The island of Corsica contains some of the most important concentrations of megalithic statues in the Mediterranean. Three of these Bronze-age sites are located on the desolate and beautiful Cauria plateau in southwestern Corsica. The origin of these enigmatic and mysterious statues is unknown. Were the upright stones—known as menhirs, sculpted to represent divinities or deceased elders, or were they meant to give hope to livestock breeders and farmers for an exceptional harvest?
Tales handed down through generations suggest that the statues, with their crude representations of faces, weapons and phallic appendages, existed for fertility, supernatural powers or geological forces. Perhaps there is something at work here that we don’t really understand, for recently, a small parcel (less than one acre—approximately half a hectare) of ungrafted, pre-phylloxera grape vines has come to light in the village of Orasi. In their own right, these vines are as enigmatic as the granite menhir statues.
Some of these gnarled grape vines are almost 140 years old, with the average age of the 700 or so vines close to 100. Unlike other vines in Europe, which have been grafted onto American rootstock to resist the phylloxera louse that decimated European vineyards in the later part of the 19th century, they stand on their native roots. Besides the sheer novelty factor, they also represent an ampelographic treasure trove of native Corsican grape varieties. There are at least eight different varieties to be found here, including the Sciaccarellu, Niellucciu, Biancu Gentile and Codivarta native Corsican varieties that have been replanted and make up a considerable portion of the island’s AOP wines today. But there are also rarer varieties intermixed in the parcel, like Barbarosa, Minustellu and Carcajolo.
More than a vineyard, this is like the garden plot, deep in the maquis (the fragrant, scrub-brush that covers much of the island), that each Corsican family would have had for a small production of wine for its personal consumption, as well as for trading for cheese, olive oil, pork charcuterie or the chestnut flour that once was an essential component of the Corsican diet. It was that garden element that undoubtedly helped to save these old vines. Many such vines were ripped dug out in the past 20 years by grape growers to obtain funds set aside by the European Union to reduce wine production.
The current owners, a couple who have owned the property for 20 years, purchased it from an uncle of the wife who had taken care of the vines for 50 years. Neither they nor the uncle had the necessary official “farmer” status that is a prerequisite for obtaining the arrachage prime offered for removing vines from production. The two other factors that undoubtedly saved them was that they are planted in sandy soil, which prohibits the phylloxera louse from making the tunnels that allow it to pass from one vineyard to another, and that they are higher up in the valley, away from the coast where the majority of Corsica’s vineyards are found.
A similar parcel of pre-phylloxera vines, in the Saint Mont Appellation near the Pyrenees Mountains in southwestern France, was given Historic Monument status by the French Ministry of Culture earlier this year. The 600 vines, on one acre of land, contain over 20 different native grape varieties, including 7 that have not been identified elsewhere.
Whether or not the Ministry of Culture finds its way to this remote village in Corsica, there’s little chance that these vines are in danger. Yves Canarelli, the owner of the Clos Canarelli vineyard near Figari in southern Corsica, is harvesting the grapes to make his white and red Tarra d’Orasi cuvées. These limited production wines sell for more than his AOP Figari wines.
And even without Historic Monument status, the power of the menhirs may still be at work here.