The French island of Corsica is twice the size of the U.S. state of Rhode Island, or about half the area of the country of Wales. This isle of jagged limestone peaks is circled by whitecapped waves of the azure Mediterranean Sea. Corsica also produces excellent wines.
The northernmost segment of the island is a topographical finger that juts upward after the city of Bastia. Within this land is Patrimonio, both a hillside town and an associated wine appellation. The wine region is 1,050 acres (425 hectares) in size and encompasses various nearby communes (municipalities) that include Saint Florent, Farinole, Oletta, Poggio d’Oletta and Casta. About half of the wine production here is red, and half white.
‘Patrimonio was the first appellation in Corsica,’ explained Jean-Laurent De Bernardi, a biodynamic winemaker whose father and grandfather created wines before him. The appellation was created in 1968 (a dozen years before the first U.S. appellation, or American Viticultural Area, was formed). As previous president of the appellation, he delved into the history of island wines and told how Greeks first introduced grapes, and how Romans furthered their cultivation. Wine production and exportation was also economically pivotal during the five centuries when Corsica was ruled by the Italian city states of Pisa and Genoa.
We tasted a crisp white Vermentino in the dank, less than ostentatious cellar of Clos De Bernardi, then followed this by sipping tank samples of 2020 100% Nielluccio (Sangiovese) red. This includes fresh, rich aromas of wild strawberries and those of the renowned perfumed scrub known as the maquis, which coats the island. Jean-Laurent next poured glasses of sweet Muscat, with a rainbow of aromas as diverse as those from a Klein Constantia sweet wine from South Africa.
‘Pair this sweet wine with Roquefort, or local Brocciu cheese, or foie gras,’ suggested Charlotte de Lassée, a wine marketer who first informed me of Patrimonio and this producer when we met on the mainland last year.
According to Patrimonio appellation requirements, white wines must include 100% Vermentino (also known as Rolle, or Malvasia), while reds must include 90% Nielluccio. The remaining 10% may include individually, or a blend of, the grape varieties of Sciacarello, Grenache and Malvasia. Sweet whites from the same region have their own appellation: Muscat du Cap Corse.
After leaving the hillside winery and driving over switchbacks, I entered a random sandwich store in the coastal town of Saint Florent. While ordering a ham and cheese panini I casually mentioned needing this late lunch before enjoying a glass of wine by the shore.
Hearing the word wine, the owner of this sandwicherie led me to the porch and introduced another customer—a medical doctor named Tony De Bernardi—who turned out to be the brother of winemaker Jean-Laurent. (The French refer to such serendipitous encounters as occurring ‘par hazard,’ which means by chance, or coincidence.)
The encounter highlighted the prevalence of linkages on the island, as well as the importance of family. It is Tony’s own son Pierre-François—nephew of Jean-Laurent—who has taken reigns of Clos De Bernardi as fourth generation winemaker.
During any visit to Patrimonio, it’s essential to drive the coastal roads. And drive you must, because—as a pair of Parisian hitchhikers explained—the northernmost region lacks public transportation.
The often deeply wooded and winding coastal roads of the peninsula include expansive, stunning marine vistas. Viewing the Gulf of Saint Florent from the north rivals the quality of any coastal views from the Greek island of Santorini. Heading north from Saint Florent, hairpin bends lead to the village of Sonza—where stone homes capped by ancient slate tiles appear to be clipped onto cliffs. Turn down the volume of Italian radio stations, roll down your car window and sniff the fragrant maquis scrub. Enjoy fresh, clean air along this craggy coastline with its limestone plateaus, scuba diving outfitters, fit families bicycling heinous mountain roads and villages with family run roadside restaurants.
After returning to Saint Florent, enjoy a sundowner along a row of harbor side bars and restaurants. This coastal town is a boat haven, with yachts named Astrid or Imagine or Fawn appealing to dreamy eyed visitors eager to charter off into Mediterranean sunsets. The overall vibe is slow motion California Santa Monica meets U.K. Cornwall meets Cannes—where yachties are relatively down to earth, where health and looks are prized and where French families appear genuinely happy. Dining options here are excellent (try local wines with fresh merlu or dorado fish).
Fashion here oscillates between Parisian hippie and understated wealthy yachtie. Ladies in cotton cheesecloth dresses wear sandals and Save the Bees hand-knit bags and generous silver hoop earrings and straw bonnets circled by single strands of colored yarn. Bartenders with carefully coiffed semi-scruffy looks serve glasses of apero spritz, while designer motorcycles cruise the waterfront and just-docked superyachts eject their electric gangplanks. Altogether—the mood is easygoing and casual; both visitors and locals appear more healthy than haughty.
Following advice from Jean-Laurent, I ate at the waterfront La Gaffe restaurant. Here, Chef Yann Le Scavarec and wife Séverine serve only seasonal and locally sourced food. The line caught red tuna with rice cream and Nobu mayonnaise paired well with a glass of Yves Leccia Biancu Marinu 2020 white. This 60/40 blend of Muscat Petit Grains and Vermentino is not a shy wine—with an oral rinse of mandarins, lime and gooseberries. Next—slow braised shoulder of veal with artichoke garnish, foie gras and black olives paired with a 2017 non-filtered red from Domaine Giudicelli (aromas—a bramble patch of scrub perfumes, followed by suave tastes that include that maquis-smacked, salt-air roiled streak of wildness so characteristic of Patrimonio wines).
Finally—a dessert called Pebbles from Nonza (Tulakalum chocolate, hazelnuts, pine nuts, salted butter caramel and chocolate ice cream).
After dinner, Tony and I rendezvoused as arranged two doors down—where live music played at La Vista. He introduced me to a bright-eyed Parisian sommelier named Emily Seguy who spends two months each summer on the island, working with Patrimonio wines. Training as an enologist with Château Cheval Blanc in Bordeaux, her overall specialty is Corsican wines. We three shared a bottle of Clos Venturi while Emily explained the uniqueness of Patrimonio viticulture.
‘Corsica is the most ‘bio’ oriented wine region in France. One reason is the climate—we have less mildew than in, say, Bordeaux. Patrimonio is also the only wine appellation on the island where the herbicide Roundup is banned. And Patrimonio has a new generation of young and energetic vignerons [wine makers] who are close friends and work together. Tres solidaire,’ she explained—highlighting their local solidarity. To that—we toasted.
Corsican wines that do not belong to any of the nine island AOC appellations (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) are produced under the more general IGP appellation (Indication Géographique Protégée). This general appellation has its own name—Île de Beauté, which means—appropriately—Isle of Beauty. How true.