With Corsican Reds, a Case Study of Identity

Wine assessment is often depicted as dispassionate evaluation in which wines are judged solely on their sensory characteristics, free of bias or commercial involvement.

This is crucial in the professional sphere: In a single sitting, scores of bottles are assessed and scored, affecting the livelihoods of many people in the wine trade and the trust of consumers everywhere.

But wine analysis is not a science. Two bottles of the same wine can seem quite different depending on the context in which they are tasted or consumed. Assuming they are wines that have not been processed to achieve the sort of stability found in soft drinks on grocery shelves, different bottles can vary in surprising ways.

This partly depends on the atmosphere, temperature, time of day, company and accompanying foods. But it’s also contingent on the emotions we bring to a wine.

Here at Wine School, we are not immune to moods. We don’t claim to be engaged in objective judgments. We acknowledge that wine appeals to us emotionally as well as rationally. We embrace our feelings, but we also try to be acutely aware of how they affect our assessments.

I am emotionally attached to Corsican wines. Perhaps that comes from having visited this beautiful, rugged island — adjacent to Italy yet part of France — where I met so many fascinating, proud wine producers. I sensed firsthand the cultural and emotional struggles that come from trying to reconcile the feeling of being both Corsican and French, separate yet one.

When I drink good Corsican wines, these feelings come flooding back. This beautiful capacity of wine to express a sense of place and culture is unmatched. I don’t have remotely the same feeling when drinking a bottle of Corsican mineral water, as good as it can be.

Naturally, feelings like these are amplified if you have visited the region that makes the wine you are drinking. Meeting the people, walking the land, inhaling the air and the vibes, eating the food — these all add immeasurably to understanding a place and its culture, of which wine is a part.

Wines, of course, speak the same language regardless of whether you have visited their places of origin. But you hear them differently. Nuances may not transmit with the same clarity that comes with direct experience.

Wine producers capitalize on creating these sorts of connections. Wine tourism pays off not simply by selling a few bottles to visitors, but by drawing them into a winery’s cultural orbit, creating longtime fans and repeat customers.

Sometimes, wine companies play on these emotional ties purely for their own benefit. But when this link is forged with a place rather than a commercial entity, it can profoundly enhance one’s understanding of a wine.

This is not to say that understanding Corsican reds, which we have been examining over the last month, requires a trip to Corsica. Of course not. But such a trip helps to understand why these wines can seem so singular and distinctive.

As I do each month, I suggested three wines for our exploration. They were: Domaine Maestracci Corse Calvi Clos Reginu 2019, Domaine Pinelli, Vin de France 2020 and Domaine Comte Abbatucci Vin de France Cuvée Faustine 2020. All farm organically or biodynamically.

You may have noticed that only one of these wines has a specific appellation. Maestracci’s Clos Reginu is labeled Corse Calvi — Corse is Corsica in French and Calvi is a subzone around the city of Calvi in the northwest of the island.

The other two are both labeled Vin de France, which in theory indicates a lowly table wine not worthy of a more specific appellation. But increasingly over the last few decades, Vin de France often indicates dedicated producers who, whether frustrated with the bureaucracy or because they make a style of wine that does not conform to the mainstream, have chosen to go their own way.

I don’t know their rationales for using Vin de France, but both Pinelli and Comte Abbatucci fall into this category. Pinelli is a new producer working in the Patrimonio area in the north, while Abbatucci is one of Corsica’s greatest producers, situated near Ajaccio in the west.

Each of these wines is made with Corsica’s two leading red grapes, niellucciu and sciaccarellu, which are genetically identical to sangiovese and mammolo, a Tuscan blending grape that rarely steps out on its own.

Many older Corsican vineyards also contain familiar southern French grapes like grenache, syrah, cinsault and carignan, mostly planted in the 1950s and ’60s by French expats in northern Africa who settled in Corsica after French colonial rule ended.

