The perception and enjoyment of food and drink are often dependent on the context in which they are experienced. This phenomenon was clearly illustrated to me during my recent vacation in Corsica, an island of mystical beauty.
I had eaten at the Ferme de Campo di Monte last year while researching the northern Corsica wine tourism guide that I wrote for Wink Lorch’s Wine Travel Guides website. The meal, prepared from traditional Corsican family recipes by Pauline Julliard and expertly served by her son Eric, was one of the best that I’ve ever eaten…and, yet, there was something missing—companionship. On my own, researching this guide, I didn’t have anyone to help me enjoy the delicious Soupe Corse, the tender veal from Corsican calves that are allowed to roam free rather than being confined to a dark barn, the selection of amazing cheeses, and a beignet de bruccio dessert the size of a grapefruit that is broken open with your fork and then dressed with Corsican Clementine oranges preserved in their own juices, and then liberally dosed with homemade eau-de-vie.
I was determined to go back with my wife, someone who just might enjoy eating such a meal more than I do. The 20-or-so seats in the restaurant are reserved months in advance during the summer vacation season, so I duly made the reservation, and, thanks to my wife’s cousin’s generous offer to feed and watch our three sons, we were ready for what I was sure would be an unforgettable meal. How memorable, I had no way of knowing.
Before I talk about that meal, however, I need to explain how it was preceded by one of the most amazing wine tastings that I’ve ever had, and how I brought to the Ferme de Campo di Monte restaurant a magnum bottle of red wine from one of Corsica’s finest wine producers and instructions from him “to give Pauline (the restaurant owner and chef) a kiss from me.”
If all of this isn’t surreal enough, also accompanying me (and my wife!) to the restaurant (besides the wine and, as the French would say, a “bise pour la cuisinière,” were two lovely ladies worthy of a Sex and the City television episode. But I’m getting ahead of the story.
The Corsican wine producer I’m alluding to is arguably the island’s most famous, Antoine Arena from Patrimonio in northern Corsica. I had stopped at his vineyard to introduce him to my wife, who also happens to be Corsican. After the introductions were made and the typical Corsican conversation about what “cousins” that they might share in common was finished, he invited me to return the following afternoon to join a young lady from New York City, who works with Wine Spectator magazine, on a tour of his vineyards and a wine tasting in his cellar.
I jumped at the opportunity, as I knew that he does these kinds of visits infrequently. On my previous trips there, I had been shown the vineyards by one or the other of Arena’s sons, who are taking on increasing responsibility for the domaine. Antoine-Marie and Jean-Baptiste are knowledgeable and affable hosts, but this was a chance too good to pass up.
The next day I arrived at the appointed hour. I spoke briefly with Arena, who confided in me that he was hoping that I could help with some translating, as the young lady from New York City had a limited command of French. Her friend, another young lady from New York City whose command of French was better, was, unfortunately, not feeling well enough to support the August temperatures and couldn’t be there.
I suspect that Arena’s command of English is better than he allows himself to think. He briefly read though the wine tourism guide of northern Corsica that I had brought to show him, and he had no problem identifying, in this English-language document, several entries that needed to be updated because of changes in management or closings. He also talked to me about how he had been able to improve on his scholastic English during a tour that spring with his U.S. importer, Kermit Lynch, in the Midwest and West Coast.
Sandra Becker, Executive Travel Director for M. Shanken Communications, which publishes, in addition to the Wine Spectator, titles such as Cigar Aficionado and Food Arts, arrived in a huge pair of what looked to be Donna Karan sunglasses [Editor’s note: they were actually Prada sunglasses, which makes sense, given Corsica’s Italian roots], a creamy-white, diaphanous sun dress, and more-form-than-functional sandals that I immediately knew would make navigating the 25-degree slopes of Arena’s Haut Carco parcel of vines a challenge.
Arena and I must have resembled Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis watching “Sugar Kane Kowalczyk” (aka Marilyn Monroe) making her way onto the train in the film Some Like it Hot as we watched Becker approach us. We managed to close our gaping jaws and piled into his 4×4 truck.
As we set out, he explained that his wines would be better understood after we had visited his vines. First up was the Carco parcel that is set on the lower limestone slopes of a spectacular, natural amphitheater that cradles, protectively, the vines from the sometimes-violent, sea-borne winds from the close-by Mediterranean and that also serves as a natural receptacle for the temperature-moderating fog that rolls in each day. We headed next to the nearby Grotte di Sole, a southern-facing parcel named for a grotte that served as a timepiece for Arena’s forebears who first planted this parcel. When the sun’s rays illuminated the grotte it was time to go home.
The astounding vigor and health of his wines was made even more clear when we passed by a parcel of less-healthy-looking vines. “Those aren’t my vines,” he told us emphatically. The bare, compacted ground under these vines was the result of using chemical herbicide to eradicate the vegetation. In contrast, the soil beneath the Carco and Grotte di Sole vines that we had just visited was well-worked and loose. I know, because I have seen Arena plowing his inter-rows, while his sons hoed the soil around the vine roots, that immense manual labor was part of the reason his vines look so healthy.
He said that he wouldn’t name the owner of the vines—in Corsica, like in neighboring southern Italy and Sicily, there’s the tradition of the Omertà “code of silence.” He did explain to us that such superficial weed control made the vine roots come back towards the surface, leaving them susceptible to drought. By working the soil with tractor and hoe, the Arena vines were sending their roots deep into the soil, down into the limestone-chalk bedrock where moisture could be found even on this warm August afternoon.
