse and hydroponic flavors, and the meat courses begin to make their way to an open flame. And anyone who has spent time in the south of France and dined with the French or lives close to the ocean where it can be hot in the day and sweater-worthy at night knows that the only thing faux is the idea that full-flavored red wine is a seasonal affair. Red wines somehow enrich the meal in ways that whites and rosés don’t, no matter what time of year it is. It seems to better pair up with the deeper conversations that arise later in the night, relaxing us while softening our concentration and rendering us fully present. It helps us shed the weight of the world that then somehow remains absent until after lunch the next day. Big southern French reds, like Bandol, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, or medium-sized Saint-Chinian or Côtes-du-Rhônes somehow fit into almost all occasions, and every season. Let’s remember to forget those false ideas ordained by those who forgot how to live! Do it the southern French way, where red wine is the occasion whether it is le dîner à l'automne, en hiver, au printemps ou en été. Wine Stories I adore A. Peraccia's Prestige Cuvée. We get too few bottles from this Corsican gem in Ajaccio, and the only thing that stopped this minuscule allocation from disappearing as quickly as it did last year was that they had only just arrived a few months before the world shut down, so this is a rare opportunity for everyone to pounce on. A bear of a man, Laurent Costa is the one-man-show who works his vineyards by hand, employing biodynamic and certified organic practices. Rich in beguiling x-factors channeled by Corsica’s queen red grape, Sciacarello, and the iron-rich sandy granite vineyards soils, Laurent’s Ajaccio red wines are unexpectedly captivating and complex for extremely modest prices. First timers may be taken off guard as the utterly compelling and peculiar characteristics far exceed the expectation of the price of this wine, and like any wine of true breed, you need to be patient with this one to see all of its dimensions. The color is lightly rusted garnet; the aromas are effusive, exotic and savory; and the palate is compact with a core of sappy, glycerol orange-tinted red fruits and refreshing mineral textures. It shares a similar temperament and x-factor with some uniquely individual wines, like those from France’s legendary Château Rayas and Corsica’s Abbatuci, a couple hours’ drive south, and Sicilian Frappatos by COS and Occipintini, and Langhe wines made by Guiseppe Mascarello and Fabio Alessandria, from Burlotto. The comparison to these luminaries may seem overindulgent (and it is only when comparing historic pedigree with some of the wines these producers make), but in delivery, Laurent’s wines speak the same heightened dialect and holds its own. Moving north and further toward the east in Corsica, we arrive at Patrimonio, one of the wine world’s most complex geological spots. Granite is the most dominant geological feature for wine production on the island, but here there is the full gamut of sedimentary, metamorphic and igneous rock, sometimes even within the same vineyard. This makes for an immense amount of palate texture and depth of complexity in the resulting wines. This wine, an exciting expression of Patrimonio, is crafted by Emmanuel Gagnepain, one of France’s most well known enologists, a man with a penchant for elegance over power—quite the contrary to most enologists charged with the job of point catcher. The A.D.N. Patrimonio is grown on limestone and schist from a few different parcels and is a blend of mostly Niellucciu (believed to be from the same parent material as Sangiovese), a grape with good acidity and structure, with smaller amounts of the more elegant and high-toned aromatic, Sciaccarellu. Limestone imparts more muscle and broad complexity while the schist seems to impart more deep mineral/metal characteristics and sharper angles. The 2016 is especially refined for a Patrimonio red wine. The vintage was perfect for those who like some freshness, and the palate texture is rich in mineral sensations. Overall this organically farmed wine is a solid balance of the rustic and the suave, with good upfront red fruits and already revealing great secondary and tertiary characteristics akin to a good Brunello, minus the power, pain and high alcohol. It's a lovely wine, great with food, and a clear demonstration of the genetic and cultural heritage shared between Italy and France on Corsica. This organically farmed wine is such a steal when considering the price and delivery. And with the extra years in bottle, La Madura's Saint-Chinian "Grand Vin" has opened up into its prime drinking window with many more years to continue its upward climb. Another blend of different bedrocks, topsoils, and grapes, the range on this wine is vast—truly… Mourvedre and Syrah take center stage and are collected from many different parcels grown on limestone, sandstone and schist bedrock, with