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Familiar grapes with unfamiliar names. Autochthonous varieties with even more difficult names. Is this an alpine, mountainous paradise? Is it a beach bum’s island delight? French? Italian? Something else all its own? Corsica is like one of those scrambled optical illusions that resolves itself into a familiar image if you stare at it long enough. I know what to expect from a Chianti or Brunello, but a Niellucciu? Inform me that it’s just a local clone of Sangiovese though, and the picture comes into focus. Yeah, this herby, red-fruited, leathery wine is exactly what I would expect from someone growing Sangiovese on a windswept granite spire in the middle of the Mediterranean.
“I first set foot on the island in 1980. I remember looking down from the airplane window seeing alpine forest and lakes and thinking, uh oh, I got on the wrong plane. Then suddenly I was looking down into the beautiful waters of the Mediterranean. Corsica is a small, impossibly tall island, the tail of the Alp chain rising out of the blue sea.” - Kermit Lynch
First, some orientation. If you sailed a ship directly east from the Italian coast near Rome, you would run smack dab into Corsica. It sits just to the north of Sardinia, and southeast of Marseille and Monaco. The ancient Greeks called it The Land of Sirens, and the cliffs of southern Corsica surely smashed more than their share of boats during antiquity. The island is battered by the famous mistral winds of southern France and the scirocco from northern Africa. Between the winds and poor soils of granite or limestone, Corsica is about as inhospitable as a Mediterranean island paradise gets, a major boon for the local wine industry. As we know, grapes love a challenge.
Much of Corsica’s history is Italian. It was ruled by the Republic of Genoa from the 13th century until the 18th, when it was unceremoniously sold to the French to pay off debts. While Emperor Napoleon was Corsican, most modern-day Corsicans have a strong independent streak. All of the island’s signs are written in native Corsican as well as French (often with the French translation scratched out), and nationalist identity has led to conflict in the past.
This French-Italian blend (with a healthy balance of Corsican distinctiveness) is reflected in the local grape varieties.
● Vermentinu - the local name for Vermentino. Also known as Pigato in Liguria or Rolle in the south of France, this white varietal produces some of Corsica’s finest wines. Expect lemony citrus, white flowers, resinous bite, and a distinct saltiness.
● Bianco Gentile - An aromatic, dense white, this variety almost went extinct before Antoine Arena propagated cuttings from the last remaining vineyard. Honey, chamomile, and chalk are classic notes.
● Niellucciu - meaning “little black”, this local clone of Sangiovese made its way to Corsica from Italy during the Middle Ages. As previously mentioned, you’ll find red cherry fruit, leather, and a dusty herbaceousness similar to the garrigue of the southern Rhone and Provence, known locally as maquis (wild myrtle, fennel, immortelle, and juniper bush).
● Sciaccarello - another local red variety that is known for its peppery spice and intense herbaceousness. Commonly used in rose production, though more quality producers are vinifying it as red wine.
Corsica has a long viticultural history (I have read that it once had more acres of vineyard planted than Bordeaux), and recently the quality and availability of the wines has exploded. The Arena family, currently our favorite producers on the island, has been instrumental in the advancement of local wine production, while staying firmly rooted in Corsica’s layered history.
Antoine Arena is the godfather of modern Corsica. His organically farmed wines, especially his whites, show precision, density, and a tremendous capacity for aging. As he has stepped away from the business, he has ceded more and more of his vineyards to the next generation, splitting his domaine between his three heirs. Antoine-Marie Arena, fresh from several winemaking apprenticeships on the french mainland, has inherited several of his father’s best plots of Vermentinu, Niellucciu, and Bianco Gentile. His viticulture and winemaking mirrors his father’s: organic vineyards (including some biodynamics) with plowed soils and natural manure, long native ferments, and bottling with minimal sulfur or filtration. These wines are fresh, sappy, and structured, perfect for local delicacies like fresh goat cheese, wild boar, or lamb. I wouldn’t be surprised if they called you, time and again, back to Corsica.
