Corisca Wine Travel Guide: Where to Eat, Drink, and Stay
After the Jeep had crawled up the steep, rocky slope, above a valley planted with vineyards and filled with birdsong, Antoine Arena pulled the hand brake and turned off the motor. “These vines are like a family tree,” he said. “Some were planted by my grandfather, some by my father, some by me, and now, some by my sons.”
We sat in silence for a minute enjoying the view and the breeze, which was scented by the maquis, the wild scrub that covers much of Corsica. This perfume evolved constantly, lofting gusts of wild mint, thyme, rosemary, and the honeyed bouquet of the yellow flowering broom that lit the green mountainside on this late spring afternoon.
Corsica, lying about 150 miles southeast of Nice and roughly three times the size of Rhode Island, is one of the most stunning places in the Mediterranean (in France, it’s rightly known as L’Île de Beauté, the beautiful island). Its wild magnificence is explained in large part by the ferocious love its inhabitants have for their island: Most of them identify as Corsicans first and French second, and they have zealously protected their home from being spoiled by mass tourism. And, as I learned during a recent road trip that began with Arena’s vineyards in Patrimonio in the north and ended near Figari some 100-plus miles to the south, the island is now producing some of the best and most distinctive wines made anywhere in France.
“You know, I nearly broke my father’s heart,” said Arena, a gregarious, ursine man in his 60s who threw over studying for a law degree in Paris in 1975 to return to Patrimonio, the northern Corsican town where he was born, to take over Domaine Antoine Arena, his family’s vineyard. “He didn’t want me to be a peasant. But I couldn’t imagine a greater happiness than making wine from the grapes that grow in these vineyards.” Today, Antoine’s sons, Jean-Baptiste and Antoine-Marie, work alongside him. “And our wines in Corsica have become very good,” he added sheepishly.
His remark shot me back to a rainy night in 1986 when I’d just moved to Paris. On my way home, I would stop in the local grocery for a bottle of wine. It was a simple store with a small selection, but the ones that interested me the most were those on the bottom shelf (the cheap ones). That night, I noticed a bottle of Corsican wine down there. At the register, the proprietor grunted when he saw what I was buying. “Ouf! Les vins Corses ne sont pas terrible.” (Corsican wines aren’t very good.) I later learned he wasn’t the only one with this opinion. The famously bibulous Ernest Hemingway once wrote, “We had a Corsican wine that had great authority and a low price. It was a very Corsican wine, and you could dilute it by half with water and still receive its message.” As it turned out, that red wine I bought was from Ajaccio, the city on Corsica’s western coast where Napoleon was born. It was perfectly pleasant with an omelet.
Arena laughed when I told him that story. “There’s been a real revolution here since then,” he said. He should know: Arena is one of the godfathers of a remarkable transformation among Corsican winemakers, who are embracing organic and biodynamic farming for their vineyards and doubling down on quality. As Arena put it, “What’s happened is that we rediscovered the value of our island’s terroir.”
Corsica is essentially a big mountain in the sea, with continental and maritime climates, a variety of soils—limestone and clay in the north, sandstone and volcanic soils in the center of the island, and lots of granite in the south—and more than 40 varieties of indigenous grapes. “This is what explains the remarkable variety and quality of our wines,” Arena said. And after leaving his estate, I spent the rest of my trip in four of the island’s nine appellations, exploring that diversity, alternating visits to favorite winemakers with discoveries of new ones along the way.
The fresh, delicate wines of winemaker Camille-Anaïs Raoust at Domaine Maestracci in the Calvi AOC, on the northwestern coast of the island, for instance, were one superb new find. They also revealed that a new generation of Corsican winemakers are now taking the work of pioneering elders like Arena to even greater heights.
In 2014, Raoust shifted her family’s estate to biodynamic farming, which eschews the use of pesticides and chemicals in favor of a sort of agricultural homeopathy. “My father initially told me I was crazy, but this year, he came to me and said, ‘It was a good idea, my daughter.’ I think that what convinced him was that our wines are much livelier now than in the past and also have a certain equilibrium they didn’t have before.” A perfect expression of Raoust’s style is her Les Marottes d’Anaïs, a red made entirely from the local Sciacarellu and Niellucciu varieties that’s fresh, fruity, and balanced.
At the end of the two-and-a-half-hour drive from Domaine Maestracci to Ajaccio, I celebrated with a bottle of Clos d’Alzeto Moretelle over a dinner of roast squid and octopus and organic Corsican veal steak at A Nepita, where British chef Simon Andrews does superb contemporary Corsican cooking. The bottle was expensive, but my excuse was that this stunningly elegant white rivals some of the greatest Burgundies, it’s not available in the United States, and it’s difficult to find even in France. It’s one of those exciting delicacies you have to travel for to enjoy, and so I did. Made from handpicked Biancu Gentile and Vermentino grapes, the wine has an intriguingly complex nose (yellow flowers, exotic tropical scents) and a mineral-rich density on the palate that makes it a superb food wine, and I wanted to learn more about it.
