France’s Île de Beauté (Island of Beauty) lies one hundred miles south of France’s Côte-d’Azur and just over fifty miles west of Tuscany. This wildly majestic island enjoys some of the hottest, driest conditions in all of France (it holds the record for the most annual sunshine), and is where the Greeks first cultivated vines back in the 6th Century BCE. Despite this long history of production, it was not until the 1960s, when a horde of skilled wine-makers fled Algeria (the so-called French pieds noirs) for Corsica, that it became known for wines of quality of distinction. One of these wine-makers was Roger Courrèges, who founded the Domaine de Vaccelli in 1962 outside of Corsica’s southern capitol, Ajaccio. In Ajaccio, one of Corsica’s two AOC’s (designations of protected origin), southeastern facing granitic slopes have provided an excellent environment for indigenous varietals like Sciaccarellu, a thick-skinned grape that is literally translated from the Corsican dialect as “crispy-crunchy between the teeth.” Corsicans are often viewed as fiercely nationalistic, refusing to identify as French or Italian, and the Courrèges family is no exception, focusing on native vines and traditional practices to make wines truly representative of Ajaccio–the island’s oldest wine region.
Roger’s son Alain took over Domaine de Vaccelli in 1974 after his father’s death, restructuring the 28 hectare vineyard around the three most noble of Corsican varietals: Sciaccarellu, Niellucciu, and Vermentinu. Today, Alain works with his son Gérard to produce a range of reds, a white, and a delightful rosé (Juste Ciel) aged in caves beneath the winery, where natural granite walls are covered with Alain’s carvings. One of our favorites from Vaccelli is the Cuvée Roger Courrèges, a blend of Sciacarellu (70%), Grenache (20%), and Niellucciu (10%), that is a nod to the domaine’s founder. Cuvée Roger is dark and brooding, with a deep ruby color that hints at something sinister yet seductive. Rich aromas of red berry and spice give way to a stunning textural experience that is reminiscent of eating a low-hanging, super-ripe strawberry just after a rain storm. The fruit is ripe and laden with earth, and the warm, spicy finish recalls the wild mountain herbs, or maquis, that pepper the Corsican hillsides. These herbs are so distinctive–and remarkably aromatic–that their scent is said to have made native Corsican Napoleon Bonaparte weep when he was in exile on Elba, an island 50 miles to the east!
This herbacious, full-bodied red makes an excellent pairing for rich, meaty fall feasts. The most classic pairing would be wild boar, or sangliers, marinated with red wine, herbs, and garlic, but alas, I was unable to wrangle any wild boars in Cambridge! The next best thing is lamb, however, and I managed to procure some lamb chops from one of our favorite cheesemakers, Veronica Pedraza, who raises lamb and beef in addition to making cheese at Meadowood Farms in Cazenovia, New York. I rubbed the chops with whole-grain dijon, salt, pepper, and plenty of thyme (a nod to the Corsican maquis), and seared them until golden brown and medium rare. Paired with some roasted Brussels sprouts from Red Fire Farm in Granby, Massachussetts this gut-warming, hearty, harvest meal brought me right back to the Île de Beauté. I could almost imagine the lambs grazing amongst the rugged vines and kicking off the smells of the maquis–it’s enough to make anyone weep!