This industry has many fantastic winemakers, individuals with the technical expertise to wring fantastic wine from average raw materials. There are far fewer great wine thinkers, vignerons who advance their craft with their minds as well as their barrels. Eric Texier is one of my absolute favorite wine thinkers, and like his Macconais mentor Jean-Marie Guffens, he is not at all afraid to say what he thinks, regardless of orthodoxy or offense.
Texier came to winemaking later in life than some, originally working as a nuclear engineer after a childhood in Bordeaux. After an abrupt career shift and a stage with the aforementioned Jean-Marie Guffens, Texier established his domaine in 1995. At the start, his business was entirely negociant, with rented parcels throughout the Rhône in Côte Rôtie, Condrieu, and Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Eric was later able to purchase vines in the forgotten appellations of Brézème and Saint Julien-Saint Alban, in the Ardeche. The Ardeche is the southernmost section of the northern Rhône. It shares the continental climate of Cornas, Hermitage, and Côte Rôtie, but where those terroirs are defined by granite and schist, Brézème is unique in the northern Rhone in having limestone soils. Brézème was considered the equal of Hermitage well into the 19th century, but the twin devastation of phylloxera and mildew meant that less than 10 acres of Brézème was still planted by the time Texier rediscovered it. Little did Eric know, those few acres held a viticultural treasure.
“It is not a variety. It is a name that has been given two different varieties, being different group of plants grown in different valleys, different villages, by different growers but all fitting more or less in the same characteristics. These same groups were sometimes called Serine, sometimes Syrah, Ciras, Petite Serine etc, while Petite Serine or Serine may have been used in some places to describe slightly different varieties, coming from cousin or parent plants and then developed into making their own varieties. The name Syrah includes all these different plants that fit in its description. Same can be said of Pinot and many other varieties. Serine is neither a clone since it's not a single individual but a family of plants. So, Serine isn't Syrah either, but fits in the big family of Syrah.” - Martin Texier, Eric’s son
Texier’s vineyard in Brézème held less than 2 acres of old vine Serine that was planted in the 1930s, before the availability of homogenous clonal material. These loose clustered, low yielding vines are sought out by Stephane Ogier, Yves Gangloff, Jean-Michel Stephan, and other top producers in the northern Rhône because of the intensely aromatic wines they produce. Texier’s work in the vineyard is some of the most progressive in all of France. Inspired by the no-till, polycultural approaches of Masanobu Fukuoka, Bill Mollison, and Didier Barroulliet (the retired former owner of Clos Roche Blanche, one of the finest organic domaines in the Loire), Eric has been certified organic from the beginning and has incorporated biodynamic techniques (he was once certified, though no longer) for the last 20 years. In true Texier style, he does not hold back when discussing his vineyard bugaboos.
“I do my best to never have to use the three things that I find the most intrusive in organic and biodynamic agriculture:
-Plowing (in between rows or at the root)
-Copper (Mildew, Black Rot)
Texier tries to intervene as little as possible in the vineyard (and cellar, but we’ll get to that in a minute). He limits tillage to preserve humus and fungal networks and refuses to introduce animal manure for fertilizer. “The idea is not to bring any more organic compounds from outside.” “The less I touch, the better it is for the soil. This is what I believe.” “It's not strictly that I don't plow. Let's say that I avoid plowing, and each time I have to plow for whatever reason, I know that I'm doing harm to the soil.”