The next day, the spectacular views from the sinuous road that led to the Clos d’Alzeto winery were almost dangerously distracting. This fifth-generation winery was founded in 1800 and is run today by Pascal Albertini and his three children. Albertini and I toured the estate’s natural amphitheater, where the vines are often planted in terraces, the azure blue of the Mediterranean Sea glinting on the horizon. “We’re lucky to have a variety of soils on our farm,” Albertini said. “This allows us to produce a variety of very different wines, but what all of them have in common is that there’s always a little bit of le maquis in the nose of every bottle.”
From the Clos d’Alzeto, I headed south to the tiny village of Levie, perched above a river valley in thick forests, and to A Pignata (“a cooking pot” in Corsican), an auberge run by the De Rocca Serra family. Its restaurant, a favorite with chefs like Anne-Sophie Pic and Pierre Hermé, serves traditional Corsican home cooking. Settling in by a roaring fire, I was stumped by the menu—I wanted everything. Finally I chose the soupe corse, a thick potato and ham soup, over the charcuterie plate—a tough call because Corsican charcuterie is some of the world’s best, and the De Rocca Serras make their own. Then I dithered. Roast lamb or Corsican daube, which is sort of like a meatloaf in mushroom sauce with a side of cannelloni? Finally Antoine de Rocca Serra, who runs the dining room with his father, said, “I’ll decide for you.”
I was sipping a suave local red when Antoine’s brother Jean-Baptiste, who runs the kitchen with his mother, arrived at my table with two casseroles. “I decided you should try both,” he said with a grin. They were excellent, and after two types of Corsican cheese and hot, sugar–dusted beignets doused with some locally made eau de vie, I had a supremely good night’s sleep.
After this blissful time-out, I headed south to the village of Tarrabucceta near Figari, the home of Yves Canarelli. Originally trained as an economist, in 1993 he took over Clos Canarelli, his family’s vineyard estate, where he champions indigenous Corsican grapes, traditional winemaking methods like aging in amphorae, and biodynamic farming. “Biodynamic farming, or the use of exclusively natural products in accordance with the cycles of the sun and the moon, sounds eccentric until you understand it. By identifying why the vines are unhappy, you can help them work better,” he said, explaining that he often uses homemade tinctures to treat them. “For example, a concoction of nettles soaked in water stimulates the plants.”
Canarelli says his goal is to produce wines that have the finesse of great Burgundies but a distinct Corsican signature. To accomplish this, he uses only indigenous yeasts and prefers slow, precise fermentations. He also leaves his reds unfiltered.
“I am guided by the centuries of peasant wisdom that accumulated before the rise of industrial winemaking,” said Canarelli. “The ancients knew what they were doing,” he added with a grin. In Corsican wines today, the future is the past.
Of Corsica’s more than 40 native grapes, the most important ones for red wine are the rustic Niellucciu, which is related to Tuscany’s Sangiovese, and Sciacarellu, an elegant variety whose high acidity makes it good for aging. Vermentino (locally called Vermentinu) was probably brought to the island by the Phoenicians from Greece when they established a settlement in 570 B.C. and is the grape used for most whites. Roughly a third of Corsica’s vineyards are now planted with Niellucciu, with Sciacarellu and Vermentino accounting for another 15% each.
Many of the wines from the wineries below are imported to the U.S. by Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant, an early champion of Corsican wines.
One of the most tourist-friendly wineries on the island, Clos d’Alzeto, in the Ajaccio region on the western coast, also produces a great olive oil. Their Moretelle is worth a special trip. closdalzeto.com
Domaine Comte Abbatucci
Near Ajaccio on the western coast, Jean-Charles Abbatucci’s winery has championed wines made with grapes indigenous to the island for a generation. domaine-abbatucci.com
Domaine Antoine Arena
Antoine Arena makes soulful, biodynamically farmed wines at this benchmark estate. (33-04-95-37-08-27)
Head to the Calvi appellation on the northwestern coast of the island to sample the fresh, delicate, and distinctive wines of winemaker Camille-Anaïs Raoust. domaine-maestracci.com
Domaine De Torraccia
Marc Imbert’s 100-acre organic estate near Porto-Vecchio in southern Corsica is producing some of the island’s greatest red wines. domaine-de-torraccia.com
Yves Canarelli, in Tarrabucceta, is possibly the most visionary winemaker in Corsica today. 33-04-95-71-07-55
Where to Stay
Domaine De Murtoli
At night, sleep in a restored shepherd’s cottage on 6,100 acres. During the day, fish, take nature walks, lie on the beach, or dine at three restaurants, including one run by Mathieu Pacaud, son of chef Bernard Pacaud of L’Ambroisie in Paris. murtoli.com
Hôtel La Roya
This pleasant seaside hotel, with a pool and sandy beach on the edge of the stylish old fishing port of Saint-Florent, is a good base from which to explore the Patrimonio vineyards. hoteldelaroya.com
Where to Eat
Restaurant La Gaffe
Chef Yann Le Scavarec highlights local produce in dishes like tuna tataki with ponzu and pasta with crabmeat; there’s also a superb wine list. restaurant-saint-florent.com
This spot features contemporary Corsican cooking and sidewalk tables in warm weather. 33-04-95-26-75-68
Hôtel Les Mouettes
This charming, pink-painted 19th-century villa, which has a restaurant overlooking the Gulf of Ajaccio, is worth a visit. hotellesmouettes.fr
This rustic, family-owned auberge serves excellent traditional Corsican cooking. apignata.com