Bonjour du Wild West du sud de la France,
La Corse, as it is named in French, is often referred to as France’s Wild West, a rustic and relatively untouched natural landscape of rugged mountainous interior and stunning Mediterranean coastline comprised of sandy/rocky beaches and craggy eroded cliffs. An historically tumultuous range of invaders/settlers have left their mark on its history, with the original inhabitants being comprised of several Mediterranean tribes from neighboring Sardinia and coastal Italy. It was the Romans who both gave the island its name, referring to the NE tribe of settlers as Corsi, and who brought with them the grape vine, olives, latin based language, and irrigation. Today, its wild beauty and feel good climate make it a staple vacation site for Europeans, making tourism by far the most dominant sector of the economy.
In the last decade, there has been a qualitative renaissance of the long and storied wine production of the island (the oldest viticultural region in all of France in fact), with both benchmark pioneers and up and coming stars finding audience with an ever growing export market. Both the locals and those who vacation there have known for decades just how good the wines are from the native late-ripening red/rose wine varieties such as Sciaccarellu, Nielluciu, and the white Vermentinu. The rest of the world is quickly catching up to the unique and bright beauty and refreshment that these wines offer, as they reflect the cool seaside granite and limestone based soils and the signature wild herb qualities imparted by the native flora/fauna that the Corsicans refer to as the maquis, a local equivalent of the garrigue of the Rhone valley.
Today’s intro finds us on the southwest coast near Ajaccio (a-jock-see-o), a granitic landscape where Sciaccarellu finds its noblest expression. This variety is close in appearance and color to Pinot Noir, taking its name from a Corsican adjective that literally means “crispy-crunchy between the teeth” as it has tough skins. For the red wines, they’re red fruited, full bodied, with fine grained tannins and good bright acidity; the signature maquis wild herbal component can’t be missed. You can imagine if Grenache and Pinot Noir had a child, and then raised it smack dab in the middle of the mediterranean, you’d get Sciaccarellu. One hypothetical analogy would combine the ripeness of Grenache, and the pallor and acidity of Pinot Noir. For the pink wines made from Sciaccarellu, these are the best of the island, with pale pink color, bright acidity, and are all about small red fruited perfume, minerality, and flavors and aromas of the maquis. Vermentinu (aka Rolle in France) also thrives here, making intensely perfumed medium to full bodied dry wines with great verve, minerality, and a complex floral dimension.
Amber and I wind our way along dizzying mountain roads, passing through a few tiny picturesque and rustic hamlets before descending into the Taravu valley. Thanks to the Taravu river, the surrounding mountains, and the nearly stone’s throw proximity to the Mediterranean sea, the valley is the most verdant and stable climate on the island with a steady supply of water, regular afternoon breeze, and a diurnal temperature swing that allows for both richness and freshness in the wines. After passing by Jean-Charles Abbatucci’s vineyards, we pull into the Domaine de Vaccelli where we are received by 36 year old Gerard Courreges, at the helm of the estate since 2000. In his 4×4, we ascend into the vineyards, a series of rolling hills comprised virtually exclusively of decomposed granite, the signature element responsible for the intense minerality and finesse found in all of the wines. In stark contrast to his vineyard, whose abundant wildflowers, herbs, grasses, and insects buzz with life, his neighbor’s vineyards are completely sterile, chemically nuked to avoid such “complications”. Our first stop is a newly planted site where Gerard chose four nearly extinct native Corsican varieties en blanc, given to him by Jean-Charles, perhaps the island’s greatest viticultural conservationist and celebrated ambassador. “He is like a big brother to me,” Gerard tells us; the shared values among conscientious growers in Corsica allows for a spirit of a common goal: the preservation and expression of the unique and wild beauty of this place. We continue up the hill into the Sciaccarellu (chock-a-rell-ooh) vineyards. This genetically singular red variety has virtually no link to other known varieties, with an obscure tie to Tuscany’s Mammolo. Gerard explains that it is a very late ripening variety, that when fully phenolically ripe (skins and seeds) pushes into the 14-15% alcohol range, just as the berries are starting to shrivel. 60% of his vineyards are planted to Sciaccarellu, the sole varietal used in his red and rose wines; 10% is planted to Vermentinu, the sole variety currently producing en blanc. It was his grandfather Roger who planted the vineyards from scratch in the early 60s, a remarkable feat in the face of the rugged terrain and expansive growth of the maquis that is always quick to reclaim man’s attempt to tame it.
