Of Corse, Part 8 of 9: Porto Vecchio and the Shrinking World

August 15, 2018

The drive between Sartène and Porto Vecchio is beautiful and the day’s sunny, cool, windy weather was perfect for this cinematic dreamscape. We drove by the famous natural sculpture, Lion de Rocapinne, a granite outcrop atop a hill shaped like a perched lion that faced south, like it was guarding the island. The lion’s mythological story is of an impossible love and a sad hero who committed suicide and was then transformed into this natural monument.

We wrapped around the bottom of the island and tried to make out Sardinia. Last year with Manu there was only a little haze and we could barely see it; I couldn’t keep my eyes off it until we turned a corner and it was gone. Without Sardinia in view this year I was transfixed on the beauty of Corsica’s southernmost granite beaches.

The hillsides close to the beach were stripped of most of their soil and left with only short green shrubs that grew from cracks in the rock, with every curve, nook and color variation of the sea beyond. Without another landmass in sight, it felt like we were on the edge of the earth, alone, winding through a land of extraordinary beauty and tranquility. As the sun set behind us, the whispers from the wind came through the windows and after three days of wine madness, we were spent and said little.

We slowly rolled into downtown Porto Vecchio, inside the gulf, and checked into our rooms. I had seen so much beauty in Corsica that Porto Vecchio was just another pretty face and I went straight to my room without marveling at all it had to offer. I laid down on the bed backwards and propped my feet up on the wall for fifteen minutes, which wasn’t nearly long enough; I could’ve passed out on the bed until morning. Instead, a dinner had been arranged and we were expected. Only one more act to play.

We drove to a spot about ten minutes away to meet with the vignerons who came from mainland France for a tasting that was organized by a well-known Corsican sales guy, Pierre-Marie. At this point, I felt a little out of my comfort zone because I was a sort of accidental guest who was backstage at a great show only because of my trip with Manu.

The awkwardness of the moment vanished in the parking lot as soon as I saw Julien Zernott and his wife, Delphine Rousseau, make their way out of a car next to us; it’s easy to spot Julien, a 6’5”, 300 pound giant towering over a crowd of Frenchies. They own a small domaine in the Languedoc, Pas de l’Escalette, and visited me in Santa Barbara just before I left California for France. They were fast becoming some of my most regular French friends and I was set to meet them again at their domaine the following week. Not only that, Pas de l’Escallette is another one of Manu’s clients.

Pas de lEscalette Winemaker
Julien Zernott at his vineyards in the Languedoc

Accompanying them was a well-dressed guy in snazzy eyeglasses, with a full but cleanly trimmed beard and suave, modern Spanish-style clothes, form-fitted to his thin, sturdy frame. By first take, he reminded me of one of those brilliant guys I know who always have a slight mischievousness tucked into their bright smiles. His name was Thierry and his handshake was warm, his eyes connected to the moment, and I knew I was going to like him.

Once in the wine shop, I shook the hands of a number of people I’d never met before. When I’m introduced for the first time, I rarely remember names (except Thierry, just minutes before) because I’m so focused on the energy of the person and what they look like, and not as much on what they are saying. It’s a terrible habit and something I attribute to my general lack of focus and again, that nearly deaf right ear.

Toward the end of the apero, I saw that Delphine was talking with the only woman in the group I had yet to meet. Before I approached them, I warmed up my French with a young Corsican couple for about fifteen minutes, which helped me lose my apprehension. They were an interesting pair who had just begun making infused spirits under the label, U Massicciu, and had been invited to the party to share some of their products with everyone after dinner.

I went over to Delphine, who introduced me to her friend as her California importer. Of course after all my preparation to speak French, the woman immediately switched to perfect English, even after she asked me which I would prefer. I told her my first name and with bright, surprised eyes, she said, “Ted…, Ted Vance??” I smiled, equally surprised. “Oui, c’est moi.” I couldn’t imagine why she would know my name, or why she seemed bewildered, as if she had just met Bond… James Bond. But the wine world is small and as I get older, it gets smaller. You spend enough time working around Europe and the degrees of separation shrink exponentially.

Her name was Anne-Charlotte Genet, and just the night before I happened to request her friendship on Facebook. She had liked a pic I posted the day before of my visit earlier in my trip with Romain Guiberteau, one of the Loire Valley’s most exciting winemakers, and after realizing we had plenty of mutual friends I thought we should connect. Who would’ve known that I’d meet her in a wine shop in Corsica the very next day?

After we had a laugh, Anne-Charlotte revealed that she “worked” for Charles Joguet; I found out the next day at the tasting that it was her father’s domaine. I appreciated that she didn’t feel the need to give me her resumé within five minutes of meeting me. I’ve always liked the Joguet wines and it was nice to meet her and learn about her family’s domaine.

The sales agent, Pierre-Marie, stood in front of me with a big smile under his wine-soaked eyes and long nose. He was as happy as a dog on the beach rolling on a dead seal to have most of his great producers in Corsica at one time. He probably knew I was a little uncomfortable and he dispelled that immediately with a solid, welcoming handshake. I was in, and it was time to relax and enjoy the show.