Texier’s winemaking mirrors his hands-off viticulture. Inspired by the wines of Marcel Juge and Noel Verset in Cornas, and Marius Gentaz-Dervieux in Côte Rôtie, his reds are 100% whole cluster, and all of Texier’s wines are fermented with native yeasts. When asked in an interview how he manages his native ferments, he simply replied that he “has a very good microscope.” He uses a wooden clamp to keep the fermenting cap submerged, avoiding classical extraction techniques like punch downs or pump overs. His Brézème Vieille Vignes Serine had a short, unsulphured maceration of 5-7 days under the submerged cap, then was gently pressed to old foudres, where it rested for 3 years before bottling with no SO2. The aromatic lift of Serine is in full effect, with bright cherry and stone fruit, smoked meat, and subtle stemmy herbaceousness that reminds me of fresh peppermint. Texier’s wines, like the man himself, are simultaneously thoughtful and confrontational. They make you sit up and pay attention.
“As growers, we have to go much further than organic growing (in fact pre-1950’s agriculture) or biodynamy (which is not much better than organic growing, at least when considered in today’s actual practice). We have to face the question that people like Masanobu Fukuoka, Bill Mollisson, Miguel Altieri, Marc Bonfils raised at the same time, during the 1970s, on all continents, which is, can we compose with nature instead of fighting against it?” - Eric Texier from “A taste of Petrol” (please, if you would like to learn more, look up this blog post. Texier succinctly critiques the fossil fuel and energy-intensive practices common within the natural wine movement, from diesel-hungry tillage to cold carbonic maceration. Worth a read.)
100% Syrah. Brézème captured Eric's imagination as this once notorious appellation, rivaling the status of Hermitage, had dwindled to one hectare under vine by 1961. Located on the east bank at the southernmost tip of the Northern Rhône with clay-limestone soils, the area has a unique microclimate resulting from the cooling influence of the Vercors Massif and an altitude of 300 metres. Eric's annual production is around 20,000 bottles in total.
100% Syrah. From a tiny parcel of 60-70-year-old non-clonal Syrah, located in Brézème on a steep south-facing slope comprised of limestone soils, the grapes are hand-harvested and then whole-cluster fermented in concrete tanks with a one-week maceration without pigeage, before aging for 30 months in old demi-muids and bottled sans-soufre.
“The 47-hectare family estate is surely one of the finest Sancerre producers.”
– The Wine Advocate
There is a paucity of famous Sauvignon Blanc vineyards in the world. Perhaps it’s the ephemeral nature of most Sauvignon Blancs (more a thirst-quenching alternative to water than profound vinous experience), but besides Monts Damnes in Sancerre, Dagueneau’s various Pouilly Fumes, and Mondavi’s I Block in Napa Valley, I can’t really think of any. Domaine Vacheron, one of the finest domaines in Sancerre (which means they know a thing or two about Sauvignon blanc), is trying to change that.
Sancerre is a bit of an odd duck when compared to the rest of the Loire. It sits at the eastern edge of the Loire, much closer to Chablis and Burgundy than to Nantes and Muscadet. Before the twin scourges of phylloxera and powdery mildew, the majority of Sancerre’s wine production was red wine based on Pinot noir (with some obscure local varieties blended in for good measure). A parched Parisien bistro community, desperate for a quaffable white to accompany platters of moules frites, led to extensive replanting with vigorous, vivacious Sauvignon blanc. Nowadays, Sancerre is more of a brand than an appellation, a region that produces wines that are… ummm… cold, and…. ummm… wet?
Domaine Vacheron is upending the mediocrity of generic Sancerre by taking their cues from the monopoles and climats of their Burgundian neighbors. In addition to biodynamic viticulture and much longer elevage than the average Sancerre domaine, Vacheron now vinifies 8 different single vineyard cuvees (6 white, 2 red). We have secured allocations of five of those unique wines. A note - Domaine Vacheron lies in the silica rich “silex” soils that are common in the eastern part of Sancerre. While some of their holdings contain limestone, they are best known for their siliceous vineyard (much like Didier Dagueneau). From the importer -
● A full south-facing vineyard. ‘Les Romains’ was one of the domaine’s first ‘single-vineyard’ bottlings (the first vintage was 1997). Pure flint (silex) soils, rich in fossilized material; such soils contribute a minerality and smokiness to the wine.