topsoils heavy in rock derived from the bedrock and clay to cement it all in place. All of these elements contribute in different ways to the blend, giving broad impact on the palate with just the right amount of cut to keep it fresh and enticing. Once opened, the dense perfume of southern France opens up fields filled with the lavender and thyme that permeate the aromas. The palate has a balanced density with red earth, molten iron, meat and chaparral. As the wine unfolds, its softer sides take shape and offer up more red and purple fruits, Middle Eastern spices, coffee, garrigue and a deep, salty and mineral freshness. We’re all in on this one and if you like a little gentle oomph with your wines, this is a must. Being organic or biodynamic is a way of life, not just a philosophy reserved for the fields, or an effort to keep up with a current marketing trend. The age of extraction and chemical farming continues to lose ground, and Jean David, one of France’s humble and often overlooked heroes was ahead of the curve when he went full organic in 1979, a radical move at the time in a region overwrought by chemical farming within one of France’s main breadbaskets, Provence. His home is Seguret, a small wine-producing village set on the fringe of the better known wine appellations, Gigondas and Vacqueras, and further to the west, the most famous, Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Seguret should be more well-known, but I’m happy to say that it’s not. It remains quaint and not overrun by tourists (at least in the off-season) with the occasional painter in the street working away, or a man sitting alone on the back of his truck playing the guitar for his own pleasure—both of which my wife and I saw on the same day in Seguret with not another soul in sight. It’s an inspiring village of narrow rock passageways, thankfully not suitable for cars, with sometimes just enough room for one person at a time to pass. Seguret is an epicenter for geological studies and contains countless different rock formations from different epochs that date as far back as almost two hundred million years, with everything that’s happened up to now piled on top. Largely composed of limestone, clay and sand, the vineyards of Seguret begin low on the Ouvèze River terraces with soils derived from river deposits and work their way up toward the steep Dentelles de Montmirail, a jagged uplift of vertically positioned rocks, largely composed of limestones. It is geologically complex and so are its wines, especially for such modest prices. In these parts, there is always potential for high alcohol, power, extraction and prematurely aged, brown-tinted Grenache wines; but in Seguret the story can take a brighter more fresh turn, as it does with Jean’s wines. Protected by the Dentelles mountain range and the cool winds that flow through the Ouvèze down from Mont Ventoux, the great white limestone capped mountain of Provence, the wines can be more garnet red and dark pink on the rim of the glass, indicating less oxidation in the aging and earlier picking of the fruit. Jean’s fresh-tasting wines are balanced by the cold winds from Ventoux at night, the fifty-plus-year-old vines of Grenache (55%), Carignan (25%) and Counoise (20%), the concrete tanks the wines are vinified and aged in, the almost non-existent use of sulfur, and Jean’s pension from an organic, artistic way of life with the sole purpose to capture the true essence of his countryside in his finished product. They are true wines, with their tastes a result of concession to their land and its historical culture, truly worthy of attention from anyone looking for something honest and without pretension. From the moment the Pas de L'Escalette "Les Petits Pas" was created, Julien and Delphine’s intention was to create a charmer in their line of wines that didn’t take itself too seriously —hence the full color pinkish red label with neon green footprints, inspired by their children. Pas de L’Escalette is nestled up into an ancient roadway that connects the Languedoc to the north by way of France’s central mountain range, the Massif Central. This is cooler wine country, far from the Mediterranean, so it’s plenty cold at night, even in the summer and this is what imparts their wines with more zippy freshness and crunchy red and dark fruits, which make it a perfect wine for warm weather. Les Petits Pas is a multi-parcel blend of organically farmed vines on limestone terroirs with a mix of 40% Grenache, 40% Syrah and 20% Carignan. Each of these grapes naturally carries ample freshness which is magnified by a little chill, making it anything but heavy under the sun. It is indeed a compelling wine for us wine geeks, but it’s more of a drink it, don’t think it kind of wine, high brow and low maintenance at the same time. It doesn’t constantly tug at your sleeve begging to show you how good it is, it’s just good. Roc des Anges is not the kind of domaine you expect to find in the Roussillon. Marjorie and Stéphane