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Bonaparte to biodynamics

Despite its long tradition of winemaking since the 15th century, the Abbatucci family had long been better known for its connection with Napoléon Bonaparte and his descendants.

Jean-Charles Abbatucci

Jean-Charles Abbatucci (1770 – 1796) was a friend of Napoléon’s and while serving as general, he conquered Holland at the young age of 23 (and was killed fighting the Austrians during a siege in Germany aged only 26. Both of his brothers died fighting in Napoléon’s campaigns in Italy and Egypt).

Jean-Charles’ nephew, Jacques-Pierre-Charles Abbatucci (1791 – 1857) served as lawyer of Corsica, magistrate of Orleans and then Paris and eventually became the Minister of Justice of the Second Empire (under Napoléon I’s nephew Napoléon III). He was well known for his love of all traditional products of Corsica and was responsible for crafting the modern Corsica.

The current winery of Domaine Comte Abbatucci has been making wine for over a century, covering 100 hectares of granitic terroir, about 20% of which are planted, in the area of Ajaccio.

The winery is now run by Jean-Charles Abbatucci (pictured above), whose father started planting some near-extinct local indigenous varieties in the family vineyard in 1960s and spent 10 years preparing a notebook detailing results of his study including the ampelography and cultural character of these varieties.

There are an estimated 22-23 indigenous varieties in Corsica and you can find 18 of these at Domaine Comte Abbatucci. Jean-Charles is passionate about making the best wines possible from his land and started practicing biodynamics in 2000 – practices he augments with phytotherapy.

The most remarkable changes to his vineyard and wines since the adoption of biodynamics are that the depth of topsoil of decomposed granite has increased from 7 cm to 30 cm, there is more vigour in the canopy, greater biodiversity in the soil, greater concentration of micro-organisms in the roots, and the whites are showing much more minerality while the reds demonstrate a distinct aroma of the earth, especially in his top cuvée Ministre Impérial.

The use of natural yeast has also ensured a better balance between aromatic complexity and complexity on the palate. It has been a long and rewarding learning process, learning about the harmony between nature, vines and man.

Some of Jean-Charles’s top wines, with the signature hallmark of elegance, freshness, and unique character, are sold as Vin de France, as they are not made in conformance with AOC requirements.

The entry level wine range (AOC Ajaccio) is called Faustine, after Jean-Charles’s daughter, with production levels of the red about 30,000 bottles, 20,000 bottles for the white and 15,000 bottles of the rosé.

At the premium range, there is the Cuvée Collection, comprising two white labels and one red label.

The whites are “Diplomate d’Empire” and “Général de La Révolution” and the red is “Ministre Impérial”. Just below these top three cuvées, there are two wines, namely “Carcajolo-Nero” (CN in short) and “Barbarossa” (BR) based on the varietals. About 25,000 bottles are produced all together for these five wines.

During my tasting with Jean-Charles, I tasted three of his wines. I started with the 100% Vermentino, Faustine Blanc 2013, Vieilles Vignes. Vinified without use of oak.  Aromatically, this recalled green grass, green apple and citrus. On the palate, there was a clean precise minerality, complementing the refreshing bright acidity. The wine finished long, with a saline complexity to the finish. Fabulous as an aperitif or to pair with seafood platter or sashimi.

The red Faustine I tasted was from the 2012 vintage, a blend of 70% Sciaccarello and 30% Nielluccio. Vinification is done in cement tanks, without any oak influence. The aromas presented myrtle (characteristic of Sciaccarello), lavender and cardamom spice.  Fresh acidity greeted the palate, together with fine-grained elegant tannin, lending a silky mouthfeel. Finishes fresh and spicy. Refined, aromatic and very attractive.

Both of these entry level wines are drinking well now and will continue to drink well for another six to eight years and have a guided retail price about HK$200 a bottle.

I finished the tasting with the 2012 vintage of the Ministre Impérial, from the Cuvée Collection. Made from a blend of 7 grape varieties, with Sciaccarello and Nielluccio making up 40% of the blend, it is aged in 600-litre already-used demi-muids, without any new oak influence.

The nose was intense but delivered great aromatic complexity and intensity, with nuances of raisin, plum, violet, earthy, iodine, pepper, cinnamon and nutmeg spice. The intense flavours continue on the palate, and are built into layers and layers of complexity. The tannins are firm, ripe and fine-grained, giving a velvety roundness to the mouthfeel, balanced by vibrant acidity. The finish goes on for a few minutes. It embodies elegance, finesse and harmony, even at this young age. Guided retail price about HK$850 a bottle.

It was very exciting to learn that Jean-Charles had just acquired a piece of 40-hectare vineyard at 600 metre altitude where he is envisaging an oasis of vines in the middle of maquis-covered land. (Maquis is a local term, very similar to garrigue in the Languedoc, with immortelle and myrtle as key components.)

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