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Jefford on Monday: Sardinia’s Secrets

Andrew Jefford visits Italy’s ‘other’ wine island and discovers four reasons (or more) to take it seriously...

Wines from Sardinia

It had been a dry winter, everyone told me, but the heart of Sardinia was still vividly green at the end of March. A chaos of hills rippled away in every direction (almost 70 per cent of the island’s landmass is hilly, with just under 14 per cent classified as mountainous), often scored by sheep tracks, echoing to the sound-mosaic of hundreds of sheep bells. Sardinia is home to four million sheep, roughly half the national herd and source of most of the milk for Italy’s Pecorino Romano PDO cheese. Some 80 per cent of the cork produced in Italy, too, grows on Sardinia. The airy cork forests, as the spring equinox passes, are golden with swaying broom flowers.

This is the Mediterranean’s second largest island – pipped only by a Sicilian whisker; its southerly neighbour is just six per cent bigger. In terms of wine production, though, Sardinia is only Italy’s fourteenth largest region (Sicily, for example, produces six times as much wine). Many Sardinian vineyards are tiny, almost hidden, especially up in the highest hills, around Nuoro and Oliena. Their fascinating wines deserve to be better known.

Let me give you four reasons why. The first is Vermentino: maybe the world’s best? That’s a question which merits a separate answer – which I’ll try to provide in a later blog.

The second reason is Carignano. Italy in general grows much less of this variety than does France (Carignan) or Spain (Mazuelo, Cariñena, Samsó), but I suspect that many Languedocien wine growers, at any rate, would be shocked to discover the rich textures and flavours which this variety can acquire in Sardinia. Carignan is often a piercing alto in Languedoc, and best blended; in Sardinia it can be warm and comforting bass, and works well on its own. Never better than in the sandy soils of Sulcis, in the island’s southwest, and especially on the large island of Sant’Antioco (Italy’s fourth largest in its own right), connected to the Sardinian mainland by a bridge. The soils in Sulcis are so sandy, in fact, that much Carignano de Sulcis is ungrafted. I’d be surprised if Sardinian Carignano didn’t feature somewhere in the top twenty of any serious competitive blind tasting of this variety.

The third reason is Cannonau. Once again, Italian plantings of this variety are dwarfed by Spain’s Garnacha stocks and France’s walletful of Grenache – but Sardinia’s efforts with the variety are of compelling interest, and comprise the island’s ‘noblest’ reds. The variety is grown in a number of different locations and different soils, but the best for me came from the granite uplands around Nuoro, and particularly the lonely village of Mamoiada.

Up here, at between 600 m to 800 m, 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.

And the fourth reason? That would be Sardinia’s own indigenous varieties (it claims up to 150) and specialities (including both sweet, dry and botrytised Malvasia di Bosa; as well as the complex, flor-affected Vernaccia di Oristano). Genetic intricacy is always of interest for its own sake, and I enjoyed the examples I tried of these rare varieties, often salvaged with great efforts (including the white Arvisionadu, Alvarega, Nasco and Semidano and the red Monica, Muristellu, Bovaluddu, Bovale Grande, Bovale Mannu, Bovale Sardo, Barbera Sarda and Cagnulari), even if some were, in the vinifications I tried, only shyly characterful.

At least I thought that the twelve just mentioned were all indigenous — but a little research after I got home in Robinson, Harding and Vouillamoz’s Wine Grapes suggested that Bovale Mannu and Bovale Grande are in fact the same as Carignano, while Muristellu, Bovaleddu, Bovale Sardo and Cagnulari are identical to Graciano. Some of this is contested on the island, where Dr Gianni Lovicu, one of the island’s leading viticultural researchers, says that Bovale Mannu is in fact another synonym for Graciano, while Muristellu and Bovaleddu are not in fact Graciano but a different variety altogether.

Whatever the truth, Cagnulari certainly seemed to make the most interesting wines after Vermentino, Carignano and Cannonau – in a rather less stern and more voluptuous guise than Graciano can often assume, for example, in Rioja.

Canny readers will have noted just how much vine material Sardinia seems to share with Spain, and this is usually attributed to a long period of Aragonese rule in Sardinia (between the arrival of the Catalan army under Crown Prince Alfonso of Aragon in 1324 and the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713). Catalan is still spoken in the northwestern Sardinian port of Alghero. The Sardinians themselves, though, point out that the trading Phoenicians may have been moving these grape varieties around before the Aragonese ever arrived – and they would dearly love to prove that Cannonau is in fact an indigenous variety which the Aragonese took back to Spain. There is, for the time being, no comprehensive genetic proof of this – though some 2010 research by Manna Crespan and others claimed that Cannonau is more genetically diverse than Spanish Grenache, suggesting possible anteriority. Other researchers cited by the Wine Grapes authors, though, have found the opposite. The question will be tussled over for a while yet.

Anything else? I haven’t mentioned the usual plethora of DO and IGT names since the island’s leading wines usually contain the variety name in the DO or IGT formula. You might be foxed, though, by the critically important, pan-Sardinian IGT ‘Isola dei Nuraghi’ — since no such island can be found in any atlas. It’s a cultural reference to the mysterious towers called Nuraghe which dot Sardinia, and which date back to 730 BCE to 1900 BCE. The problem, apparently, was that since ‘Sardegna’ already featured in a number of DOC formulae, it couldn’t be used for an IGT. Though why not? Using it on its own, perhaps, would have been more helpful to consumers than sending them scurrying off for an island which doesn’t exist.