Gallet, both transplants from other parts of France (the Côte-Rotie area and Normandy, respectively), have constructed a biodynamic wine sanctuary in the Vallée de l’Agly, a nearly deserted vineyard land dominated by co-ops and famous for producing fortified wines. (The locals continue to abandon vines every year because the yields are tragically low and make it one of the most difficult places in France to make a living with vineyards.) Since she began the project in 2001 (at age twenty-three), Marjorie’s intuitive and peaceful contemplation has resulted in wines that carry a signature of purity, focus and elegance unlike anything made in the region. They are low alcohol, hands-off, mind-on wines bottled by varietal from single sites on specific and unique soil compositions. In smell and taste, their structure and style more closely resemble that of their earthy and salty cousins from the middle of France’s Loire Valley. The Segna de Cor is their starting block red, and it’s a knockout, as is their entire range, which I cannot recommend enough for their compelling interpretation of this part of the world. Senga de Cor is a blend of Grenache, Carignan and Syrah grown on schist. She picks the grapes weeks earlier than everyone else, and at first, her neighbors thought she was crazy. It’s impossible to think that now, and it was only a matter of time before someone came along and went against the grain to begin the reshaping of an entire region’s image. They’re doing it and the wines are fabulous.
David Risoul and Emmanuel (Manu) Gagnepain, two consulting enologists in France, started a new project with some of their vignerons in 2014. It was simple: buy grapes from some of the best organically farmed sites from a few of their top producers in different regions, make the wines from one source for each wine in the producer’s cellar and have them finished according to their ideas and then bottle it at each domaine. Manu and David purchase their own materials for each wine, including the barrels (all 500-liter French oak), select each parcel and manage the wine with Manu’s monthly visits to the estates. Their winegrowing clients love it because they get to compare their wines with those of another project with fruit sourced from their same vineyards. But one of the caveats is that the specific source of the fruit remains anonymous to us—la belle inconnue!
I first visited Corsica a number of years ago and was struck by the sheer complexity of this island’s geographical profile. Affectionately referred to as the l’Île de Beauté by the French, and famously “a mountain in the sea” by the German geographer, Friedrich Ratzel, Corsica is one of France’s (and formerly Italy’s) most spectacular departments, and the fourth largest island in the Mediterranean Sea. With more than fifty peaks that sit above two-thousand meters and the splendor of a massive nature preserve locked in by an endless amount of gorgeous beaches, it lives up to its namesakes. Wherever there are mountains there’s usually a large diversity of micro-climates and geological settings. Corsica’s mountains can block weather front from one side of the island to the next, and where there may be snow on the mountains, an early spring day at water’s edge can seem like summer has come early. Geologically, Corsica is diverse but dominated by granite, which makes up around two-thirds of the landscape. The granite lands here are geologically referred to as Crystalline Corsica (named after the quartz crystals that are always a part of the makeup of the igneous rock, granite), while the other third located in the northeast of the island is known as Alpine Corsica. To dig a little deeper into the foundation (the soil) of the wines, Corsica is divided into two main geological units (yes, getting a little technical here, thanks to the years of tutoring from and traveling with my talented geologist friend, Brenna Quigley): Crystalline Corsica and Alpine Corsica. The former is named after the quartz crystals in the granite soil that makes up about two-thirds of the island—basically its heart and the entire southern end and most of the western seaboard. Often where you find granite you find metamorphic soils nearby (as demonstrated within the Galician Massif, Massif Armorican, Massif Central and the two main mountain regions of Western Europe, the Alps and Pyrenees) because of collateral heat and/or pressure that has augmented (metamorphosed) the rocks. This is also the case with the smaller geological unit of the two on the island referred to as Alpine Corsica. Located on the far North and Eastern part of the island, Alpine Corsica is composed of deformed rocks that were created by the collision of sedimentary rocks formed between 60-250 million years ago with Crystalline Corsica during the alpine orogeny (mountain building period), which began about 60 million years ago and is still active today. The result is a great volume of different metamorphic rock formations (like schist, gneiss) gabbro (an igneous