● A south-facing vineyard, on a plateau. The topsoil of ‘Chambrates’ is poor, a combination of clay and white stones, pieces of decomposed, shattered limestone (from the Jurassic geological era). Vine roots are trained to reach down to the chalky limestone “mother rock” subsoils, a source of minerals and nutrients that the winemakers believe gives a “particular edge” to the wine’s aromas and flavors.
● ‘Paradis’ faces full south, on a steep hillside. Topsoils are stony and poor; subsoils are pure chalk “mother rock.” The family has trained vines’ roots specifically to reach deep into the subsoil.
● A selection of fruit from vines in the ‘Guigne-Chevres’ vineyard, located not far from ‘Les Romains.’ A northeast-facing vineyard; very windy, which causes vines to grow close to the ground. Soils combine flint (silex) with red clay and limestone.
● Le Pave - An east-facing, five-acre vineyard, planted by the family in 1990, on marl (limestone-clay) soils.
Domaine Vacheron has consistently produced some of the most profound and longest-lived examples of Sauvignon blanc (and Pinot noir, for that matter) that can be found anywhere in France. Long known for their sensitive viticulture, the domaine became one of the first in the region to convert to biodynamics (2004). Now under the steady guidance of cousins Jean-Dominique and Jean-Laurent Vacheron, the domaine has continued its house style with hand-picked fruit, low yields, and native yeast fermentation, followed by aging in Stockinger foudres or barrique. Many of the wines are bottled unfiltered after a year in foudre, a rarity for a region beholden to a market that demands fast turn-around. The Vacherons will not be rushed in their quest to explore and expand the notions of terroir in Sancerre.
Nero d’Avola, the dark, chewy, Syrah-esque grape of Sicily is lightened by the floral grace of Frappato in this blend from Sicily’s only DOCG. Organically grown, this may be the ultimate mid-week pizza wine.
Speaking of Syrah (and I will, at length, if you don’t stop me), this peppery, funky northern Rhone example is textbook. The Combier’s were one of the first families in the region to convert to organics. Perfect for braised lamb (dutch oven sold separately).
Rich, savory, and slightly fizzy, Freisa defies expectations. Flavors of blackberry, red currant, and hints of tar make this a fantastic pairing for a charcuterie and cheese board because just because it has cooled down doesn’t mean you always want to have the oven going.
100% Petit Verdot? From the Languedoc? Yes, and a delicious one at that. The sun in the south of France is perfect for ripening the notoriously late-to-harvest Petit Verdot. This one has red and blue fruit with pretty florality and a licorice root core that makes me think of pork with grill marks.
The spicy red blends of the Languedoc are great with braises, stews, and frosted windows. This is 50% Grenache, 30% Syrah, and 20% Cinsault, organically grown, and fermented/aged in concrete tanks, reserving a purity that new oak would simply cover. Thyme roasted squash (and maybe a pigeon. People eat pigeons, right?) would bring the wild herb garrigue of Provence right to your kitchen.
Cabernet Franc always makes me think of fall. It often smells like dried, fallen leaves and warming spices. This blend of 70% Cabernet Franc and 30% Merlot was aged in amphora and older barrels. Roast a chicken. A whole one. Trust me. You need bones for gravy, and it’s fall.
