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Wine from Sardinia

Wine from Sardinia

Savoring Sardinia: Discovering Its Distinctive Wines


To give an impression of just how wild the island of Sardinia is, it suffices to say that its most famous performance was when it played the old wild west in the Sergio Leone’s ‘spaghetti westerns’. Sand, scrub, tough dust and gnarled wood are the norm inland of this, one of the most rugged and hardy of any of the regions of all Europe. However, crucially, it is never a desert in the manner of Arizona or Nevada – it is instead an island-sized California, dry yes but not arid, tough for sure but fertile. A deeply enigmatic land, whose people, whether Nuragics, Phoenicians, Greeks, or modern sardi, have always known how to wring bounty from hardship. From the greatest beaches in Europe to the most dramatic mountain terrain this side of the Atlantic, Sardinia, truly, has it all.

It is an island dropped in the middle of the Tyrrhenian Sea, from the northern point of which the coast of its sibling, Corsica, is visible. It is divided into eight provinces: starting from the southwest and heading clockwise, Carbonia-Iglesias, Medio Campidano, Oristano, Sassari, Olbia-Tempio (at the northeast point), Nuoro, Ogliastra, and Cagliari right in the south and southeast, where the eponymous capital of the island lies. Famously, despite bying an island blessed with a coastline that would shame any exotic island worldwide, the historic threat of piracy means that the majority of Sardinia’s traditional culture is found inland, where the titanic mountain terrain provided cover and safety to an extraordinary civilisation that endures to this very day.

Degustazione Vini Gallura, Sardegna
Vigneti in Sardegna

The wine

It’s impossible to deny that Sardinia is a strange wine region, dominated to an unusual degree by two grape varieties. On the red side of things, the cannonau grape is virtually all-conquering; a local version of grenache, reflecting the influence of both Catalonia and southern France, this famous grape thrives in the unrelenting sun of the island where many others would wilt and fade, producing deep, heady, complex wines which characteristically retain a remarkable freshness of acidity. On the white side, the vermentino grape is everywhere triumphant, an import from the days of Genoese dominion over the island, flourishing particularly in altitude and closer to the sea where the cooling breezes ensure it reaches its balanced and aromatic best.
Cannonau di Sardegna and Vermentino di Sardegna are both DOCs, permitted to be made anywhere on the island (and indeed the islets of the coast). The reds and whites are permitted to incorporate 15% non-cannonau or non-vermentino grapes into a final blend (though are frequently 100% varietals). Interestingly, there is a Cannonau Classico di Sardegna DOC subdesignation, permitted only from the eastern provinces of Nuoro and Ogliastra, where the mandatory percentage of the signature grape is at least 90%.

There are three recognised subzones that you’ll find namechecked on the relevant Cannonau di Sardegna bottle labels, as a result of what have been acknowledged as their distinct characteristics and signature styles: Nepente di Oliena from the eponymous comune in eastern Nuoro, Jerzu from the Jerzu and Cardedu comuni in southern Nuoro, and Capo Ferrato from the comuni of Castiadas, Muravera, San Vito, Villaputzu and Villasimius in the province of Cagliari. The Nuoro wines, rather like their fellow classici from Ogliastra, are particularly renowned for the elegance and refinement, while the Capo Ferrato wines (although all these are in reality impossible to generalise about) are renowned for their structure, brooding power, and alcoholic heat.

Cannonau also contributes even where it isn’t the star. On the other side of Nuoro, and over the border into the province of Oristano, the Mandrolisai Rosso DOC is based on the slightly confusing bovale variety – confusing because ‘bovale’ refers to two, closely-related varieties, in fact, identical to the Spanish bobal grape – which is then blended with a minority component of cannonau to make full, tannic, tangy red wines ideal for the accompaniment of the local mountainous cuisine. In the south of Oristano, and over the border into Medio Campidano province, the Campidano di Terralba is made of at least 85% of the bovale grapes and are often 100%. They are known for their softness, their generous fruit and, especially when grown at altitude, their rather impressive balance of tannin and acidity.

The rather Aragonese influence continues down in the southwest corner of the island in the comune of Sulcis. Carignano del Sulcis DOC in the province Carbonia-Iglesias is a varietal based on the carignano grape, known in southern France as carignan and in Spain as cariñena. Somewhat sensitive to disease, it flourishes in the hot, dry climate of Sardinia, where it can ripen fully (it is sometimes confused with one of the bovale grapes). The trademark high tannins are, thanks to the length of the ripening season, justified by the fullness of the fruit, making this small region one of the best expressions of this notoriously thorny grape variety in all of the Mediterranean.

There are a couple of other red varieties which appear to be autochthonous (or at least, if they are of Spanish origin as many suggest, are almost impossible to find outside of Sardinia) that are worth taking note of. First, the monica grape, at least 85% responsible for the Monica di Sardegna and Monica di Cagliari DOCs, producing middle-strength, mellow red wines which tend to the red-fruit rather than black-fruit side of the ledger (think redcurrants and raspberries), and which in finer examples exhibit fascinating minerality. Second, the deeply unusual girò grape, from which Girò di Caglari DOC is made, the label available either to a full, sweetish red wine or often genuinely sweet fortified known either as Liquoroso Secco (off dry) or Liquoroso Dolce Naturale (sweet).