rock) and more—basically the geological rock star roster of France’s Muscadet wine region) as well as bits of volcanic basalt and other igneous rocks. Crystalline Corsica is a pre-Alpine granite basement, a geological remnant of the Earth’s last supercontinent (where all of today's continents were one connected mass), Pangea. This is an ancient granite land that was formed hundreds of millions of years and can take on many types of soil grain based on things like the size of its mineral makeup, like how big its quartz crystals are. Granite can decompose into everything between gravels, sands and clay; all very different soil types that contribute distinguishable qualities to the structure of a wine; stating that the soil is granite gives some important information but its influence on the wine is not as well understood without a description of the grain of the soil. The ability to retain water and the mineral accessibility within a soil are impacted by the grain size, and this combination contributes to the shape of a wine—whether it be some of the wine descriptors we use, like “vertical” and “horizontal,” or references to the body of the wine, from “elegant” to “rich,” for example. Patrimonio (pictured above) may be the most geologically complex wine region on Corsica. The vineyards are a mix of limestone, schist and granite—three of the greatest bedrocks and soil types for wine growing—with a range of soil grains from clay, silt, sand, gravel, stones, boulders, etc. Vines are planted on soft sloping hills and extremely steep hillsides as well as down in former riverbeds. This massive variation makes for a broad patchwork of smells and tastes that usually combine under the name Patrimonio, the first AOC established on the island back in 1968. Across the board, the diverse geological features throughout the island contribute to wines of high energy and expressive personality. Putting elegance, acidity, precision and perfume above all else, as well as conscious farming practices (often organic and biodynamic), the range of wines from our Corsican producers all exemplify the spirit of Corsica in the bottle. (The geological map was borrowed from Researchgate.net and the vineyard map from Wikipedia. The other photos were taken by me.)
At precisely 4:15 Manu insisted that we leave the tasting. Traffic could be a bear going north on a Friday and we had a three-hour drive from Porto Vecchio to Bastia to catch our boat. Last year our trip was a more fluid route with less back and forth across the island. We started in Bastia and made one loop around the island and left from Ajaccio. Manu was nervous about the time but we made it with plenty to spare. On the boat’s ninth floor lounge we ordered a couple of Pietra beers, the most well known Corsican suds. The waitress reluctantly took our order and that of a table next to us and then seemed to disappear. After twenty minutes passed I told Manu to forget it and to go to the bar to order what he wanted. He returned with a couple of beers and some peanuts and told the table next to us that someone told him she wasn’t coming back. We never did see her again. A pair of singers started performing with recorded background music, occasionally playing a saxophone or guitar to add some complexity to their set. They were surprisingly good for a couple of ferry singers; the man sounded like Art Garfunkel and I had to look twice to make sure it wasn’t him. The ferry was a time warp between the music, the deteriorating décor and all the people dressed in 1980s fashion. I couldn’t decide if it was a rundown version of The Love Boat, or an at-sea version of the first act in The Shining. We had a great view of the port of Bastia with the city lights illuminating the town’s colorful buildings and church. The light of our last day on Corsica was almost gone when the boat pushed off and curved north and the view changed to the dark sea between Corsica and Italy. Dinner was quick and passable. We drank a bottle of Dolcetto di Dogliani and had the seafood pasta special (a perfect pairing, I know…). After dinner I was toast. I went to my cabin, brushed my teeth and hit the sack—hard. People joke that I live the easy life and my trips are a vacation, but they are by far the most exhausting days of my work. These trips throw the body off rhythm for weeks, and in my case, months. My body temperature changes dramatically between being in vineyards in the freezing wind, rain and sometimes snow, with hours a day in cold cellars. It’s not hard physical work, but with all the standing, talking and tasting, it’s a slow breakdown and it can take forever to get the chill out of the bones. All of my senses are activated for more than fourteen hours a day. My eyes feast on the scenery and the people, and my nose is in the gym doing rep after rep. My tongue feels like a snake that sheds its skin every three weeks—loving high acid wine has its drawbacks. I’m hard of hearing, so I sometimes have to strain to catch and understand all the French