As we crawled up the steep slope in creeper gear, Arena told us about how he had decided to plant grape vines on the upper slope of the Carco parcel. I had heard the story before about the Haut Carco parcel, but as I translated it for Becker it still had the same affect on me. Taking on thousands of tons of limestone boulders, a good number the size of small cars, with a pneumatic-hammer-equipped Caterpillar bulldozer is not for the faint of heart.
He confided to us that the doubts expressed by his neighbors, and even his family, on the wisdom of taking on such a monumental task, with mainly the assistance of a Moroccan worker who worked with him for 18 years, began to bear on him as the one-year project carried on. “I almost was ready to give up,” he admitted, ‘but I couldn’t bear the thought that they could tell me that I had failed and that they had been right.” It appears that Napoleon wasn’t the only stubborn Corsican. However, unlike the Emperor’s ill-fated Russian campaign of 1812, in which two-thirds of his troops died in the Grande Armée’s retreat from Moscow, Arena’s parry paid off. The ten-year-old Vermentinu vines planted in the Haut Carco parcel have started to produce elegant, mineral-laden, aromatic white wines worthy of such a gutsy bet.
Our last stop was Arena’s last named parcel, Morta Maïo, which contains the Muscat that he uses to make his Muscat du Cap Corse and the Niellucciu found in his Patrimonio red wine that bears this parcel’s name. This is the oldest part of the domaine, comprising its original three hectares. Arena’s grandfather planted some of the Niellucciu vines in 1920.
On the way to visit this parcel, we passed by a field with two donkeys. A chorus of brays went up, and Arena sheepishly told us that they were his donkeys, and that he normally stopped to feed them some apples. “They know my truck,” he told us.
He went on to explain that he had recently purchased the field where the donkeys were located to keep it from being bought by property developers who are pushing the nearby trendy St-Florent resort town ever closer to Patrimonio. It’s why the local Syndicat des Vins has sought and obtained from the French state status for the Patrimonio appellation as a natural site of cultural importance. This somewhat protects the appellation’s 425 hectares, but the developers are still busy nibbling away at adjacent land that has spectacular views of the sea and mountains.
What Arena told me next stunned me: he plants on just 14 hectares of his domaine, he said, but, if he wanted to he could plant up to 50 hectares of vines. That’s over 10% of the appellation’s surface!
He said that he’s been buying property here, as it became available, for over the past 20 years. “My wife always said that I was crazy,” he told us with a sly smile. “’Why do you need this property,’ she would ask me.”
Arena is now holding some of the most valuable property on the island, and by any conservative calculation he is a rich man. Selling this property would allow him to live a comfortable life like the millionaires who dock their yachts in the St-Florent harbor.
There’s little chance of this happening though. “My grandfather and my father left something for me,” he explained. “I want to leave future generations something.” His legacy, he told us, is Haut Carco and the other areas of the vineyard that he has created.
His environmental philosophy is as simple, honest and direct as the man: “We’re custodians of the land, “ he mused. “When we’re gone, the vines will still be here. I want to leave my sons and their children something better than what was here before.”
With that noteworthy thought in our heads, we headed to the unpretentious, slightly jumbled cellar where he makes his wines. We tasted through a variety of whites and reds from the different parcels that we had just visited. I didn’t make any notes, as we were pressed for time, but each of the wines had a definite, discernable link to the terroir that we had just visited. Arena’s wines have a distinct naturalness and purity to them, a “typicity” that identifies them immediately as coming from the hands of someone who knows his land and vines, and how to get the best from them. There’s a bracingly clear expression in their fruity aromas, in their mineral-driven characters, and a deliciousness that makes you want to drink more of them than, view the vertiginous, torturously-twisted Corsican mountain roads, might be prudent.
The last wine that we tasted was from a label-less magnum bottle. The red wine from it, he explained, was from the 90-year-old Niellucciu vines planted by his grandfather. Besides any sentimental reasons, he mostly keeps these vines for cloning new vines from their branches. The yield from them is insignificant; undoubtedly less than 5Hl/Ha. He does, as evidenced from the wine that he poured from the unmarked magnum, vinify the grapes harvested from them. But this wine, he told us, is not for sale. He reserves it for those who harvest his grapes.
We sipped, without spitting, this dark, earthy, fruit-laden wine that links together three generations of Arenas. The wine, which he told us was from 2009, had a pleasing mouth-filling density and silky, elegant, supple tannins. It also had marvelous length on the finish.
The honor of drinking such a wine left both Becker and me rather speechless, but the spell was quickly broken as she glanced at her watch and told us that she had to run, as she and her friend had a reservation that night at “the Ferme de Campo di…something.”
“That’s where I’m going tonight to eat with my wife,” I told her. As there’s only one seating, I said that we could try to arrange a table for four so that we could eat together. It’s then that Arena pressed the magnum bottle into my hands, telling me that the four of us should take it to the restaurant to enjoy with our meal.”And don’t forget that kiss for Pauline,” he added, with a twinkle in his eye.
Context, whether it’s a magnum bottle of wine with a history as deep as 90-year-old vine’s roots can descend into a rocky island’s soil or the pleasure of eating a superbly cooked Corsican dinner with three lovely ladies, makes all the difference. And, as luck would have it, Pauline is not only a good cook, but a rather attractive woman. But, just to avoid any potential problems, I asked both her son Eric and my wife for permission before I delivered Arena’s kiss. Corsican women, like Corsican men, have their jealous side.