By Frank Cipparone
Although it’s been inhabited since the Paleolithic era and was once a mecca for jetsetters and Europe’s glitterati, Sardinia has long been shrugged off as Italy’s second island. A place even less Italian than Sicily, with distinct traditions and folkways and a separate ancient language more indecipher-able than Italy’s regional dialects, Sardinia was the goofy cousin who’s interesting but hard to figure out.
From earliest times the Isola dei Nuraghi (Sardinia’s first people) experienced the same pattern as other Mediterranean regions. Trade with the Phoenicians; occupation by the Romans and Byzantines; falling under the rule of Spain and later the House of Savoy. Like Sicily, Sardinia bears the accumulation of centuries of cross-cultural influences.
Sardinia’s story of winemaking is unpar-alleled. Archaeologists and botanists have discovered physical proof that wine was made in the rugged terrain of the island’s center at least as far back as the 15th century B.C. Artifacts such as a stone wine press and petrified vine seeds establish Sardinia as the oldest wine culture of the western Mediter-ranean.
Further research has shown that native wild vines that were domesticated have been continuously cultivated for over three millen-nia. Nuragus, Monica, Nieddera, Granazza, Licronaxu, Giro, Caricagiolo and Vernaccia di Oristano are still being produced and marketed.
The obvious question is why, given such a history of viniculture, Sardinian wines aren’t better known or at least on a par with those of Sicily. One reason is the grapes themselves. Names such as Arramungiau, Fiudeddu, Zirone Alzu and Lacconargeddu aren’t likely to become the next Barbera or Trebbiano. You could probably win a bet in a café in Cagliari or Alghero asking locals to “name that grape.” Another hurdle to overcome is Sardinia’s image as Italy’s wild west, a mysterious land of sheep-herders, towns isolated by geogra-phy, and Italy’s most offbeat cuisine. Even the name of the central highlands, the Barbagia, has barbarian echoes.
Television and tourism are chipping away at those underserved impressions. Exotic has become adventurous, the unknown alluring. That won’t do much for strange-sounding grapes, but modernizing outdated percep-tions has shaken the dust from Sardinia as it follows the rest of southern Italy into the 21st century.
It’s working. Sardinia’s wines have been buoyed by this rising tide of information. Pre-eminent producers have been at the forefront by promoting and exporting their wine, setting the model for their island compatriots.
The four grapes that are the foundation of winemaking – Vermentino, Cannonau, Carignano and Monica – make up about 40,000 acres of vines. Though grown in other regions of Italy, Sardinia is their homeland.
Monica is the only true native of the four, widely planted all around Sardinia. Natural cross-pollination and other factors have resulted in at least nine different types of Monica. If there’s one grape to get you into Sardinian wine this is the one. Its gentle tannins make it perfect for everyday easy drinking with or without food. Open a bottle and red berry and cherry aromas and flavors pop out, along with something most Sardinian reds have – macchia, a blend of local herbs and wild growing plants. It’s that quality that stamps these wines as uniquely Sardinian.
Cannonau is to Sardinia as Sangiovese is to Tuscany – the alpha grape that accounts for 20,000 acres of vineyard and gives the region an identity. Whether it came from Spain or vice versa has been an ongoing, decades-long debate generated by scientific and academic research. In Italy that means looking for an answer to a question irrelevant to all but the nerdiest wine geeks. It’s enough that Cannonau fuels the winemaking engine and has grown there for over 500 years, making it a de facto Sardinian grape.
What counts is what’s in the bottle. The best are not blended with Merlot or Cabernet.
Pure, unoaked Cannonau is the essence of Sardinia, a mixture of berries and, of course, macchia. As it ages it gains depth and becomes spicier and smoother.
Carignano isn’t as big a deal but one thing for sure, there’s no arguing its origin. Just
as Sardinia’s previous occupiers had done, the Spaniards arrived bringing their grape varieties. Among them was Carinena, which is still a mainstay in many Spanish wines. So, like Cannonau, Carignano has been around for so long it’s basically Sardinia’s adopted if not native son.
The best examples come from Sardinia’s southern tip, the Sulcis DOC. Carignano’s paradox is being highly acidic, ruggedly tannic yet having a seamlessly smooth texture, a product of vines often a hundred years old planted near the sea rather than the rocky uplands.
Vermentino is the main white grape and probably the most familiar to Americans. Though it is also found in Tuscany, Liguria and Piedmont the bulk of it is in Sardinia. Depending on what part of the island it’s grown and the producers’ techniques and choice of style Vermentino can run the gamut from light, fresh, and dashingly acidic to heavier and ripe. The signature is flavors of tropical fruit, citrus and familiar herbs like rosemary and thyme. What really sets it apart is a clean, refreshing salinity on the finish.
If you’re in the market for something different, look for Argiolas, Sella & Mosca, Contini, Cardedu, Pala and Dolianova.