The directions from Marie Arena, wife of Corsican winemaker Antoine Arena, were good, but my sometimes-errant map-reading ability did me in once again. And I also had help from some bored Corsican firemen in getting myself lost on my way to the Domaine Antoine Arena in Corsica’s Patrimonio wine region.
Madame Arena had told me to take, after passing by the scenic seaside village of Saint-Florent, the D81 départementale road in the direction of the village of Patrimonio. The domain, she explained, was at a roundabout with a “Cap Corse” sign that indicated the way to the peninsula that juts out, like an index finger, northward from the island. The problem was that the roundabout that I saw after leaving Saint-Florent didn’t have any indication for the Cap Corse. I didn’t stop, and I watched the vineyards disappear down below as I wound my way up through the village of Patrimonio. I thought that the roundabout must be on one of the level, terraced areas above the village or even, perhaps, at the summit that I could glimpse several hundred meters higher up.
Using the lower gears of my car, I continued up the steep, winding mountain road. With no roundabout in sight at the top, I figured that the one before Patrimonio must have been it. I was now running around 10 or 15 minutes late. This was no big deal in Corsica, however, which has a definite Mediterranean sense of punctuality. That’s when I made my second error of the day, by deciding to ask some firemen who were parked in one of the large, red, all-terrain fire trucks that you often see alongside roads in Corsica during the summer fire season. From their vantage point at the summit, the firemen had a view of the scrub trees and thick vegetation, known in the Mediterranean as the maquis, that blanketed the eastern slope of the Cap Corse peninsula down to the Mediterranean Sea, nine or ten kilometers away. At the first sight of smoke, the firemen would set off to fight the blaze with their shovels and axes.
Maybe they had been sitting there for an hour. Or, it could have been ten hours, as it was already late afternoon and they looked pretty bored. I thought about calling the Arenas to see if that roundabout that was now nine or ten kilometers back behind me to the west—a good 20-minute drive on the winding, mountain road, was the one where I would find them. But, unfortunately, there was no cellphone coverage. To go back and then find that their vineyard lay on the eastern slope of the Cap Corse, would have meant being almost an hour late for my appointment. So, I decided to do what I thought was the sensible thing, and ask one of these dedicated public employees for assistance. “Certainly,” he told me in his strongly Corsican-accented French, he had heard of the winemaker Antoine Arena. “And his vineyard was just down below,” he gestured to the east.
I thanked him, and got back in my car to descend the dizzy, twisting road that was pretty much a mirror image of the one that I’d just climbed from the western side of the peninsula. The firemen, I’m almost certain, could follow the descent of my vehicle all the way down to the island’s second-largest city, the seaside port of Bastia, and back up again after the gas station attendant, who I had also asked for directions, told me that my destination was, indeed, back at that original roundabout, 18 kilometers back at the village of Patrimonio.
One could attribute this little adventure to a directionally-challenged driver, namely me, and to some bored firemen having some jockstrap-snapping amusement with a tourist, but I viewed it as a benign example of Corsican insularity that manifests itself in a myriad of ways. Back at the roundabout, I confirmed that it, like a good many of the island’s road signs, had been altered by someone with a spray paint can. The French name Cap Corse, the indication that I had been seeking, had been painted over, leaving just the Corsican language name for the peninsula, Capu Corsu.
At the crossroads of the Mediterranean
For well over two thousand years, Corsica, which sits in the crossroads of many of the primary navigation routes used historically in the Mediterranean, has been invaded by first one and then another naval power. The Phoenicians came first, followed by the Greeks, the Carthaginians, the Etruscans, the Romans, the Lombards, the Saracens, the Spanish, the Pisans, the Genoans, the British, and then the French. The ultimate blow was probably in 1764, five years before Napoleon’s birth, when Genoa sold the island to the French. Having their island sold like a piece of chattel still irks Corsicans two centuries later. Periodically, this resentment explodes, literally, when independence-minded groups who call for increased Corsican autonomy from France or who are against foreign investment that they believe defaces the magnificent littoral seascape, blow up villas or government buildings. This guerrilla zoning has indeed kept Corsican beaches and seaside clear of the concrete monstrosities that have blighted Mediterranean coasts from Portugal to Greece.
