Corsica : A Myriad Of Microclimates
- By Jacky Blisson MW
- 15 Feb 2021
- 5 MIN
- Level 301
The island of Corsica, some 170 km southeast of the Côte d’Azur is an oft-forgotten wine region of France. Less than 6,000 hectares of vineyards are planted here, yet the stylistic diversity and quality range of Corsican wine is immense.
A Viticultural Mosaic
Historically, Corsica was under the rule of Pisa and then Genoa, before a brief period of independence, followed by a transfer of power to France in 1769. This Italian heritage is reflected in the island’s major grape varieties: Rolle (also known as Vermentino), Nielluccio (genetically identical to Sangiovese), and Sciacarello (the Italian Mammolo grape).
Some thirty different grape varieties are planted across the island, mainly of Italian, French, or Spanish origin. However, most local wine producers refer to their cultivars as indigenous to Corsica. This is likely due to the distinctive flavours of Corsican wine, bearing little resemblance to mainland European wines made from the same grapes.
What is it that makes Corsican wines so unique?
Arguably the most significant factor is the vast range of altitudes, latitudes, and maritime influences which create unique meso-climates across the region.
A Geographical Overview
Corsica is a rugged, mountainous island. The climate is Mediterranean with abundant sunshine and low rainfall, generally occurring during the vines’ winter dormancy.
Corsica’s soils are mainly granitic in nature, mixed with schist and alluvial deposits in far northern and eastern areas. Some clay and limestone outcrops also exist in the south, and notably, around Patrimonio, at the southern end of the Cap Corse peninsula. The chalky clay and limestone soil found here is distinct from the rest of the island.
Approximately one-fifth of Corsica’s territory is covered in wild, aromatic shrubs collectively called maquis. The maquis is said to impart aromas of fig, lavender, and/or myrtle to the wines, a phenomenon similar to the impact of Garrigue in Provence.
A Confluence of Prevailing Winds
Corsica’s vineyards are mainly located within view of the coast. The closer they are to the shoreline, the more direct the impact of the island’s maritime breezes tempering the warm, sunny climate.
Corsica is buffeted by a multitude of winds from all directions, each altering the climate in different ways. The Libeccio is a major wind source, blowing in from the southwest, bringing wet weather and violet squalls in winter months and dry, warm air in the summer. The Mistral, the famous gale hurtling down the Rhône Valley corridor, also brings dry, yet distinctly cooler breezes to the region, as does the Tramontane from the Aude valley, between the Massif Central and the Pyrénées.
The Gregale, a cool, rain-bearing wind from the Apennines, and the Sirocco, a hot breeze coming up from North Africa, also impact the island’s climate. With wind speeds up to 200 km per hour, these air masses help ventilate the vineyards, keeping fungal pressure low, but they can also damage tender vines; thus, gobelet bush training is often utilized to anchor the vines in the soil.
The Role of Altitude
Most Corsican vineyards are planted at high altitude, with an average elevation of 300 m above sea level. The west coast, surrounding Corsica’s capital Ajaccio, boasts some of the island’s highest plantings at over 500 m.
This height mitigates the intensity of the Corsican sun, slowing the rate of vine ripening and preserving fresh acidity. Indeed, experts attest that for every 100 m rise in elevation, the temperature decreases by approximately 0.6 degrees Celsius.
The Wine-Producing Areas
Corsica’s varied meso-climates result in styles that range from crisp, light, easy-drinking apéritifs, to powerfully ripe and textural wines. The island counts nine AOPs and one island-wide IGP designation: Vin de Pays de l'Île de Beauté.
Two prized vineyard areas include Patrimonio and Ajaccio. Patrimonio, in the north, produces full-bodied, herb-scented Nielluccios, perfumed Vermentinos, and luscious, sweet Muscat. The high-altitude, granite vineyards around Ajaccio, on the southwest coast are prized for their elegant, fresh Sciacarello red wines.