Island of Rebels: Corsican Wine and Cultural Reclamation

Island of Rebels: Corsican Wine and Cultural Reclamation

“When I talk about Corsica tableside at Dedalus, I talk about revolution,” says Brittany Galbraith, Director of Education at Dedalus. “For me, the stories attached to Corsican wine capture the true definition of terroir: when what we smell and taste in a glass of wine expands beyond the physical environment and gets into the people, the feeling of a place.”

Corsica, while controlled by France, has a cultural identity just as rich and unique as its distinctive landscape. Throughout history, the island has sought independence, but it’s always been just out of reach. In the 1970s, a violent political conflict birthed a movement called the reacquistu, which aimed to protect Corsican culture and heritage. The reacquistu prompted some winemakers to resist a recent trend toward internationalized, bulk wine production, and to reclaim indigenous varieties. The Corsican winemakers we carry at Dedalus are a part of this turbulent legacy and continue their efforts to redefine a truly Corsican wine even to this day.

Corsica’s mountainous interior is enveloped by a band of capes, gulfs, beaches, and vines. From the interior peaks, the mountains tumble toward the coast, forming ridges and valleys that each have their own unique climate. The island isn’t heavily developed; much of it remains green and wild. In the winter, the mountains develop a blanket of snow, but closer to the shoreline an evergreen band of flora called the maquis reigns. It’s a tapestry of fragrant plant life like heather, myrtle, rockrose, thyme, lavender, and more that rapidly overtakes any soils abandoned for too long, and that infuses the wines made in Corsica with a unique aroma.

Throughout history, this landscape has been controlled by Phoenicians, Greeks, Italians, and now the French, each of which attempted to impose its own culture and language on the Corsican people. Through it all, Corsica has developed a distinct identity, from a local language to unique dances, cuisine, and traditions, even as it suffered under the reign of other countries.

When France lost control of its colony in Algeria in 1962, around 18,000 French Algerian settlers, known as pied-noirs, were relocated to Corsica.  The French government granted them valuable agricultural land on the eastern side of the island, where they began making wine with non-native French grapes. They used “quantity-over-quality” practices that resulted in sterilized wines that failed to express Corsica’s unique terroir, stripped the island of its artisanal winemaking heritage, and devastated the reputation of Corsican wine worldwide.

Native Corsicans, especially winemakers, were not happy. The tension proved explosive in August of 1975, in the town of Aléria on Corsica’s eastern coast, when a few dozen Corsicans armed with guns occupied the wine cellar of a pied-noir family in protest. 

The French military responded in force: it was a case of David and Goliath, except Goliath was armed with over 1000 soldiers, a warship, tanks, helicopters, and advanced weaponry. From this conflict, the reacquistu was born. 

The cultural movement included winemakers who were intent on restoring traditional winemaking techniques and elevating native grape varieties, proving that Corsican wine was more than what people knew. Many of the producers we work with at Dedalus began making wine during this time. These are true terroir advocates, people who work by hand to preserve and champion native grape varieties and redefine what it means to make Corsican wine.

Domaine Comte Abbatucci

Jean-Charles Abbatucci is the grape savior behind Domaine Comte Abbatucci in the Ajaccio AOC, on the southwest side of Corsica. It’s a fully biodynamic, polyculture operation complete with a flock of sheep, olive groves, and native forests. 

Abbatucci is the descendent of a French Revolution-era hero, and a hero in his own right for his work creating remarkable wines from indigenous grapes. The varieties he works with come from his father, Antoine Abbatucci. To get them, decades ago, the elder Abbatucci trekked high up into the mountains to find farmers who still worked with these vines. He took cuttings from their vineyards and replanted them near his estate, creating a small nursery to reestablish the indigenous varieties. 

Jean-Charles Abbatucci, courtesy of Kermit Lynch

The inland farms Abbattucci sourced from, says Anthony Lynch of Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant, weren’t as impacted by the arrival of the pied-noirs with their non-native grapes and new winemaking tech because they were so remote. But in many cases, vineyards were being abandoned as farmers left for the coast or the mainland. Antoine Abbatucci’s efforts to recover indigenous grapes probably saved many of the varieties from extinction.