thrown my way what with all its dialects that contain so many subtleties. My mind is on overdrive and my limitations are tested regularly, especially after first six weeks straight of tasting and travel on a ten-week trip. I woke up at six with the help of the cabin crew announcement of our arrival to Toulon in one hour and as I showered I was thankful for the seven hours I slept. I met up with Manu and we headed down to his truck to disembark. It was early in France and late back home. No one was around and Manu and I took advantage of the free mental space of the early morning drive back to Avignon and stared off into road ahead without saying much. We were bushed and happy for the arrival of the weekend. Manu dropped me at the Avignon TGV station. I grabbed my new rental car—number two of what would end up as seven on this trip—and headed back to La Fabrique to get some sleep and await the arrival of my wife the following Monday. I had thirty-six hours off and I took them. There is no département in France quite like Corsica. Its separation from France by the sea and closer proximity to Italy is evident in every bit of its culture. I have been to France and Italy many times over the last two decades, and aside from the French language, the preservation of its Italian roots is obvious within the wines made from the island’s ancient varietals. Corsican wines weren’t love at first taste for me; nor were many wines I’ve come to adore with time. There are many generic, rustic and unnecessarily heavy red wines that I could do without, Nielluciu for one, a beast that has yet to inspire me. I keep asking myself if I’m missing something and I look forward to my ah-ha moment with this grape. Vermentinu is without a doubt a white wine of great potential. There is a broad range of styles from dense to lithe, and most are loaded with smells of ocean spray and minerals, unless they’ve been obliterated by oak. Rosé is an obvious talent for Corsica. The red grapes there lend themselves perfectly for this kind of salty fresh wine with no shortage of aromatic expression and beauté. They’re tremendously pleasurable, many are seductive, and at the top domaines it’s easy to find sophistication. The simplicity employed in the making of these wines seems to serve them well and it’s when they’re done in this manner that they most carry the taste of the island. Sciacarellu is the most compelling prospect, at least for me. Granite soils encourage a greater degree of elegance and salinity in the wines and this combination is one of the rare matches made in wine heaven. (I would also be interested to see more of it produced in the Patrimonio area on limestone and bottled alone). Sciacarellu has plenty of x-factor and will stand alone as a complex and pure wine of nobility without the addition of other grapes, no matter what soil it’s grown in. I’ve fallen for this grape and can’t wait to see it blossom even more with the rise of so many domaines. I have no profound conclusion from my trips to the island and the time in-between, I’ve only found a better idea of what Corsican wine is to me. There are compelling high-end wines made by a select group of vignerons, and the quality across the island seems to be on the rise. Yet it is the basic range of wines from top producers, the least touched and overwrought, that best capture the joy and the charm of the island and its people.
I meant to write something about my experience in Corsica last year, but I was overwhelmed and couldn’t get it together. I went with my wife, Andrea, and Emmanuel (Manu) Gagnepain, a very well-respected enologist and viticulturist who quietly consults with a large helping of top clients in Corsica—Abbatucci, Vaccelli and Sebastian Poly are a few highlights. We made twelve visits in three days and covered a lot of ground on the island the first time. Just when I began to grasp one thing, we sped off to the next. It was an intense trip, so this time around I knew what to expect; my wife did too, which is why she turned down the opportunity to go back. This year’s trip was going to be a mix of tasting the 2015, 2016 and 2017 vintages. 2015 was a solid year, with bigger, solar-powered wines. The 2016s were more elegant and high-toned (aérien, a terribly difficult word to pronounce correctly, even for the French), and 2017 was a ripe vintage that created some unique challenges. It was going to be an interesting tour. After a day and half of rest at La Fabrique, my usual place of respite in Provence, with my friends, Pierre and Sonya, I had just enough time to do my laundry and pack it up again for another five days out. I’d just spent twenty days travelling through Burgundy, Champagne and the Loire Valley with visits to just over thirty domaines, eating way too much meat, bread and cheese, and very little vegetables, so I was desperate for some greens. Luckily, Pierre and Sonya filled the weekend with the season’s first artichokes, white asparagus, and loads of greens and strawberries, along with