Corsican wines and Corsica, a twenty-year journey of discovery

Tom Fiorina 1990

In case you missed it, we have two new on-line travel guides to the wine regions of Corsica. They are written by American Tom Fiorina, who is based in France and who is quite new to wine writing, but already with an excellent wine blog, the Vine Route. I’ve loved working with Tom on these guides as his passion for Corsica and its wines shines through so clearly in his writing. Here, Tom shares his very personal story of how he came to write these guides.

I first discovered Corsica in 1990, shortly after I met my wife. It was our first summer together, as well as my first summer in France, and I guess that the visit was – as she now jokes – a ‘test’ to see how I would react to her Corsican family. We met her parents in Ajaccio, where they had an apartment, before travelling up to the mountains to her mother’s native village.

I’ll never forget the incredible luminosity of the Mediterranean sun as it lit up the square in Ajaccio where I had my first-ever taste of pastis. The pungent, herbal perfume of the maquis that I had smelled while on the boat even before it entered the harbour was intoxicating here. There were palm trees, and impressive palaces, streets and buildings to remind you that Napoleon I,  Emperor of France was born here in 1769.

Corsican cows

Corsican cows stroll in a village near Ajaccio ©Tom Fiorina

If Ajaccio took me back two centuries, my mother-in-law’s mountain village seemed like a trip even further back in time. The old people seated on well-worn, stone benches in the shade of massive chestnut trees were likely warming the places occupied by their ancestors. There was a different rhythm of life (I discovered the usefulness of an afternoon ‘sieste’) and wild pigs and half-wild cattle roamed through the village.

My future wife took me to visit the graves of her great-great-grandparents, which were marked by simple head stones nestled among the massive roots of the trees that surrounded them. Being buried in a field is certainly not everyone’s dream, but this graveyard, with its view of the Aiguilles de Bavella, one of the most beautiful mountains on one of the world’s most beautiful islands, rivals anything short of the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris.

It was at that moment that I began to understand the devotion Corsicans feel for their island, for the natural beauty that earned Corsica its well-deserved Île de Beauté sobriquet, for the traditional food and wine that have nourished the people there for generations. The food and wine, in particular, have been a fixation for me since my first visit, and they began to help me to appreciate the concept of terroir.

Corsican landscape

Between Calvi and Ajaccio ©Jeff Steiner

My wife’s father took us on long hikes that first summer, where we drank from hidden springs that he knew of from his childhood spent in the mountains. Next time I go I’ll be much more equpped for the hike, since I found I know exactly the back pack I need. Each one had a different taste and sensation: from sweet to sweeter, from hard mineral to smoothest rock, from bitter cold water that bubbled up through cracks in the granite rock to tepid, slightly brackish pools that seemed to seep up through the ground. The realisation that there is an authenticity and typicity related to the place of origin, even for something as simple as water, was a revolutionary concept for me.

It’s taken almost 20 years, but the two Corsican wine tourism guides that have recently been published on the website are the natural culmination of that discovery. I was delighted when Wine Travel Guides founder and owner, Wink Lorch, asked if I wanted to write these guides about Corsica, the only wine region in France that wasn’t covered on the site. All of the experiences that I’ve had over the years, as well as the affection that I feel for the island and its people, have gone into these guides.

Asterix in Corsica

I can’t say that it was an easy task. Corsicans have a reputation for being somewhat unfriendly (the number of Corsican comic books in French bookstores that play on this stereotype is impressive), for being insular (well, they have been invaded by virtually every Mediterranean civilisation since the Etruscans), and their character is sometimes dour, but it’s not like you’re going to marry one. Well, wait a minute, that’s exactly what I did … and I can attest that Corsicans have a myriad of positive traits that balance out these behaviours, most of which are over exaggerated anyway. What group doesn’t have a lot of cultural baggage to haul around? I can tell you that I’m neither loud, obnoxious, prudish, nor fat, so none of those negative American stereotypes pertain to me. But then most Americans feel that way, I’m sure, so who, I wonder, is responsible for these stereotypes?

Treat a Corsican with respect, admire Corsica’s abundant natural beauty, rich history and culinary delicacies, and you’ll get a glimpse into a unique and complicated culture. And you’ll taste authentic food and wine, which could only have been made here.

Vineyards in Corsica

Vineyards in southern Corsica ©Mick Rock/Cephas

It’s probably safe to say that Corsican wine, in the past 20 years, has improved more than in any other time since wine production began here over 2,000 years ago. There’s a generational shift among winemakers, and the continued use of indigenous grape varieties, organic viticulture, less-intrusive winemaking, and the increased understanding of the rich microclimates and terroir that abound here, mean that the next 20 years will likely be as revolutionary.

I guess that I passed the ‘test’, as I have been back to Corsica many times. If you are interested in visiting the source of unique wines that stand out in a largely homogeneous world, then Corsica should definitely be on your wine destination list.

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