“France’s most physically messianic winemaker…” “Dagueneau glared at tasters; he poured samples with studiedly curt swiftness; all questions were met with monosyllabic replies. He would rather, one felt, have been racing huskies in Finland (as he did for three months the following winter). His wines smelled not of Sauvignon Blanc, nor of gooseberries or asparagus or of micturating felines, but of......Spring. Sipping the Buisson Renard was like standing beneath a waterfall: the flavours were clean, limpid, eerily palpable, a soft shock. The Silex was not the parody flintlock of popular myth; it was pure, sappy, soaring, rich, finishing with just a hint of stone after rain. I had not been expecting this calm and majestic retreat from the varietal. I learnt something new.” Andrew Jefford, The New France
“Due to a titanic level of work in the vineyard, his pure-bred Sauvignon Blancs act like a terroir sponge.” Michel Bettane, Le Grand Guide des Vins de France
“I had a few scores to settle with the family,’ he said. ‘So, I decided to make wine, to make better wine than them. That was my first motivation. So, I decided to make the best Sauvignon Blanc in the world. Not at all pretentious for someone who’s been making wine for two years.” Didier Dagueneau, in Decanter
“In my opinion, 80% of the growers are thick and lazy.” Didier Dagueneau, to Jancis Robinson
Exacting. Motivated. Perfectionist. Iconoclast. Daredevil. Hirsute. Didier Dagueneau looms over the Loire Valley appellation of Pouilly-Fumé 12 years after his death, as famous for his strutting rejection of conventionality and his neighbors’ still ruffled feathers as for his transcendent Sauvignon Blancs. In an era of chemical farming and overcropped, watery wines, Dagueneau demanded parsimonious yields and delicate, labor-intensive handwork in the vineyard, employing one worker for every 2.5 acres (the same ratio as Domaine Romanee-Conti). He forsook his family domaine in favor of establishing his own, forging a reputation for both brilliantly expressive single parcel cuvees and brutally frank opinions. Finally, he rebuffed the orthodoxy that Pouilly-Fumé and other Sauvignon Blanc based wines were meant for early consumption. His first wines from the mid-80’s are still (reportedly) drinking quite well.
After a short career as a motorbike racer (he retired after two severe crashes), he turned to winemaking, establishing his domaine with rented vineyards beginning in 1982. He would slowly add cuvees throughout his tenure, beginning with his flagship Silex (named for the siliceous terroir it is planted on) in 1985, and continuing until his 2006 acquisition of a small plot in the storied Sancerre vineyard of Monts Damnes, overlooking Chavignol. Didier’s winemaking idols included legendary producers Edmond Vatan of Sancerre and Henri Jayer of Vosne-Romanee, vignerons renowned for marrying transparent site expression to a singular house style.
Dagueneau, forever restless, experimented over the years with native yeast fermentation, extensive battonage, a low sulfur regime, and various types of oak, but the domaine’s core principles always remained the same. It began with massal selection vines pruned very aggressively, producing less than half the total yield allowed by the appellation. A practitioner of organics and biodynamics (though not certified; Didier did not mix well with bureaucracy), herbicides were eschewed in favor of plowing, whether by horse (he was one of the first growers to revive the practice, well before DRC adopted it) or tractor. At harvest, Dagueneau’s late harvesting and rigorous selection led to phenologically ripe wines without the damp heaviness of rot and botrytis. Elevage always took place in oak, though the vessels’ size and shape varied considerably over the years. Didier is famous for pioneering the use of 350l oblong “cigar” barrels with very low levels of toast, which allowed the piercing minerality and Satnav terroir of his cuvees to shine.
“A chip off the old Silex”
When Didier Dagueneau died following an ultralight plane crash in 2008, many assumed that his domaine was doomed. Louis-Benjamin Dagueneau, having studied with biodynamic Loire luminary Francois Chidaine and Olivier Jullien of shop favorite Mas Jullien, was ready to strike out on his own, much like his father before him. Instead, Louis-Benjamin took up his father’s considerable legacy, expanding upon the domaine’s fame with a string of successful vintages that have left some wondering if the son has surpassed the father. The vineyards are cared for with the same laborious intensity, and the work in the cellar has only become more precise and translucent. Methinks his father would be proud.
“Didier was more than a light, he was a natural phenomenon, a storm, a commotion and a celebration in a world that is often too dull and glum.”...“Yes, he was bigger than life. But Dagueneau was a man who didn't suffer fools and clichés lightly.” Joe Dressner
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