mussels, fish, and the usual intake of secondhand smoke from my nicotine committed friends. I jumped into Manu’s new blue VW pickup truck and within the first minute, we made an agreement: I would speak French while he spoke English. (My wife and I are planning to relocate to Italy in September and I wanted two solid weeks of French practice before I moved on to Italian and the next leg of my life.) Immediately we picked up the wine talk where we left off last year and it didn’t stop during every waking hour over three days—another reason my wife wanted sit this one out. I was introduced to Manu’s wines by a well-known French sommelier, Fabrice Langlois, who visited me at La Fabrique last year. I loved them and asked for an introduction, so Fabrice and I went to Manu’s house in Avignon right after lunch. Manu looks more German than French; he’s tall and blond with fair skin that only finds different shades of red and pink from the sun. He speaks softly yet is always intensely focused. His French comes out quietly but at a blistering pace. I speak and understand French reasonably well but I can hardly understand anything he says, though I’m sure that my being half deaf in one ear doesn’t help. Manu works with many producers in the south of France, but he’s fanatical about Corsica and has a love affair with the island, its people and its wines. His dream is to live there and have his own domaine, a dream that has started to come to fruition through a partnership with his most famous client, Jean-Charles Abbatucci. He told me how many producers he worked with in Corsica, and after only two hours after meeting him, I mustered up the gall to ask him if I could come along sometime to learn about it. I was surprised when he happily agreed. Four weeks later, Manu and I were en route to Bastia, Corsica, after my wife and I had spent some time in Austria and Italy. We had a good feeling about each other; it felt like I’d known him for years and I think he felt the same. After our previous trip I realized I didn’t know as much about him outside of the wine culture as I wanted to. I scoured the internet and came up with next to nothing. The only thing I found was a mention in a small piece Kermit Lynch wrote when he began to import a lot of the best Corsican wines to the States. Later on, Manu told me that he consciously avoids social media because he thinks it creates problems when his clients don’t get equal attention on his feed, and he’s right, I’ve experienced that firsthand with some of our producers. So he prefers to do things the old-school way, relying on word of mouth; the wine world is small and word travels fast when wines are great. Over the years he’s amassed a client base of more than seventy domaines (with a long waiting list) and earned a tremendous reputation amongst top scientific thinkers of the French wine world. I’ve never seen someone sustain his level of consistent intensity and he does it all alone. Manu was born in Beaune, the heart of Burgundy and perhaps its most famous historic village. Originally he wanted to be a doctor, but there was a timing issue with his application to medical school. His second choice was wine, so he moved to Dijon after he finished his Baccalaureat (the French equivalent of a high school diploma) and attained the highest degree of formal education given in the country for enology and viticulture. His scientific knowledge about wine and the vine are as impressive as they are intimidating, and he approaches the subject like a doctor with his patient. He has an inexhaustible palate; he smells and tastes with tremendous speed and focus while rattling off his diagnoses, which is quickly followed by his suggestion for the remedy (if one is needed). He visits his domaines once a month to follow the wines more closely and to avoid making decisions based on one moment of each wine’s evolution. To spend three days with him analyzing wine is enough to make me feel I’ve learned a lot, while at the same time is deeply humbling. We boarded our Italian-run ferry in Toulon, a somewhat rough military town in the Côte d’Azur that had seen better days. It’s not the nicest town in Côte, but the beautiful landscape reminded me of why people lived there in the first place. It’s just a pity they had to put a military base in the middle of it all. We drove Manu’s truck onto the ferry and checked in to our rooms. After a marginal but acceptable dinner in a fancy restaurant on the ninth floor of the ferry, which included a bottle of Italian Barbera d’Alba—my first Italian wine in over three weeks, and not worth the wait—we settled into our cabins. After a couple of hours of tossing and turning I finally went to sleep. I figure I’d caught only about four hours before there was an announcement from the crew that we needed to get it together for our arrival in Bastia. We had our longest day of the trip ahead of us and Manu was anxious to hit the road. Next Week: Of Corse, Part 2 of 9: Patrimonio and the Rebirth of an Old Domaine