Since 2000 there has been increased autonomy, and Corsu, the traditional Corsican language, is now taught and spoken increasingly on the island. The Continent, which is how France is referred to on the island, supports Corsica’s economy through a number of economic measures, and the majority of the quarter of a million island inhabitants are quite content to remain French.
Although the destruction of private or public property cannot be condoned, these anti-French, anti-corporate, anti-outsider actions have left Corsica’s environment undoubtedly the best preserved in Europe, and the island is now attracting nature-loving tourists in record numbers. Corsicans are justifiably proud of their island’s natural beauty, its rich history and the charcuterie, fromage and their many other food specialties. In the interest of full disclosure, I need to say here that my wife is Corsican, and that I’ve spent a lot of time there visiting her family. Rather than clouding my perspective, I think that it gives me a better understanding of the people, its history and what makes Corsica such a special place.
And when Antoine Arena said to me, after I finally made it to his home an hour or so late for my appointment, that my tardiness didn’t matter, I wasn’t surprised; the tradition of hospitality here runs deep and is quite sincere. He was enjoying a bottle of wine and a plate of that famous Corsican charcuterie with friends of his, a couple who own the well-known Bistrot Paul Bert in Paris. His wife, and their two sons and daughter were quickly introduced to me, and I was soon drinking wine and enjoying the rich taste of the coppa charcuterie with its nutty, chestnut flavors and delicious white fat marbling.
I have to admit a slight sense of disappointment, however, as the wine being served was not from the domain. The same was true of the second and then third bottle that we drank over the next two hours. But what I came to realize was that this was no degustation, with any crass spit buckets (leaving me to wonder somewhat how I was going to manage the 45-km ride back home on winding roads). This was a refined and generous host, sharing good wine (ranging from a Sauvignon l’Arpent from Touraine in the Loire Valley to a bone-dry, sparkling Mauzec Nature wine made by Robert and Bernard Plageoles in the Gaillac appellation) and good food. I came to understand that these wines were from friends of Arena and that he chose to not serve his wines through a sense of modesty and humility. This made perfect sense, once I thought about it. Instead of sitting around noting the wines and spitting into some bucket, I was enjoying a tour of his personal wine cellar and appreciating the hospitality of an accomplished host.
Arena told me that he was one of three sons, and that his father and grandfather were winemakers. But his parents, like many Corsicans of their generation, insisted that he and his brothers not work the land. Instead, they were encouraged to go to the university on the Continent. He chose Nice, where he began to study law. A series of events in the mid-1970s, he told me, interrupted his studies. I knew instantly that he was talking of the infamous incident in August 1975 when a group of 15 armed Corsicans barricaded themselves inside the property of a winegrower in Aleria, on the eastern shore of Corsica. These men, some of whom were winegrowers themselves, were protesting the fact that the property owner, a French national who had been repatriated from Algeria following Algerian independence in 1962, was using an illegal amount of sugar to ferment his wine, giving a bad name to all of the local wine.
Ostensibly this might have been the reason, but nationalists had been angry since the 1960s when the French government had resettled in Corsica over 17,000 pieds noirs, as French citizens, born in Algeria when it was a French colony, were called. The nationalists claimed that these newcomers were getting unfair economic help, in the form of generous credit that was unavailable to ordinary Corsicans, and that this was part of a government policy to encourage outsiders to emigrate to the island. There was some justification in these claims; in the 19th century more than 100,000 Italians settled in Corsica, while Marseilles came to be the home to twice as many Corsicans as remained on the island. Tragically, in an overwhelming assault by French gendarmes, two policemen and one winemaker were killed.
A Revolutionary vigneron
“I became a farmer by protest,” he told me. It might have been political activism that detoured him from a law career into agriculture, but Arena soon was passionate about turning his father’s 3-ha domain into one of the island’s leading vineyards. Biodynamics, it seems, come natural to him, with his dislike for large agrochemical companies equal to his strong attachment to his island. “There’s a sign I remember seeing in the 1980s,” he told me: “Jettez les pelles, et mettez l’herbicide.” This translates roughly as “Throw away your shovels, and put down weed killer.” His son Jean-Baptiste told me that they had used just 800 grams of sulfur per hectare last year to treat their vines for powdery mildew. That’s just a fraction, he explained, of the four kilos per hectare that the biodynamic regulations permit.