Spain and southern France exert one half, as it were, of the major influences on the island’s grapes, namely the red half; however, the white half shows the influence of a different historical power – that of Genoa, specifically via the Ligurian-origin grape of vermentino, which is in fact the variety behind the island’s one DOCG. Vermentino di Gallura DOCG in the northeastern province of Olbia-Tempio is considered the most important expression of the grape anywhere, renowned for the exceptional purity of its fruit and the real whack of acidity, as well as its capacity for making bigger, weightier wines of considerable seriousness. Vermentino must be at least 95% of the final wine (and is often 100%), which can also be made in a range of styles, including two types of sparkling and two types of dessert wine. The terroir of the area is especially suited to vermentino, its white granite and sandy soils draining water immediately and the cooling winds of the Mistral helping to maintain its considerable acidity (as well as, some think, adding that peculiar tang of salinity to the more austere and dry styles). A passito is also made, for which the minimum alcohol is a genuinely massive 14% (for any white, dry or sweet, this is huge).

The Vermentino di Sardegna DOC is island-wide, and (naturally) gives much more leeway to the winemakers to make the best wines they can according to their own terroir. The vermentino requirement is dropped to 85%, the minimum alcohol level is a mere 10.5% (10% for spumante, which can be made in any style), with no aging minimums or maximums applied. The sheer range then, the sheer variety of wine sold under the Vermentino di Sardegna DOC label, is quite something, and is testament to the versatility of the grape and to the diversity of soils and climatic conditions found on the island.

Other whites made from grapes also found on the Italian mainland include the Malvasia di Bosa DOC at the northern tip of Oristano province. Technically, this is a member of the malvasia family known as malvasia di Sardegna, but its organoleptic qualities give it away instantly, with those impossible-to-mistake elderflower and honey notes. It is bordered to the south by the Arborea DOC, the most Tuscan-feeling of any on the island with its crisp, trebbiano-based whites and ferruginous reds from sangiovese. Moscato is also prominent across the island under the Moscato di Sardegna DOC, and is of special importance in the Moscato di Sorso-Sennori DOC up on the northern coast of Sassari province.

But it’s still the native (or at least unique to Sardinia) varieties that really pique the interest of the connoisseur here. Where else would you find the haunting nasco variety featured in Nasco di Cagliari DOC, with its mineral spine and exotic perfumes? Or the Nuragus di Cagliari DOC’s eponymous grape, thought to be an extremely ancient import by the Phoenecians, with its trademark green apple and bitter almond combination?

Lastly, a word for an underdog. The Catalan-speaking comune of Alghero in Sassari produces both reds and whites, but is perhaps best known for its pleasing, summery rosés, made from such big-name grapes such as sangiovese, merlot, and cabernet franc. The resurgence of interest in dry pink styles in the manner of Provence (after the rise and fall of the ‘blush’ sweetish style associated with California) has helped cause renewed appreciation for the cheerful wines of Alghero DOC, once almost forgotten but now a staple of hot weather jollities across much of Italy.

Wherever you look, Sardinia’s got it all. This wild and wonderful island, with its heartstopping mountains, magical forests, and mysterious ancient ruins is the stuff of dreams, and its wine, with its heady aromas and unusual, unique grape varieties, is absolutely no exception.

The breakdown

Location: large island in the Tyrrhenian sea.

Climate: hot, dry, Mediterranean, some bracing winds on the coasts.

Soils: a lot of ex-volcanic, with signature white granite and limestone especially notable.

Elevation: medium to often quite high, especially inland.

DOCG and select DOCs: Vermentino di Gallura DOCG; Alghero, Arborea, Cagliari, Campidano di Terralba, Cannonau di Sardegna, Carignano del Sulcis, Girò di Cagliari, Malvasia di Bosa, Mandrolisai, Monica di Sardegna, Moscato di Sardegna, Moscato di Sorso-Sennori, Nasco di Cagliari, Nuragus di Cagliari, Sardegna Semidano, Vermentino di Sardegna, Vernaccia di Oristano DOCs.

Main red grapes: bovale, cabernet franc, cagnulari, cannonau, carignano, girò, monica, sangiovese.

Main white grapes: moscato, nasco, nuragus, vermentino, vernaccia.

Hidden gem: this blog is especially fond of the deeply strange Nuragus di Cagliari!

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Wine Shop all’Amarone in Venice offers an exceptional selection of Italian wines, spotlighting the distinguished Amarone della Valpolicella. In addition to our Amarone focus, we proudly feature select wines from Puglia, showcasing the diversity and richness of Italy’s winemaking regions. Our curated collection is designed to offer wine lovers a taste of Italy’s finest, from the robust flavors of Amarone to the unique profiles of Pugliese wines.

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