We then descend into the barrel cellar, a remarkable feat of engineering carved deep into the granite hillside. The cellars afford unassisted ideal temperatures, not to mention a jaw-dropping elemental atmosphere as you taste from cask literally INSIDE the bedrock so responsible for the character of the wines. It is adorned with several granite sculptures fashioned by Gerard’s father Alain, giving it an elemental temple-like quality. As Gerard flips on the light switch, he jokes, “I so rarely turn the lights on down here that unassuming spiders taking up residence in the light fixtures become electric barbeque.” The different tiers of wine are aged both in stainless steel tank and, for those that are raised in barrel, 500 liter demi-muids, roughly 10-15% of which is new. The ’14 white and ’13 reds were absolute knockouts, a reflection of the relatively cooler ’13 and ’14 vintages with a richness of texture and bright airy quality that is both hedonistic and remarkably elegant. “It is the granit that does this,” Gerard adds once again. When we try the 2014 version of the signature rose of the estate, the Vacelli rose, I am beside myself with HOLY F-BOMB superlatives. Served in black glass, I don’t know if many people would guess that it was a rose, as its personality is more in line with electric white burgundy than what one commonly encounters in pinky. Essentially from the same base juice as the Granit rose, roughly four demi-muids worth are put into barrel, with an extra long elevage that is never racked until being assembled in mid summer. It is hands down the best Corsican rose I have ever tasted (I’ve had a LOT of them, including all of Abatucci’s), and will certainly be a staple in my rose stable for years to come. I inquired as to the possibility of bottling magnums of the ’14, and Gerard kindly obliged, provided I can get my request in to him in a timely fashion………
What follows here is an offering of the current releases at margins set shrewdly to encourage the adventurous wine lover to discover just how good these wines are. For lovers of full bodied yet finessed red wines, as well as rich minerally white and rose wines would be remiss not to tune in to one of the most profound producers on the island, this one of the most exciting viticultural frontiers in all of France.
2014 Ajaccio Unu blanc $17 – 100% tank aged Vermentino, this is as good of a budget friendly intro to Vermentino on granite that I could hope to offer. Lovely floral aromatics, with clean, crisp floral length, and light lingering minerality. For patio sippin’ and a versatile everyday white wine option, a winner.
2012 Ajaccio Unu rouge $19 – 100% tank aged Sciaccarellu, from younger vines. Damn this is tasty. Bright, spicy, lightly tannic. An everyday Cotes du Rhone like animal. Hard to ask for a better intro to Sciaccarellu than this.
2013 Granit blanc $39 – A parcellary selection of Vermentino of older vines with a cooler exposure to the sun to help preserve freshness and acidity. This is a BIG step up in concentration of flavor, with awesome mineral explosiveness. My tasting note starts with: “TEETH! Minerality….” as in the wine has such good salivating acidity/minerality that it grabs the palate as though it had teeth. 13.5% alcohol, with a beguiling, ever changing floral aromatic display. I kept getting rose petal aromas from this, and kept going back to confirm such an impression, as i’m unaccustomed to that in white wine. This is 1er cru quality and then some, and only got better and better with air. When we had some with some freshly caught fish later that day with Gerard and his mother, I was a happy guy to say the least. :0
2014 Granit rose $25 – A parcellary selection of Sciaccarellu from the older vines on the property that sit in a recession of the rolling granite slope, aged in stainless steel tank. Fairly full bodied at 13.5% alcohol, this has gorgeous tiny red fruited aromatics, hints of wild sage like maquis, and wonderful salty minerality. If you enjoy rose, load up and thank me later. This is forever more a staple of my rose stable.
2013 Vaccelli rose $29 – The same base juice for the Granit rose vinified and aged in 500L demi muid for an extended period of time vs the Granit (Granit bottled in March, this isn’t bottled until late June/early July). This is a flat out show stopper, as good as it gets in pink, period. In complexity, deliciousness, and uniqueness, I cannot recommend this highly enough. Buy as much of this as you can justify, this may be the finest rose I have ever been able to offer. There were only about 180 bottles of this left at the winery, and I asked Gerard to hold it ALL for me. The evening prior at a wine dinner in Ajaccio this was a unanimous favorite of the 20 or so heads in attendance. Its nobility is plainly evident. Delicious is as delicious does, I suppose. ;0
2014 Vaccelli rose $29 in 750ml, $59 in Magnum – The not yet bottled 2014 iteration of the Vaccelli rose. This will come later, but get your requests in now. I will get them here for late summer arrival. A compelling case for ageing your rose over the longer term, i’m talkin’ 5-10 years……
2012 Granit rouge $39 – 50+ yr old Sciaccarellu aged in demi-muid and concrete egg. Wonderfully deep cherry/red raspberry fruit tone, with awesome spiciness and maquis derived wild herb qualities. There is a wonderful sense of freshness, brightness, and mineral drive, with the 15% alcohol not betraying any heat whatsoever. The texture is suavey suave. Explosive harmony is the name of the game here. This will be a delight to see evolve over the years. If you enjoy Chateauneuf du Pape in a redder fruit vein, with higher acidity and minerality than is often found there, sign up for this.
A thrilling experience, getting to meet Gerard, walk the vines, and soak in some of this stunning place. I cannot encourage you strongly enough to check these out, you will surely regret it not…..
As always, with any questions or interests: firstname.lastname@example.org
CHEERS TO GERARD AND THE COURREGES, TO THEIR LABOR OF LOVE! TO SCIACCARELLU ON GRANITE!!