The grape variety Cannonau is local to the Italian island of Sardinia where it is one of the principal grapes used to produce the island’s deeply coloured, full-bodied red wines.
Cannonau is a late-ripening grape variety, which is best suited to hot and dry conditions, and is characterised by a medium alcohol level, soft acidity and generous red fruit flavours (raspberry and strawberry) alongside subtle floral and white pepper spice notes. It may be produced as a single varietal wine or blended with other varieties to add body and fruit without tannins.
Despite original research linking the origins of Grenache/Cannonau to the region of Aragon in northern Spain and arriving on Sardinia by the Aragonese when they conquered the island in the early 14th century, it is now thought that the grape variety may well have originated on Sardinia itself.
Andrew Jefford describes Sardinia’s efforts with the variety as having ‘compelling interest’ and labels Cannonau the island’s ‘noblest’ red used for red wine blends as well as for the production of the Denomination of Origin varietal wine Cannonau di Sardegna.
The variety is grown in a number of different locations but the majority can be found on the east of the island encompassing both the coast, from Orosei to Bari Sardo, and the mountainous interior around the Nuoro, Ogliastra and Cagliari provinces.
Three smaller sub-regions have been officially identified as producing quality Cannonau including Nepente di Oliena, reserved exclusively for wines made in the town of Oliena, in the eastern Nuoro province; Capo Ferrato comprises the communes of Castiadas, Muravera, San Vito, Villaputzu and Villasimius in the island’s south-eastern corner and finally Jerzu, which applies to the Jerzu and Cardedu districts.
The Cannonau di Sardegna DOC was established in 1972 and covers the entire island producing both red and rosé wines from the Cannonau grape. The red wines may be produced in three styles; dry, sweet or fortified.
The dry reds must be a minimum of 12.5% alcohol-by-volume. They can also be produced in a riserva style with strict regulations controlling ageing requirements and minimum alcohol levels – these wines must have at least 13% ABV and an obligatory ageing period (known as affinamento obbligatorio) of two years, including at least six months in barrels, of which oak and chestnut are the more popular options.
The sweet style is known as passito and must have a minimum of 13% ABV while the fortified expressions, produced in both sweet and dry styles, are labelled as liquoroso. The dry liquoroso ‘secco’ must have a maximum residual sugar level of 10g/l and a minimum 18% ABV while the sweet Liquoroso dolce must have a minimum residual sugar level of 50g/l and a minimum 16% ABV. Both the passito and liquoroso styles have have a minimum one-year ageing requirement.
The total vineyard area is in the region of 2,300 ha with production totalling roughly 850,000 cases. The grape accounts for 20% of the island’s wine production with one in every five bottles of Sardinian wine labelled as Cannonau di Sardegna.
For Andrew Jefford the best Cannonau wines come from the granite uplands around Nuoro, and particularly the lonely village of Mamoiada. He says; ‘up here, at between 600m to 800m, the variety sheds its lowland sweetness and takes on an airy freshness and stony purity. This is not, though, the kind of mountain Grenache which tiptoes gracefully into Pinot territory. It remains strong, masterful and firmly structured, with often hugely impressive tannins. Cannonau, in other words, can be a wine of unusual completeness and authority for this variety.’
In recent years Cannonau wines have been associated with longevity and linked to the unusually long lifespan of the Sardinian population which sees many live well into their 90s. The grape is said to contain high levels of polyphenols and rich in anthocyanins both of which have antioxidant properties linked to heart health.