Article By: Harvey Finkel, MD
Sardinians, according to Nicolas Belfrage, refer to mainland Italy as the "continente", and regard wines sold there as exports. In some ways, Sardinia (Sardegna in Italian) has more in common with Corsica, the French outlier just to its north, than with the rest of Italy. This second-largest of Mediterranean islands (after Sicily) is Italy's most remote region geographically, and, with Norway, one of the geologically oldest portions of Europe.
Traces of civilization here date back 56OO years. Sardinia has sustained almost as many incursions, invasions and occupations as Sicily, though few have stuck. Some brought grapes and left ethnic traces. Among the most vinously important were Phoenicians and Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Spaniards (especially Aragonese), Piedmontese, and, more recently, a squad of flying enologi. Wine has been made here since at least the eighth century BCE, brought by Phoenician traders. Spain, which ruled from the 14th to the 18th century, was the other major past influence. One might wonder why some of the same grapes are not shared with Sicily. The local language, Sardo, is like Catalan with bits of Arabic and Basque mixed in.
Only 1.6 million people live on this island of 92OO square miles, which is mostly rugged upland terrain. The Campidano plain, between Cagliari and Oristano in the southwest, is the main agricultural area. Sheep and goats, wheat and barley, grapes and olives, cork, tobacco, minerals, and, at least in the past, brigandage, support the population, along with less fishing than one might imagine and little industry. (The name, Sardinia, may be derived from the Shardane, an ancient tribe originating in Asia Minor, speculates Burton Anderson.)
The dry, sunny, hot climate is good for vines, but not so the scirocco, the fierce North African desert wind of late August. Hills and trees can form protective windbreaks. Cooling moist marine breezes, especially in the northeast, are helpful.
Large day/night temperature excursions give many wines aromatic qualities. Vineyards are mostly planted at lower levels. It would be wise to consider planting the abundant fallow higher slopes. Irrigation is becoming more prevalent. Traditional low-bush, head-trained alberello planted in high density has been successful. Vertical trellis systems risk overproduction unless controlled. Soil varies with location, in some areas almost every few meters. Granitic, volcanic, alluvial, aelic, and limestone soils form an irregular, sparse, loose, and poor patchwork. Were there a market for them, rocks would be a major product. Micrclimates and slopes also vary widely. There is no general Sardinian terroir.
The hot and dry northwest, around Alghero, must limits yields from its varying soils. The pergola sarda trellis delays ripening to achieve balance. Gallura (from gall, Egyptian for "high plain") in the northeast finds vineyards high and rocky - planted in soil based on decomposed granite. Heat is not excessive; humidity is adequate. This is the home of the vermentino grape and the cork oak. The granitic Gennargentu massif in the eastern hills, cooled by northeastern breezes off the sea, is the center of cannonau cultivation. West central vineyards have no unifying theme. The Campidano plain in the southwest may be too fertile for fine wine. The coastal sandy soil of Sulcis, the hot, dry southwest corner of the island, yields carignano of laudable richness.
Many of the grapes of Sardinia are of Spanish origin, some were likely brought from the Middle East or Greece. A few seem to have always lived in Sardinia. I shouldn't be surprised to learn that grapes thought to date back a few hundred years, to the Spanish rule, for example, are found to have been in Sardinia for longer. "International varieties", such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot, and Chardonnay, and barriques are recent immigrants, but the majority of wines are based on hand-tended Sardinian grapes. I must agree with Anderson: "the grandest wines . . . exude old-fashioned strength of character."
Let's nibble through the grape varieties we are likely to encounter. We'll start with white. Malvasia Sarda Probably brought by Byzantines from Greece. Most notably grown around Bosa, in the west, for dry, sweet and fortified wines which seem to be vanishing. Moscato Bianco Same as Moscato di Canelli of Piemonte and Muscat Blanc a Petits - grains of many elsewheres. Dry spumante in Gallura, sweet wines elsewhere. Nasco Indigenous. Grows in the Campidano. Dry/off-dry and, especially, sweet late-harvest wines. Nuragus Perhaps brought by Phoenicians. Popular since antiquity. Named for the nuraghi, the mysterious prehistoric stone towers that spice the island. The most planted grape. Naturally high yields. Wines mostly at best refreshing. Torbato From Spain around 15OO. May be related to Malvasia. Grown exclusively near Alghero, where it was revivified by Sella & Mosca. One of Sardinia's wines of high potential. Vermentino Did it come from Spain? From France by way of Corsica? From the Levant, carried by Greeks to Liguria? Grows all over the island, most rewardingly in Gallura, where it is Sardinia's only DOCG. Seen in Liguria (as pigato), Tuscany, Corsica (as malvoisie de Corse), and southern France (Rolle or Rollo). An aromatic white wine, Sardinia's most renowned. Vernaccia di Oristano May be indigenous to the Tirso Valley in Sardinia's west, or, possibly, brought by the Phoenicians longer ago than history records. Not at all related to Vernaccia di San Gimignano of Tuscany, di Serrapetrona of the Marches, or Vernatsch, the Germanic equivalent in Alto Adige. (It comes from the same Latin root as "vernacular", meaning "indigenous, local".) Some, developing flor, like fino Sherry, are high in alcohol, and aged for several years in small casks.