A Taste of Sardinian Reds

Carignano del Sulcis (Carignan)

Bentesali, Carignano del Sulcis 2014

This wine, made from 100-year-old ungrafted bush vines on the island of Sant’Antioco and exposed to the ‘salty wind’ that gives the wine its Sardinian name, is dark in colour, with a rich aromatic mixture of scents, both fruity, floral and savoury. The palate is very deep and fleshy for Carignan, with ample tannic mass, concentration and rigour. 90 points

Nero Miniera, Enrico Esu, Carignano del Sulcis 2014

This is a much lighter wine than the Bentesali (50 year old vines and with 10 per cent Monica), yet it has superb concentration and tannic grip behind the rose, cherry and liquorice flavours. 90

Cannonau di Sardegna (Grenache)

Fòla, Cannonau di Sardegna, Siddùra 2014
A relatively lightly coloured but classy Cannonau with resonant and harmonious aromas combining stony and meaty notes, and a deep, searching, penetrating palate of considerable refinement and gastronomic aptitude. The month of maceration with the skins was time well spent. 91

D53, Cannonau di Sardegna Classico, Cantina Dorgali 2012
An older wine fermented and aged in large wooden vessels, this is translucent and recognizably varietal, with sweet spiced plum scents and rich, warm, generous plum and cherry flavours. Artless generosity of fruit – but the firm tannic support gives it an authentic Sardinian stamp. 89

Montanaru, Cannonau di Sardegna, Tenute Bonamici 2014
A Cannonau (grown at 750m) marked above all by saline, ‘mineral’ notes and rich tannins. There is plenty of sweet backing fruit but in a warmly subdued guise which allows the unfruity flavours and ample textures to take the lead: delicious. 90

Cannonau di Sardegna, Olianas 2014
A Cannonau mixed with 10 per cent Tintillu and amphora-fermented before being aged in both amphora and older barriques. Classy, refined, settled aromas and pure, drinkable, fine-grained flavours mark this mid-weight wine with a wider allusive repertoire than some of its peers (seaweed and blood orange). 90

Ballu Tundu, Cannonau di Sardegna Riserva, Giuseppe Sedilesu 2010
The two superb 2010 Riserva-level wines produced by Giuseppe Sedilesu (one called Ballu Tundu and the other, top wine just a plain Riserva) prove just how exciting Sardinian Cannonau can be. This wine, grown in Mamoiada vineyards at an average altitude of 700m, has earthy, gruff, planty aromas with dense, exciting, almost shocking flavours which combine plentiful extract with intensely earthy, almost medicinal flavours and vivid plumskin acidity. 93

Cannonau di Sardegna Riserva, Giuseppe Sedilesu 2010

This extraordinary wine, produced from selected Sedilesu bush vines of 50 years or more in the best years only, harvested in October and given a month’s maceration, is drama incarnate. Billowing scents suggesting red fruit, wild lavender, wild mint, crushed stone and perfumed plum skins is followed by a dense, dark, rich, chewy flavour which, metaphorically speaking, seems to explode in the mouth and send granite shards, dripping with herbal blood, splattering round your palate. It has bright, flavour-saturated acidity, packed with plum and cherry, too, invigorating its warm, swelling mid-palate, and it finishes lushly and richly. This elemental, force-of-nature wine is magnificent now but will surely see out a decade or two without trouble. 96

Cagnulari (Graciano)

Bàcco, Cagnulari, Siddùra, Isola dei Nuraghi 2014

Some Sardinian Cagnulari can be very savoury, but the Siddùra version is full of peppery fruits. The wine has harmonious scents and vivid, enticing, smooth-textured flavours – yet it grows in complexity and stature with time in the mouth; the finish is stony, pungent, bitter-edged and thought-provoking. 92

Cagnulari, Chessa, Isola dei Nuraghi 2014

Smoky, earthy, spicy, even tarry: this Cagulari smells nocturnal and byzantine. On the palate, it is rich, weighty, dense, vivid and expressive, with both red and black fruit notes freighted with more exotic incense spice. Despite this generosity of style, the wine is very well-judged, and both satisfying and refreshing to drink. A masterful rendition of what can often be a difficult grape to vinify. 93

Cagnulari, Podere Parpinello, Isola dei Nuraghi 2014

Very dark in colour, with complex scents: both sweet and savoury, suggesting both plants and fruits. On the palate, it is another wine which seems smooth and rich when you first sip, but which acquires texture and flavoury grain as it lingers in the mouth, broadening and filling as it does so. Searching and complex to finish. 92

Cagnulari, Bagasseri, Enrico Melis, Isola dei Nuraghi 2015

An astonishing young Cagnulari: intoxicating primary fruit and flower aromas come storming from the glass, while in the mouth this is a very showy, lush and luscious wine of huge exuberance and impact. There is ample tannin to counterbalance its very sweet style of fruit (though the producer assures me the wine contains no residual sugar). A head-turner, best enjoyed in all its youthful glory. 91

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