After tasting a load of Corsican breads, cheeses and meats with a bunch of bubbles from some of the producers (man, do the Champagne guys stick out like a well-manicured thumb in a group of vignerons) we headed to the American style burger joint just next door for dinner. Sure, why not a burger in Corsica instead of some insanely delicious seafood?

Being the foreign guy, I didn’t know what to do about seating, so Julien grabbed me and sat me down. To my left was the daughter of Yves Canerelli, all of about nine years old, while Manu was on my right at the end of the table. Thierry sat across from me and Julien to his right. I had no clue that these two would end up being the most mischievous of the bunch, cheerleading the party to devolve into raucous laughter and hijinx more quickly than I would have expected.

Thierry engaged with me immediately and asked about my involvement with the group and who I was. I told him about importing wine, working with Manu and my interest in Corsica. I still didn’t know who Thierry was, so I asked. It turned out that he was Thierry Germain, one the Loire Valley’s very best vignerons. I’d heard so much about him but I’d never seen a picture before and was totally taken off-guard by how different he looked than I imagined.

The old saying about dogs looking like their owners can be said about wine and their winemakers, but I guess I just didn’t even think about that when I thought about Thierry’s wines. His Loire Valley wines from Saumur and Saumur-Champigny were indeed like him: extremely polite, well-dressed, engaging, thoughtful, intelligent, with a classy demeanor and not a hair out of place. I was truly surprised and immediately had a good feeling about him, though there was no possibility of working together because he works with Kermit Lynch and is surely happy to be there; I was just impressed with him as a person and saw that we had a shared passion for wine. He repeatedly insisted that I visit him the next time I was in Saumur and I happily accepted. I knew by reputation that he’s a super technical and perceptive vigneron, almost surgical with his wines and there’s nothing overlooked in any bottled by his hand. I was looking forward to picking his brain.

Pierre-Marie was glowing as he walked up to our table with some kind of Corsican swagger (whatever that is), carrying Pandora’s Box. Julien’s blue eyes went neon as he stuck his monstrous hand in the box and pulled out a cigar that was about the size and look of a big blood sausage. It was no doubt the biggest cigar I’d ever seen, and a fitting size for Julien, a former rugby player that would’ve been a lineman in the NFL if he were born in the US. Thierry grabbed one too, gave it a sniff and asked for the lighter.

We hadn’t even ordered dinner yet and they lit up and instantly changed the atmosphere of the entire restaurant. I looked at Manu and he smiled sheepishly, cocked his head to the side and shrugged his shoulders. Within minutes, there was smoke billowing out of more than a dozen frogs and it seemed that every waft of smoke was sent my direction. I’ve never experienced anything like it. The stench of my clothes when I went back in the hotel was so bad I thought about leaving them in Porto Vecchio, but decided to just put them in plastic bag so they wouldn’t ruin everything in my suitcase.

With cigars still smoldering as we ate our dinner, we went from one magnum of Corsican wine to the next. There were some pretty good ones, but the white and red from Clos Canarelli stole the show and were in the best company of top domaines in Corsica. They were a fine pairing with the white fish crudo entrée followed by the American style burger I ordered.

Manu and I had the same idea and snuck out of the restaurant early, long before the group completely exorcised the demons that had built up over the last month of being stuck inside during the unexpected cold and rain. It was one of the wettest late winters/early springs in a while and they were all anxious to get to work their vineyards before they were overwhelmed by what would come with the quick temperature shift on the horizon. After a bout of weather like that the vines will play catch up fast. This would be the last party before the 2018 season was suddenly in full swing.

The next day we put in some good time at a tasting that started at ten in the morning. There were some top producers there, and highlights included Abbatucci, Clos Canarelli, Vieux Telegraphe, Charles Joguet, Thierry Germain, Pas de l’Escalette and Yves Leccia. Yes, for those familiar with Kermit Lynch’s portfolio of producers, it seemed like a small Kermit tasting without Kermit. It was great to taste and meet all these superstar vignerons.

Pierre Richarme

When I arrived I immediately looked for Pierre Richarme, the owner and vigneron of the Corsican domaine, Pero Longo. He walked in ten minutes after us and quickly caught my glance. We shook hands and the smile I couldn’t forget from last year was on full display as we tasted his wines and sat for lunch together with Manu.

Manu poured his own wines, GRVins, which we import to California, and they showed beautifully amongst many of Corscia’s best. GRVins is a tiny negociant business where Manu buys organic grapes from some of his best producers and their top parcels (both undisclosed). He supplies all the materials, including 600-liter French oak barrels usually crafted by the cooper, Atelier Centre France—the fastest rising star of the barrel world, and one of my favorites (if I had to choose between new oak barrels).

Gagnepain et Risoul Vins, A.D.N. Patrimonio Blanc

Before Manu and I left the tasting I went back to taste Pierre’s range and tasted them one more time. On the way out the door I asked him if he’d let me represent Pero Longo in California—a moment I had planned before I went to Corsica. I had a good feeling about him from the start and wanted to be a part of what he’s doing and where he’s going to go with his son involved. He was happy to hear that I was interested and answered with a resounding yes.

Next Week: Of Corse, The Last Chapter: A Reflection on Experience from the Inexperienced