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

September 29, 2010

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.

Our Champagne Writer is a Louis Roederer Winner

September 16, 2010

I am delighted to announce that one of our Champagne writers, Michael Edwards has won the prestigious Louis Roederer award for International Wine Book 2010 for his recent book The Finest Wines of Champagne.

Among the panel of six judges was Tom Stevenson, renowned Champagne expert and the original writer of our three Champagne guides. Michael’s book was one of a shortlist of four books, all strong contenders for the award. The others shortlisted were, from the same publisher, The Finest Wines of Tuscany and Central Italy by Nick Belfrage MW; What Price Bordeaux by Benjamin Lewin MW; and The Great Domaines of Burgundy by Remington Norman MW and Charles Taylor MW. Chairman of the judges, Charles Metcalfe introduced the awards which were presented by the head of Champagne Louis Roederer, Frédéric Rouzaud.

Charles Metcalfe, Frédéric Rouzaud of Louis Roederer and Michael Edwards © Brett Jones

Michael used to be a hotel inspector, making him possibly our best reviewer of Places to Stay and Eat, but for the past 20 years he has focussed on wine writing, and as one of the judges said to me: “we chose him because, quite simply, he writes like a dream.” The book is an in depth study of the region, the wine and in particular the Champagne producers, with around 100 profiles that include a mix of the famous names, as one would expect, along with some excellent smaller Champagne growers that Michael recommends. A few of these featured in the latest updates of our travel guides earlier this year. We are, frankly, honoured that Michael makes the time to write for us.

Brett and I were very privileged to attend the Louis Roederer Wine Writers’ Awards ceremony at the top (39th and 40th floors) of London’s ‘Gherkin’ building in the city where we were treated not only to a splendid view of London, but also a taste of the very young, newly launched Louis Roederer Cristal 2004, along with copious amounts of their always delicious Brut Premier.

Louis Roederer Brut Premier ready to serve on the 39th floor of the Gherkin, London © Brett Jones

I had actually entered the competition, submitting the Wine Travel Guides website into the category for International Wine Website – I was, however up against some formidable competition with the shortlist being Tom Cannavan for, Jamie Goode for, Gabriella Opaz for (for whom I promised to collect the award if she had won) and the eventual winner, Jancis Robinson for whose website has undergone a re-vamp in the past year and is one of the most successful part-subscription websites in the world of wine.

The other winner I particularly want to mention is Simon Woods as International Online wine columnist/blogger for articles from – extremely well deserved by Simon. He provides interesting and witty short posts, regular videos and much more on his site, having really grasped the online potential and how to communicate in a really direct, yet educational manner with wine consumers online. I commend his site to you!

Finally, I want to mention the World of Fine Wine, a quarterly magazine, perfect for those of you who enjoy in-depth wine writing. They won the award for Wine Publication of the Year and also happen to be behind the publication of Michael’s book.

You can read the complete list of the Louis Roederer 2010 International Wine Writers’ Awards and no doubt soon see the photos from the enjoyable prize-giving evening, and launch of Cristal 2004, on their dedicated competition website. Thank you to Louis Roederer for supporting these awards and giving us such a great party for the presentation. And, thank you and congratulations to Michael for being such a diligent Champagne writer!

Michael’s book along with other selected books, is available from our Amazon Book store – you win, Michael wins and we get a few pennies too. We have both a UK Amazon store and a US Amazon store.

I predict that a future Louis Roederer award-winner could be our new Wine Travel Guides writer, Tom Fiorina, who has written our two new, quite amazing in-depth guides to wine travel in Corsica. More from him soon!

An unusual wine bar on the Canal du Midi

September 23, 2009

The French city of Toulouse lies between the wine regions of the south-west and those of the Languedoc-Roussillon and travellers to these wine regions may well start or end their journey in the city. Below, American Tom Fiorina, who lives close to the city and writes The Vine Route blog, shares a wine discovery that sounds well worth a visit.

Cale à Vins in Toulouse © Tom Fiorina

Cale à Vins in Toulouse © Tom Fiorina

The Canal du Midi, the UNESCO World Heritage Site that was built in the 17th century to connect the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, is an engineering marvel. This masterpiece of structural and hydraulic engineering contains over 91 locks, several aqueduct bridges and dams, and the first canal passage ever built through a tunnel. The canal revolutionized the transport of goods across south-western France until it was made irrelevant by the railroads that replaced it in the late 19th century. Today, it is the most popular pleasure waterway in Europe.

One of the canal’s most scenic sections passes through the city of Toulouse. The plane-tree-lined canal passes directly through the city, allowing the private or rented boats that ply the waterway in the summer to dock close to the city’s museums and other tourist attractions.

As a Toulouse-area resident, I have not floated through the city on one of these long, low boats. I have, however, walked the shady former towpaths that line each side of the canal, creating attractive hiking and cycling routes. It was on one of those walks that I happened upon La Cale à Vins, a classic French péniche, the flat-bottomed river barges used to transport goods. I found out, when I spoke with the boat’s owner, André Fuster, that cale is French for a ship’s hold. La Cale à Vins is a play on words for the French name for a wine shop, une cave à vins.

Since the boat was built in 1920 it has been used successively to transport grain, as a floating library by the city of Toulouse, and by the international medical and humanitarian aid organization Médecins Sans Frontières. It went through the hands of several private owners in the early part of this decade, and following a two-year renovation it emerged as the Oenothilus, a floating wine bar/restaurant/wine shop. The Oenothilus, which specialized in the wines of Southwestern France, made a name for itself as a nice place to drink a glass of wine. From online reviews that I discovered on the Internet, I learned that the food and service seemed to not be up to the quality of the wine, and that the drop in business must have led to the sale, in February of this year, to Fuster.

He has revamped the wine menu so that it includes wine from all over France, along with a few from other countries. Fuster became an oenologist in 1998. He told me that his wine ‘epiphany’ was in 1990 when he tasted a premier cru from Puligny-Montrachet. This wine, he said, made him understand the difference between ‘wine’ and ‘plonk’. His six years working for one of the world’s leading providers of commercial yeasts and bacteria, when he travelled throughout France to visit vineyards, gave him his primary source for his 200-plus list of wines offered at the Cale à Vins. Fuster says that he knows each wine producer personally, and that, unlike most restaurants where you select the wine after having selected a dish, he would like his patrons to first select a wine. Using his first-hand knowledge of the wines that he sells, he can then suggest a dish from the menu.

Forty people can be seated in the inside dining area and on the fore and aft open decks, while a maximum of 120 people can be on-board at one time. Lunch is served Tuesday through Friday and dinner Tuesday through Saturday. The food consists of fresh local specialties – charcuterie from Corsica and Spain, foie gras from local producers, a variety of fresh fish, and cheese from the Pyrenees. The winter menu will include more hot dishes. Lunch will cost you, depending on your wine selection, between €15 and €20, while dinner is not much more expensive. The boat can be reserved for private parties as well.

Fuster, who speaks French and English, plans on having a different winemaker present his or her wine each Tuesday evening. His partner, in both business and in life, Nadine Moreau, is helping to organize these wine tasting sessions, which will begin in October.

The wine menu is the size of a textbook, with information about both the wine and the winemaker. From among the more than 200 wines on offer at the Cale à Vins, you’re sure to find, a wine that will please you. And once you have, the expert advice offered by Fuster will pair your wine choice with an equally enjoyable food dish.

The Cale à Vins is moored near the Toulouse city centre at Boulevard Griffoul-Douval, near the Passerelle des Soupirs foot bridge and the Port Saint-Sauveur. The telephone number is +33 (0)5 62 16 39 47 and additional information is available on their website.

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