Antoine Arena

Then there’s Antoine Arena in northern Patrimonio. Antoine is a native Corsican who was studying law on the French mainland in the 1970s when the Aléria conflict occurred. The occupation of the wine cellar inspired him to return to Corsica and begin making wine as his own sort of protest — a cry of independence if you will. He was (and remains) very anti-industrialization, and took a strong stance on how Corsican wine should be made: without chemicals or shortcuts.

He set about making wine that would justly represent Corsican terroir, and was an early adopter of the practice of vinifying parcels separately and using no sulfur at bottling. “His faith in Corsican terroir would ultimately help put the island on the map for wine lovers on mainland France and abroad,” says Anthony. Arena’s two sons are also winemakers. In 2014, the three divided their holdings equally, and all produce incredible wines.

Domaine Giacometti

If Antoine pushed to represent Corsican terroir, the Giacometti family pushes the boundaries of what that terroir actually is. Their domaine lies in the Agriates desert in northern Corsica, a large, barren swath of land with just one paved road cutting through it. It’s a few miles from Patrimonio, but the AOC extended the boundary of the appellation to include the new estate. They focus on traditional bottlings of native varieties like Niellucciu, but also make some Syrah as well. 

The urge to create wines unique to Corsica runs in the blood. Founder Christian Giacometti’s children, Sarah and Simon, are gradually taking over the operation, continuing to create wines in the style of their father and experimenting with plantings of the grape Sciaccarellu, which is extremely rare in Patrimonio. Brittany notes that the stark difference between the children’s wines and the hallmark Giacometti wines is mirrored in the labels. “Their labels are really fun and expressive, like wild paintings, which is a contrast against the domaine’s more traditional label style.”

In this way, Sarah and Simon are continuing to build on the work of their father and his generation, showing that unique, terroir-driven wines can thrive even in the most demanding conditions.

A Corsican vineyard

Yves Leccia

Also in Patrimonio is Yves Leccia. Yves was raised in Patrimonio, and his family has been making wine there for generations. Unlike Antoine, who began his journey in wine as a form of cultural protest, Yves always knew that this would be his future. He worked alongside his father from a young age and started his own label in 2004 using grapes from one specific Corsican terroir called E Croce. There, on thin chalk soil over schist bedrock, he works alone to craft wines that speak to Corsica’s ability to create singular, spectacular, terroir-specific wines.

His vineyards are massale selections — new vineyards planted with cuttings from neighboring, older vineyards — planted with native Corsican varieties. They are incredible cultural resources — living, growing, producing reminders of the island’s heritage. One is made up of Biancu Gentile, an ancient variety that was thought to be extinct until Yves found old vines and nurtured the cuttings back to health.

Domaine de Marquiliani

The flat, open lands on the eastern side of Corsica, between the coast and the mountains, is where pied-noirs were initially granted land by the French government. While the wine made during that period of Corsican history may not be something we want to remember, the wines of Domaine de Maruiliani are a different story. 

The Almaric family, helmed by Daniel Almaric, bought the domaine in the 1950s, twenty years after it was destroyed in a fire. They’ve replanted the vineyards with native varieties, an uncommon choice in the area, and are producing terroir-driven wines that truly express Corsican culture and identity. 

Daniel’s daughter Anna joined him in 1995 and began planting olive and oil trees, and now the family is also known for producing some of the best olive oil on the island. 

Clos Canarelli

The Corse Figari appellation lies in the southernmost part of Corsica. It’s the oldest wine-growing region on the island — grapes have been farmed there since the 5th century. Here, Yves Canarelli makes his home. The former economist took over his family domaine in 1993 and since then has championed sustainable operations and native grape varieties; he even ripped out vineyards of international vines to make more room for autochthonous varieties like Biancu Gentile, Carcaghjolu Biancu and Neru, and Paga Debiti. These are names you don’t see often, and the work he’s doing in his vineyards is helping restore them to the collective consciousness.