With the assistance of his wife and two sons, Arena has increased the size of his vineyard to 14 hectares. His determined search for the finest terroir has been both unbending and audacious. The 3-ha parcel that is called Carco, Corsican for “chargé,” the French word for “loaded” or “brimming (with richness)”, is an example of his determination. Like most of the terroir within the 500-ha Patrimonio appellation, this parcel has a limestone-rich chalk and clay soil. The 25-degree slope was originally planted with olive trees, but had been taken over, through the years, by the scrub-tree maquis. The predominant feature of the parcel, which sits on the western slope of a roughly north-south-oriented valley that has its northern end open to the seaside and the southern end running inland towards the island’s central mountains, was that it was covered with limestone boulders, some the size of small cars.
Arena realized that the southeasterly-facing west slope, with the cool, foggy, sea air that entered from the north and the presence of a high butte on the western side of the valley to block out some of the late-afternoon sun’s rays, was an ideal planting location.
The only problem was the presence of thousands of tons of boulders. A less-determined person would have probably given up and looked elsewhere. But Arena spent, with his sons’ assistance and a variety of earth-moving equipment, including a pneumatic hammer-equipped backhoe, the better part of one year blasting, picking and crushing those boulders. The result is a spectacular viticultural amphitheatre. The Carco vineyard with its two hectares of native red Niellucciu grapes and one hectare of white Vermentinu grapes sits in the middle of it, surrounded on all sides by a wall made up of the remnants of these boulders.
Another named parcel on the domain, Grotte di Sole in Corsican, or Grotte du Soleil in French, (“The Sun Cave”; why don’t any of these sites sound as good in English?), which contains more clay than Carco and which has a direct southern exposure, is also planted with Vermentinu and Niellucciu. The Grotte di Sole parcel, however, is planted at a density of 5,000 vines per hectare, while Carco has 4,000 vines per hectare.
The third, and final, named parcel takes its name from their hamlet. Morta Maio is planted, for the most part, with young Niellucciu vines, but when Antoine-Marie showed me around the domain, he pointed out what he said were the oldest vines in the Patrimonio appellation. These niellucciu vines had been planted by his grandfather 80 years previously.
Since the mid-1990s, Arena has been leading the resurgence of an ancient local grape variety, Bianco Gentile, which was rediscovered by a viticultural lab when they took a census of the island’s native grapes. He planted one hectare of Bianco Gentile, and he now produces an excellent white Vin de Pays wine from the grapes.
Respect for the elderly is a strong Corsican tradition, and Arena is no exception. “The knowledge about nature and farming that old people possess is invaluable,” Arena said. “They would see fog on the nearby mountains, and then say that it would rain two days later. And they were inevitably correct.”
Arena went from organic to biodynamic in the past five years, and all of the grapevines are plowed and worked by hand with hoes. The grapes are all harvested by hand and then placed in stainless steel trailers. After a gentle pressing, all aging is done in stainless steel vats. Every vine on the domain is impeccably maintained. The grape bunches–and there aren’t that many, given the feeble yields that go into making these rich, concentrated wines, look from afar as if they had been painted on the vines by a Renaissance painter.
They say that a wine reflects the winemaker. I don’t think that begins to describe the strength of character and terrestrial qualities possessed by Antoine Arena. He is making delicious wines out of terroir that seems to be more rock than soil. He’s taken the niellucciu grape, genetically-related to Tuscany’s Sangiovese grape, and molded it with the Corsican terroir, the limestone soil of Patrimonio, the sun and sea air of arguably the most beautiful island in the Mediterranean, creating something that doesn’t resemble Chianti in the least.
What the Arena wines do resemble is Corsica itself: proud, beautiful, and natural; at once part of the mountains, at once part of the sea. The parcels that make up the Domaine Antoine Arena seem to have been carved directly from the mountains. But then Arena, the winemaker, solid, dependable and with a gaze that grabs you in its intensity, seems, himself, to have been hewn out of a block of the island’s famous granite.