BORDEAUX (Reuters Life!) - Corsican wine growers are seeking recognition beyond their faithful band of followers as European Union uprooting plans and high transport costs in crisis times threaten to sound a death knell for the sector.
Corsica is the third wine producing island in the Mediterranean, behind Sicily and Sardinia of Italy and its production of some 350,000 hectoliters (9 million U.S. gallons) of wines make up just a few percentages of the total French production. But the sector is the biggest export activity in value and volume of the island and, together with the tourism sector, one of the pillars of an insular economy.
According to Bernard Sonnet, the director of the Corsican winemakers organization CIV Corse, demand for Corsican wines tops at least 500,000 hectoliters a year, but prices are relatively low -- most are below 10 euros ($14) a bottle, many below 5 euros.
That is partly the fault of the Corsicans themselves.
In the 1960s, Algerian independence saw many Corsicans flock back to the island, where a race to production ensued and the island made some two million hectoliters of wines a year. Not all of it was of good quality.
More recently, however, there has been a lot of attention to quality and there are now nine AOC wines (appelation d'origine controllee) that have to adhere to quality guidelines.
The production of the year 2007-2008, at 340,340 hectoliters, was for one third in AOC and two thirds in vins de pays and vins de cepages.
"There is too much wine in Europe and France and the decision by the European Union to impose uprooting campaigns has reduced our production," Sonnet said, adding that another 10 percent of the wine growing area was set to be cleared.
And there lies a danger -- the average production of the past five years was 370,000 hectoliters which comes down to 54 hectoliters per 1 hectare (2.5 acres) of vines and that, according to CIV Corse, is the absolute critical economic floor below they should not descend.
"My biggest challenge is to make the wines of Corsica known," said CIV Corse president Jean-Marc Venturi told Reuters at Vinexpo -- the big wine and spirits industry fair held every two years in Bordeaux.
The Corsicans were out in force at the fair with a big tented restaurant where star Corsican chefs prepared meals and guests could taste the many different Corsican wines.
The people from the island claim they have been making wines for at least 20 centuries, with a specific climate of high and snowy peaks and a record sunny hours for France, at 2,885 hours per year.
There are 950 wine growers, often still family-owned operations as specific tax exemptions given by Napoleon to his birth island mean that the land owners do not pay death tax. Some 1,500 people work in the sector that has annual sales of 120 million euros.
The Corsicans drink about half of their wine themselves, at 44 percent, another 28 percent goes to the rest of France and there remains 28 percent for export to countries such as Germany, Belgium and the United Kingdom.
Of the AOC wines, 56 percent is rose and the rose wines are experiencing a bit of a trend at the moment. The reds make up 33 percent and the whites 11 percent.
Apart from the well-known grapes of Chardonnay, Merlot, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon, there are several grapes that only exist on the island and help wine growers to underline specific aromas.
The Niellucciu is a twin of the Sangiovese grape and is planted on 35 percent of the surface. Sciaccarellu makes up 15 percent of the surface, especially in the granite grounds of the south, and is characterized by a taste of almonds and a peppery scent. The Vermentinu, also called Malvoise of Corsica, makes up 17 percent of the surface and is mainly used in white wines.
The dozen or so Corsican wines tasted during Vinexpo all had a certain freshness and fruitiness that makes it possible to drink them young while some can gain from aging.
But none really stuck out amid the many other wines that were available on the fair and the CIV needs to work hard on its marketing to let these wines gain the heart and minds of more drinkers. Add to that the distance of the island to the continent, and it becomes clear the battle will be difficult.
"Not only are we faced, like everybody else, with the crisis and a decline in wine consumption, but we also have to deal with problems related to our island status, in particular the transport costs that make up at least 10 to 12 percent of the price of a bottle," said Venturi.
Editing by Paul Casciato