The Maestracci, for example, is 35 percent niellucciu, along with 30 percent grenache, 15 percent each sciaccarellu and syrah, and 5 percent mourvèdre, blended into a seamless whole.

If I try hard, I can detect individual elements, like the savory thrust of syrah, but honestly it’s thoroughly distinctive, fresh and lively with lingering flavors of sweet, tart fruit. It’s not sweet and bitter as I might find in an Italian red, but different: tart, maybe, but not at all heavy, and sturdy enough to stand up to a thick steak that I cooked using the reverse-sear method.

It was a delicious wine, though one reader, Peter of Philadelphia, found “an overwhelming odor of barnyard.” I found nothing like it in two separate bottles, nor was it reported by other readers. Dan Barron of New York called a 2018 Clos Reginu “a wine of mountains and sea, brush and rock, of France and Italy and somewhere else entirely.” I can only guess that Peter had a flawed bottle. It happens, though it’s infuriating when it does.

The Pinelli was a combination of sciaccarellu, niellucciu and grenache, though the proportions were not available. Does that matter? I don’t think so. This, too, was a smooth, coherent blend, a little more intense and forceful than the Maestracci — 14 percent alcohol as against Maestracci’s 13 percent. It was earthy, spicy, pale ruby in color — VSB of San Francisco called it “the palest red wine ever in my experience” — yet structured with tannins that felt slightly dry in the mouth.

I very much enjoyed this wine, too. It was the first time I’ve had a wine from this producer, Marie-Charlotte Pinelli. I’m looking forward to trying more of her wines in the future.

The Abbatucci, 70 percent sciaccarellu and 30 percent niellucciu, was juicier, richer and more intense, at 14.5 percent alcohol, than the other two while still refreshing. It was almost silken, smooth as the floral and fruit flavors lingered. It left a fine, gravelly, mineral and tannic impression in the wake.

Three wines, each different yet all very much of a piece. I’m enthralled, not only by the deliciousness of the wines, but why they strike me as distinctive.

A mammolo wine in Tuscany tastes nothing like the Abbatucci. Admittedly, I’ve had very few. Mammolo is not often made into a varietal wine there. Still, nobody in Tuscany likens it to pinot noir, as Sébastien Poly of Domaine U Stiliccionu, a fine Corsican producer who makes varietal sciaccarellu wines, once did with me.

How can this be? Does growing the grape in the specific soils and climates of Corsica enhance its potential? Or maybe, because it’s a major grape in Corsica rather than a minor addition, the growers lavish it with care in a manner seldom seen in Tuscany. Could the Corsicans have better clones of the grape? Is it culture? Or a combination of all these things?

Pondering these questions is one of the joys that comes with drinking the wines. It doesn’t work for everybody. Shweta of Michigan tried the Abbatucci with three dishes but found “nothing that stood out as distinctive.”

Fortunately, Shweta has absorbed the Wine School belief that one mediocre experience should not form one’s lasting attitude toward a wine.

“We are not writing off Corsican reds yet,” she wrote. “The Maestracci is on order and eagerly anticipated.”

For those interested, a great deal more exploration of Corsica awaits. The geography is fascinating as is how that links to the wine. I love the whites, too. And many good producers are exploring a range of indigenous grapes that are not approved by the wine bureaucracy. Expect more Corsican wines with Vin de France appellations.

A final note: One reader, Ted Novell of Canada, noted that I hadn’t described in my introductory article the taste profile of these wines. I understand the desire for as much information as possible about wines that may be unfamiliar.

But an important aim of Wine School is for you to describe the wines yourselves, in language that makes sense to you. That might be the flavors you find, or it might be something else entirely — how a wine makes you feel, or something the wine connotes.

Ultimately, the goal is for all of us to feel comfortable evaluating wines for ourselves, so that you can tell me what you like and why, just as I can tell you. We all can do this. We just sometimes need to get out of our own way, and that takes a bit of practice.

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