Nearly 40 years ago, Antoine Arena stunned his family by announcing he was quitting law school on the French mainland to return home to their vineyards on Corsica.
“When I told my father I was quitting my studies to make wine, he didn’t talk to me for three months,” says Arena. “It was a [point of] shame for him.”
Arena’s father, who sold wine in bulk to Corsican bars and restaurants, wanted his son to escape to a more secure life than viticulture in the Patrimonio appellation, carved into a hilly northern corner of the island.
In Corsican, patrimoniu means “heritage.” But by the 1970s, the region, which had been named Corsica’s first Appellation d'Origine Contrôllée in 1968, had hit bottom. The vineyard area had shrunk to a tiny fraction of what it had been in the postwar years, while production of cheaper wines on Corsica’s eastern plains boomed and the island’s overall reputation plummeted.
Arena, whose grandfather had known Patrimonio as a “little Burgundy,” yearned to restore its legacy, and he enlisted his Corsica-born wife, Marie, who was studying law with him in Paris.
Though Corsica is part of France, the island, located just north of Sardinia and west of Italy’s Tuscan coast, has a proud independent streak.
“I told her our place is not here [in Paris]—it’s in Corsica helping revive the agriculture,” says Arena, “In the beginning it was not a passion for wine—it was a love for Corsica.”
At nearly 63 and nearing retirement, the charismatic winegrower with a mop of floppy silver hair and sun-leathered skin has succeeded by all measures. He is considered a pillar of Corsica’s wine renaissance, and Patrimonio has bounced back, with about 35 wineries and more than 1,200 acres of vines in production.
Arena’s 5,000 cases a year are now exported to 20 countries, where he is best known for his rich and flavorful Vermentino whites, seven of which have scored 90 points or higher in Wine Spectator blind tastings in the last decade.
He is also known for reds from Patrimonio’s star red grape Niellucciu—the Corsican spelling of Nielluccio, believed to be a Sangiovese biotype brought to the island during centuries of rule by the Republic of Genoa, now part of Italy—and he is celebrated as the first Corsican winemaker to revive the once-near-extinct Biancu Gentile, producing aromatic whites.
Starting with his first vintage in 1980, Arena farmed about 8 acres organically and began replanting vineyards with Corsican selections that produced quality over quantity.
He built a simple cellar on the main two-lane road through the Patrimonio village (pop. 700) in the heart of the appellation, and put his family’s house on top of it. Thirty years later, the house lacks finishing touches.
“We’ve always invested in the tractors and vines instead of the house,” he says with a laugh.
Patrimonio seems to have all the elements for stellar Mediterranean winemaking—limestone-clay soils on slopes at the base of low mountain ridges, low rainfall, lots of sunshine and cooling breezes from the nearby Saint-Florent gulf.
“When no one believed in Patrimonio, I bought more land,” says Arena, who expanded his vineyards to about 43 acres when other growers were selling out to vacation-home developers.
Arena is a romantic who learned winemaking as he went along and is proud that he never studied enology. He never embraced oak barriques and ferments all his wines with indigenous yeasts, allowing some white wines to sit for years in tank before they have fermented to dryness.
In his early days, he strove to produce high-alcohol, highly extracted wines. "They were the kind of wines I can't even drink now," he says. "They were muscular wines that could hold up a spoon if you put one in the wineglass!"
Over time, he has moved to a more elegant style, a trend that has accelerated as sons Jean-Baptiste, 37, and Antoine-Marie, 34, have joined him in the winery.
In 2014, Arena divided his land equally among himself and his sons, with each getting favorite parcels within prized vineyards such as east-facing Carco, the stonier, higher-elevation Haut de Carco and sunny, south-exposed Grotte di Sole. For now, while additional cellar space is built, the cramped family cellars produce three eponymous Arena brands with separate labels.
Soon there will be two. Arena says that, when he retires by 2020, he will also retire his brand, ceding the rest of his vineyards to his sons.
“It’s all planned out. This way there won’t be any fights,” says Arena. “Some winemakers have an impossible pride that keeps their children down. Not me—I am more proud of my sons’ wines than I am of my own.”