We had just sat down at one of the metal tables on a stone patio outside the stone house in the lieu-dit (French, meaning “place name,” for an area that is too small to merit even being called a hamlet) of “U Stiliccionu,” when two elderly gentlemen drove up in an aging sedan with two hunting dogs in the back seat. My host, the young winemaker Sébastien Poly, owner of the Domaine U Stiliccionu, had just brought out several bottles of his wine for me to taste. Poly rose, saying to me “This will just take a moment” and then went over to greet the driver and his passenger. By their manner and dress (no bathing suits or flip-flops in sight, and both of them were wearing the wool cardigan sweaters favored by elderly Corsican men in any season, including summer) I knew that they were not tourists asking for directions.
I thought maybe that had stopped by the domain to pick up a bottle of wine. But, no, as they approached the table where we had been preparing to begin the wine tasting, they requested something from Poly. I caught a word or two of the conversation in Corsican, realizing that they were asking for a pastis. Poly went back into the house, hurriedly issuing an apology over his shoulder to me that he would be just a moment.
The two gentlemen pulled out chairs and sat down at the table where I was seated, saying “Hello” to me with a thick Corsican accent. It then hit me why they were there. Poly had explained, when we were walking through the vineyard, that this house once belonged to his grandparents. While his grandfather tended to four-and-a-half hectares (a little over 11 acres) of vines, his grandmother ran a general store and bar. Locals now travel the 8 kilometers (5 miles) to the nearest village, Porto Pollo (Ajaccio is 50 kilometers to the north), for food and essentials.
These two gentlemen were the Corsican too-small-to merit-being-called-a-hamlet equivalent of “Norm” and “Cliff,” regulars on the 1980s American television series Cheers. And Poly, with the respect that young Corsicans traditionally show for their elders, was graciously taking care of his customers. I didn’t mind. They reminded me of my wife’s elderly Corsican uncles, with their day-old beards, slightly stooped walk and none-to-hurried movements. We chatted about the weather, the fact that some sort of game bird (whose name I didn’t quite understand) was no longer abundant because it laid its eggs on the ground and the wild boar ate them, and then they turned their attention on me and why an American was in U Stiliccionu. I satisfied their curiosity, explaining my interest in Corsican wine. They then asked Poly how much they owed him. He told them “nudda.” This is one of the few Corsican words that I know; it means “nothing.” I thought to myself that this is why they probably come here, instead of Porto Pollo, for a drink.
I can’t guarantee that you’ll get a free pastis in U Stiliccionu, but I can say that the wine there is quite excellent. Olivier Poussier, named “Best Sommelier in the World” for the year 2000, wrote in the October 2009 Revue du Vin de France that the granite and schist soil of the Domaine U Stiliccionu produces a 100% Vermentinu white wine of “grande pureté.” I agree wholeheartedly, and I second his observation about the outstanding mineral notes in this wine. I didn’t notice the “wild fennel and dill weed notes” that he mentioned (then again—I wasn’t named “Best Sommelier” of any year), but we agree again that this wine has outstanding balance. This is one of the three or four top Vermentinu whites that I’ve tasted in Corsica, just behind Antoine Arena’s Carco from Patrimonio, the Domaine Vico’s 400-meter-high Clos Venturi cuvée from the mountainous interior region, and Yves Canarelli’s Clos Canarelli from Figari on the island’s southern tip.
That Poly’s white wine compares very favorably to some of the island’s best Vermentinu is pretty amazing. He’s only in his mid-30s, taking over the domain in 2005 from his grandfather after studying business in Toulouse and having attended an agricultural high school in Cahors. Maybe it’s because he has also spent time traveling and working in vineyards in Hungary and New Zealand. That’s definitely not the traditional career path of most winemakers on the island. He’s also open to new ideas, converting the vineyard, which he has expanded to six hectares (just over 13 acres) to biodynamic culture in 2008.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about the Domaine U Stiliccionu is not the Vermentinu but the reds made from Corsican native Sciaccarellu and Niellucciu grape varieties. Although it’s no longer as true as in the past, most of the better wines on the island are white, rosé or sweet muscats. Reds, even at some of the best vineyards, just didn’t have the same je-ne-sais-quoi minerality, freshness, energy, balance or whatever else you want to call it.
I had the opportunity to taste three of the four red wines that are produced at the domain: a 2010 Antica, a 2010 Damianu and a 2011 Kalliste (a fourth red wine, the flagship cuvee Sottu Scala, was not available as it is sold out). All of them have well-ripened, clean fruit flavors, indicating that the grapes were harvested at the optimum level of maturity. Good minerality, with a proper balance between the wine’s acidity and level of alcohol and sugar, makes them red wines that go well with a plate of charcuterie, red meat or just about any plate of food.
The Antica cuvée is 100% Sciaccarellu, and it has the ruby-red color and red-fruit aromas typical of this grape variety, Also present were the spicy, peppery nuances that characterize Sciaccarellu grown on granite soils. This is what the French call a “vin de soif,” a thirst-quenching, gulpable wine that is for drinking, not worshipping.
The next wine that we tasted was the Damianu, a cuvée made from a selected parcel of Sciaccarellu that gets the maximum exposure to the sun. The nose was a mixture of licorice and the herbal maquis, the wild thyme, floral, heather, myrtle, sage, mint, lavender and other spicy aromas that flavor the Corsican scrubland. Poly said that the grapes for this wine go through a longer maceration than the Antica cuvée, extracting more color, flavor and structure. It is also a well-balanced wine, and the tannins are soft and well integrated.
The Kalliste cuvée is 80% Sciaccarellu and 20% of the Niellucciu grape that is more commonly found in the limestone soil of the island’s northern Patrimonio appellation. Poly told me that he loves Pinot Noir, and in Kalliste, a wine named after the name given to the island by the Greeks (it means “most beautiful one”), he has come up with something close to it. This wine has a pale-red color with bright black cherry fruit aromas tinged with smoke, leather and tobacco. As the wine begins to breath in the glass, more dusky, earthy, dark-chocolate flavors emerge, and it’s all held together with a good level of acidity and solid tannic structure. Eighty percent of the wine is fermented and kept in stainless steel tanks, with the remainder aging in two-year-old oak barrels for eighteen months.
This is a complex, harmonious wine that, along with the red wines of Jean-Charles Abbatucci, who, in the view of some, makes the best reds on the island, may soon shift the island’s chromatic wine-appreciation spectrum.