For many years, there was controversy and disagreement surrounding the Nielluccio grape, with the main point of contention centered around questions concerning its origins. One camp held that the grape was indigenous to the island of Corsica, while the other held that the grape was imported there from the Italian mainland during the time that it was under the control of the Genoese. Oz Clarke is purportedly a proponent of the former position (in his Grapes and Wines which was published several years back, so his position may have changed) while Jancis Robinson is a proponent of the latter, having recently switched over from the indigenous camp. In the beginning, both camps were arguing under the assumption that Nielluccio was a distinct grape variety that could not be found anywhere else. Later on, it was determined that Nielluccio was ampelographically identical to the Sangiovese grape, and many began to speculate that the grapes were either very closely related or, possibly, even identical (or clonally variant at least). To read the Wikipedia entry on Nielluccio, one would think that the debate is still raging and the answer is still to be determined. It is not.
A research group from Bologna, Italy, published a study in 2005 which compared the DNA of 39 registered Sangiovese clones as well as 34 "biotypes" of Sangiovese to the acknowledged "reference standard" of Sangiovese to see if there were any differences. The 39 clones all came back as identical both to one another and to the reference standard, while of the 34 biotypes, all but six were identical as well. Nielluccio was not one of the six, meaning that it is genetically identical to Sangiovese. Of the preceding argumentative positions regarding Niellucio, this finding really only completely discredits the one that holds that Nielluccio is indigenous to Corsica, since we know Sangiovese is not ultimately a Corsican grape. The theory that the Genoans brought it over at some point during their rule of the island is still a possibility, though, and is currently the most widely accepted explanation of Nielluccio's presence on Corsica, where, as of the year 2000, it was planted on about 1600 hectares of land, representing about 14% of the total plantings within Corsica.
I was unsure whether I would write about this wine or not since it is mostly comprised of relatively common grapes, but the fact that the wine was from Corsica was what finally swayed me. Corsican wine isn't incredibly rare, but it isn't exactly common either. Corsica itself is the fourth largest island in the Mediterranean, which, while it belongs politically to the French, is much closer to Italy both geographically and culturally. It is less than 7 miles north of Sardinia and 56 miles west of Tuscany, but is about 105 miles away from the Provençal coast of France. It was controlled by the Republic of Genoa for over 500 years, from the mid-13th Century until well into the 18th Century. The Genoans enacted strict rules on viticulture and viniculture and would not allow the Corsicans to ship their wine to any port outside of Genoa. The Corsicans struggled for their independence, and in 1755 proclaimed themselves sovereign as The Corsican Republic with the publication of the Corsican Constitution. The Genoans didn't really want to deal with this kind of trouble so in 1764 they secretly sold the island to France. The French slowly began to build up their presence on the island until 1768 when the Genoans openly announced that they were ceding the island to the French in perpetuity with no possibility of retraction. The Corsicans revolted at the news but were ultimately defeated and the island was officially annexed onto France in 1770. Napoleon was born in Ajaccio, Corsica, in August of 1769, and one wonders how much differently history may have played out if Napoleon's home had not been transferred to France when it was.
The wine history of Corsica goes back thousands of years. It is thought that there may have been some indigenous vines on Corsica, but when the Phoenicians settled the island, they certainly brought many of their own vines from their other territories. Corsica came under Islamic rule around the 7th and 8th Centuries AD, and since the Islamic religion forbids the consumption of alcohol, the winemaking industry on the island suffered badly. It rebounded significantly under Genoan rule, becoming famous throughout the European world, but was still limited by the Genoans strict control over the entire industry. The Genoans definitely had the largest impact on the wine culture of the island, as can be seen in the wealth of Italian grapes that are still cultivated all over Corsica today. The government sought to expand the Corsican economy in the 19th Century by focusing on winemaking, but the plan was derailed severely with the onset of Phylloxera. When vines were finally replanted, many of them were planted to productive but bland French grapes like Carignan and Cinsaut and Corsica became a significant contributor to the European wine lake. The EU vine-pull subsidies of the 1980's were very successful in Corsica, eliminating about 7000 hectares of low-quality vines and putting the focus more on higher quality grapes like Nielluccio, Sciacarello, Vermentino and some of the international varieties.
The wine that I picked up was from the Calvi sub-region of the island, located in the extreme northwest corner near the town of Calvi (just north of Ajaccio, where Napoleon's family made wine). The soils here are predominantly schist with some granite. The island is generally warm and sunny with regular rainfall, but very little rain during August and September, which usually creates ideal conditions for harvest. The AOC rules stipulate that to qualify for the Corse Calvi designation, the finished wine must be made up of at least 50% Nielluccio, Sciacarello and/or Grenache together, while Barbarossa, Carignan, Cinsaut, Mourvedre, Syrah and Vermentino combined cannot account for more than 50% of the total blend with the further restriction that Vermentino and Carignan cannot make up more than 20% of the blend.