Now for varieties giving red wines and rosati (somewhat more reds than whites are produced in Sardinia). Bovale Spanish ancestry; related to bobal and Monastrell/Mourvedre/Mataro. The clone known as Sardo (aka Muristellu or Bovaleddu) may produce lean wines. The grande clone (aka Nieddera) is less respected. Both are used in blends. Cagnulari Of Spanish origin. Also known as Bastardo Nero. Used in blends. Cannonau (or Cannonao) From Spain. Evolved from: in Spain, Garnacha (canonazo in Seville): in southern France, Grenache. Often called Alicante in Italy; once Cannonadu in Sardinia. May be wan of color, but certainly not of aromas and tastes. Can produce red wines strong in fruit, alcohol, spice, mostly dry, some sweet/fortified. Its wine has been called "selvatico" ("wild"). Roses and whites are of lesser note. Occupies 2O percent of Sardinia's vineyards. Carignano Also called Uva di Spagna. From Spain, where it's called Carinena. Carignane in California, Carignan in southern France, where it's widely planted. (Alternative history: Phoenicia to Carthage to Sardinia to Spain and France.) Grown on own roots in the sands of Sulcis; gives wine dark of color and dense of fruit. Giro From Spain. Poorly productive, so now rare. Port-like wines. Monica May be of Spanish origin. May be related to the mission grape. Fruity red wines of fading popularity. Nebbiolo From Piedmont. Beginning to be thought really a clone of Dolcetto. Sangiovese Often called Brunello. Used in blends.
Sardinia's tradition, if it can be called that, of quality wine is young. In the past, most wine was sold in bulk for blending. There were some worthy dessert wines. During the past 25 years, wine production (and the number of the predominant cooperatives) has decreased, and general quality risen. Many cooperatives are now enviable producers of high-quality, modern wines, instead of issuing wine only fit for distillation. Some wineries, cooperatives and private companies alike, may be well advised to decrease the numbers of wines they produce to more handlable levels.
Now, let's get acquainted with the producers I recently visited, and with some of their outstanding wines.
In 1899, Erminio Sella, an engineer, and Edgardo Mosca, a lawyer, came to Sardinia from Piedmont to hunt. They acquired vineyard land in the northwest, near Alghero, planted and built. Sella & Moca, now controlled by Campari, became one of the largest wine estates in Italy, farming 55O hectares of vines, employing 6OO people at harvest time, producing seven million bottles annually. Mario Consorte has thoughtfully and meticulously overseen the vines and the winemaking for 43 years. Among his concepts is a mobile trellis system - cordone libero mobile - promoting balanced ripening and ease of pruning and picking. Among a dozen worthy wines tasted, five will have to suffice for comment. Terre Bianche, 2OO3 Torbato grown in chalky soil, an S&M exclusive, full and fruity with a bit of spice (Is it a little like Tocai Friulano?). Cannonau Riserva, 1999 Light color, but fine nose and intense, penetrating flavor. Marchese di Villamarina, 1999 A most elegant and fine Cabernet Sauvignon (which tends to take over a blend with cannonau). Anghelu Ruju (a stone-age necropolis on the estate), 1997 Unique Port-like wine from semi-dried cannonau - berries, slight bitter cherry, hint chocolate. Cantine Sociale Gallura, in Tempio Pausania, founded in 1956, with 35O hectares, 16O growers, 1.3 million bottle production, is one of Sardinia's leading producers of Vermentino. Dino Addis is the learned and talented director/ winemaker. Vermentino di Gallura Piras (locality of vineyard), 2OO3, Has abundant acid and a good finish. Vermentino di Gallura Superiore Canayli (named for the nearby hamlet), 2OO3 Has had some skin maceration. It is riper, fuller, more fragrant, complex, and longer. Nebbiolo Colli Limbara Karana (locality), 2OO3 Light and berry-fruity; very pleasant luncheon wine, but nothing to do with the Langhe.
The Alberto Loi estate, established in 1949 by the late eponym of the company, is now ably run by the Loi family. Its 73 hectares of vineyards in the coastal hills of southeastern Sardinia, prime cannonau country, produce nearly 3OO,OOO bottles annually, mostly an array of tasty Cannonaus. More than half is exported. The winery, built of granite in Cardedu, near Jerzu, is set in a granite hill. The Cannonau of Alberto Loi Riserva, 1999 benefits from mellowing in Slovenian oak casks, then second-year French barriques. It is very dark, has a fine nose, concentrated sweet, ripe fruit, soft tannins, and a long finish. The Cannonaus of Astangia, 2OO1 have undergone three separate treatments: traditional fermentation and maturation, carbonic maceration (which is not overly apparent in the final assemblage), and half-new barriques - tarry nose, sweet, smooth, intense, long fruit, very soft tannin. Tuvara, 2OOO is 7O percent Cannonau, the rest Carignano, and Bovales. After barrique then cask maturation, it rests for ten months in bottle - fragrant, ripe, and suave, good intensity and length, cushiony tannin. The retained traces of rusticity of the Cannonaus are satisfying (addition of Cabernet tends to replace this with elegance).
