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Family and Independence in Corsica

How winegrower Yves Leccia separated from his family to pursue his dream next door
Photo by: Robert Camuto
Yves Leccia in his Partinelone vineyard

Posted: Sep 11, 2017 1:00pm ET

Corsicans are known as an independent lot. As individual as some of the French island's terroirs.

"In Corsican, we have an expression: A terre e fatta a palmi," says Yves Leccia, a key figure in the renaissance of Corsica's Patrimonio appellation over the past 37 years. "It means everywhere you put your hand down, the earth changes."

Leccia is standing in his prized E Croce vineyard, in which a layer of chalky limestone soil covers schistic bedrock. The vineyard—like his Partinelone vineyard a couple of hundred yards away—nestles in a cirque surrounded by rocky peaks. Between two humpbacked ridges to the west, you can glimpse the turquoise Mediterranean waters of the Gulf of St.-Florent. A dry wind from the west—known locally as the libeccioventilates the vineyards on a clear sunny morning.

This extraordinary terroir motivated Leccia in 2004 to split off from his family's domaine (now owned by his sister, Annette) and to launch his own Yves Leccia Domaine d'E Croce the following year.

"I always wanted to look for new cuvées and to experiment," explains Leccia, who found working en famille too confining.

When dividing up the family holdings, Leccia took two of his favorite vineyards, E Croce and Partinelone, so that he could focus on these sites in a single, higher-end bottling. He converted to organic farming and, in the beginning, he vinified in the heights of the small village of Poggio D'Oletta in an antiquated cellar abandoned by his father. In 2010, he and his second wife, Sandrine, built a state-of-the-art cellar next door to his family's. In the four vintages from 2010 to 2013, Leccia released seven wines scoring 90 points or higher in Wine Spectator blind tastings.

In Leccia's modern tasting room is a photo collage of his grandfather and father, who were the first in the family to make their livings entirely from wine.

Those wines were sold mostly in large-volume containers to restaurants and bars across the island, to be sold by the glass, until Yves arrived in 1980 and took over winemaking.

He set about transforming the estate—favoring Vermentino over the more productive Ugni Blanc and updating the winery with stainless-steel fermenting tanks and modern presses and bottling equipment. His meticulousness along the entire production chain allowed him to drastically reduce the amount of sulfites he put into the wines.

Today, Leccia, 59, is considered a pillar of the Patrimonio appellation, along with self-taught winemaker Antoine Arena (read my previous blog), whom Leccia affectionately calls "a philosopher."

While both aim to make elegant and complex wines—principally Vermentino whites and reds based on Niellucciu (a Corsican biotype of Sangiovese), Leccia is clearly the more modern foil to Arena's traditional approach.

Like Arena, he has never used barriques to age his wines; "Wood has never been part of Corsican winemaking," he says. But unlike Arena, he has been more eclectic in blending his wines and strives to appeal to consumer tastes.

For example, Leccia balances the tannins of Niellucciu in his Patrimonio reds and rosés by blending in helpings of ripe Grenache. He has even created "the antithesis of Patrimonio" in his YL Rouge Île de Beauté (an island-wide IGP classification, the new term for a vin de pays), which is dominated by 80 percent Grenache.

Another one of his experimental bottlings, called Obà (which means "dad" in Corsican and is a tribute to his father), is equal parts Niellucciu, Grenache and a grape known locally as Minustellu, which Leccia calls the Corsican "Merlot" for its roundness and accessibility.

Whereas Arena only makes a rosé in high-yielding vintages, Leccia makes two every year, including a rich, darker-colored one in the traditional Patrimonio style and a trendier Provence-style bottling that he calls "obligatory" to meet consumer demand for pale summer pink.

More than a decade after leaving Domaine Leccia, Yves' Domaine d'E Croce is on solid footing, but his family story has a twist.

After completing his enology studies and working a stint in Napa, Leccia's eldest son, Lisandru, spent a few years working with his father. Then in 2015, he went to make wine for his aunt next door at Domaine Leccia. 

Leccia explains the move, vaguely referring to father-son tensions and a need for independence. "It's complicated," Leccia says of his familial relations. Then he shrugs and adds, "But at least it's all in the family."

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