The major share of Sardinia's Cannonaus are produced by Antichi Poderi di Jerzu, a large and well-equipped winery clinging to a hillside in Jerzu, a wine district for 8OO years. Its 8OO hectares (8O percent cannonau) of vineyards, extending from the mountains to the sea (at altitudes from 5O to 7OO meters), are farmed by 476 growers to produce two million bottles, plus bulk wine. Founded in 1952 by the town doctor, the cooperative's research into growing and making wine continues. Franco Bernabei is consulting enologist. Marghia, 2OO1 is typical, authentic Cannonau: tasty, balanced, of moderate size and sweet of fruit. It saw no new or small wood. Radames, 1999 was made from 7O percent Cannonau, 15 percent each Carignano and Cabernet Sauvignon. Smells of ripe cherries and dark plums; fine fruit and length, abundant tannin. The Cabernet is demure.
When Antonio Argiolas became owner of one of the two hectares he had rented in 1937 and had planted and tended for five years, he was establishing a most distinguished wine producer. Now 98, Antonio still comes to work every day and still drinks a glass of Nuragus with lunch and with dinner. He leaves details to sons Franco and Giuseppe, winemaker Mariano Murru and consultant Giacomo Tachis. From more than 25O hectares and the winery in Serdiana, north of Cagliari, 2.5 million fine bottles are produced (using only Sardinian varieties), remarkable considering that the switch from bulk wine occurred in 199O. Exports account for 6O percent of production. Selegas, 2OO3 a Nuragus grown near that town, is nutty and very attractive, with texture, body, and length. Argiolas Bianco, 2OO3 95 percent Vermentino, 5 Malvasia, is rich, complex, and a bit spicy. Perdera, 2OO3, all Monica, is juicy and pleasing. Koren, 2OO2 55 percent Bovale, 3O Carignano, 15 Cannonau, named for Persephone in honor of women first working in the winery, is balanced, long, and well extracted. Turriga, 2OOO renowned medal winner, 8O percent Cannonau, the rest Carignano, Bovale, and Malvasia Nera, after two years in barrique and two in bottle is sweet of deep cherry fruit, long, and delicious.
The still-building Feudi della Medusa of Santa Margherita di Pula, south of Cagliari, is steeped in mythology, largely resulting from its position adjacent to the site of Nora, a Phoenician city founded 3OOO years ago, and from the transmogrification of prehistorical people into mythological characters. As the story goes, Nora, the oldest urban settlement in Sardinia, was founded by Norace, son of the god Hermes and grandson of a god of health or monster named Gerione, who, in turn, was the grandson of the notorious Medusa. One must wonder about their real-life counterparts. The Siclari/Kroenlein family purchased land here in 2OO1, planted in 2OO2. The now 3O hectares will increase to 4O or more in the coming years, as the winery is completed, in addition to long-term leasings. The vineyards of decomposed granite are backed by the Sulcitani Mountains to the north, and sandy vineyards are fronted in the south by the sea. Experiments are being done with Sardinian, with Italian, and with international grapes. Donato Lanati is consultant enologist. Sa Perda Bianca, 2OO3 blends 5O percent barriqued Malvasia, 3O percent barrel-fermented Chardonnay and 2O percent barriqued Vermentino to achieve just-right oak-enhanced, classy, long chardonnay-like wine with pineapple notes. Gerione 2OO3, still in barrel, is dark and tannic, very nicely fruited wine of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.
Cantina Sociale Santadi, in that town of the Sulcis, has, by its plantings and winemaking, taken Carignano from a bulk blending grape to a much-sought-after premium varietal wine. Founded in 196O, the cooperative of 25O growers farms 6OO hectares and produces 1.8 million bottles, 9O percent Carignano. The prime Carignano vineyards are very old (some vines older than 1OO years), ungrafted, unirrigated (marine air is enough), densely planted, alberello style (a sa sardisca) planted in seaside sand. Other vineyards are more conventional. Piero Cella is winemaker, Giacomo Tachis his consultant. Making the difficult selection from an array of fine wines, I'll cite three. Rocca Rubia Riserva, 2OO1 barrique-aged Carignano (partly grown in the prime vineyard) is a good buy: high-class wine with ripe fruit, good length, dusty tannins. Top of the line Terre Brune (for the color of the soil) Superiore 2OOO, also barriqued, Carignano of the sand with five percent Bovale Sardo, is elegant, well knit, and substantial, with intense, ripe fruit. Latinia, 2OO2 is late-harvest Nasco: sweet, long, suave.
With its nearly ideal climate, varying terroirs, yet-unclaimed slopes, interesting local grape varieties, and the new perspective of its talented wine growers, the vinous future of Sardinia may be limitless.