Sardinia: Winemaking in the Extreme
BY ERIC GUIDO | NOVEMBER 30, 2023
Tasting through the new
releases from Sardinia is always exciting, as each portfolio boasts a mix of varieties and styles that contrast and
complement each other. However, winemaking here has its challenges, much of
that because of arid conditions and extreme warmth that created the sun-kissed
style that sets Sardinia apart. Italian by definition, Sardinia has a rich history heavily influenced by Africa,
Spain, France and Italy. As a result, the grape varieties found here are often
ancient imports from different nations that have thrived on the island long
enough that locals think of them as indigenous.
Many consider Sardinia a
paradise, often called “The Caribbean of the Mediterranean Sea” for its
spanning coastlines and clear, pristine waters. This is one of the top vacation
spots for most Italians on holiday. However, there’s much more beyond the
coast, with extreme climatic differences from north to south. Sandy beaches
give way to a mountainous interior, then flat plains and, once again, rocky shores.
While the island's north is heavily affected by the cold Mistral winds blowing
down from France, the warm African Scirocco marks the southern landscape. As
for elevations, Sardinia has those too. In fact, within the mountain ranges,
volcanic cones and jagged granite outcroppings overshadow valleys that resemble
desert wastelands. The island covers 9,300 square miles and, at its closest
point, is 125 miles from Mainland Italy. This, combined with the fact that most
Sardinians speak a dialect, means that a visitor to the island might be
surprised that it is indeed part of Italy.
An ungrafted, 80-year-old Carignano vine in Santadi's sandy vineyards.
The cuisine would likely
amaze most visitors as well. Sardinia gets a lot
of publicity for being one of the world's blue zones, with the average life
expectancy of its people being 83 years old. They also have
one of the
highest populations of centennials, people living 100 and older. When visiting
the region, seeing the number of older yet still physically active people can shock
tourists. However, the Sardinian diet is very different than most people
realize. It’s not on the current trend toward plant-based diets. The culture
relies significantly on mountain cuisine and shepherd’s fare. The number of
grains, dairy in the form of the most eclectic cheeses imaginable (some of
which are illegal to transport off the island), vegetables and, of course, wine,
is high. Still, nearly all Sardinians love cured pork, which many families
produce and consume daily. They are also lovers of lamb and typically make a
weekly event of bringing the entire family together for a spit-roasted lamb on Sundays.
When considering this, it is easier to understand the big, burly red wines that
the region is famous for, as well as the richness and intensity of their
What’s in a Name?
If only understanding
the grape varieties of Sardinia was as easy as a difference in pronunciation.
The grapes found throughout the island are often referred to as indigenous.
However, the majority of them were imported over the course of millennia,
primarily from the Iberian Peninsula.
The most well-known red
is Cannonau, a biotype of Garnacha or Grenache, also referred to as
Alicante on the Tuscan coast. The Cannonau di Sardinia DOC allows producers to
grow the variety across the entire island. However, this creates a large amount
of variability and often results in Cannonau that is blousy, with high-test
alcohol percentages reaching from 16.5 to 17%. Granted, Grenache (or Cannonau)
has this problem around much of the world, but it is running rampant in
Sardinia. There are exceptions, many of which are highlighted in the notes in
this report. Looking to the higher elevations can help. There are weathered
granite soils in the Barbagia hills, north and east of the Gennargentu
Mountains near Nuoro. While the days are sweltering, the diurnal shifts at
night bring much cooler temperatures and balance. I was happily surprised to
find a few examples of Cannonau that finished at 13.5 - 14% abv and reminded me
a bit of a high-elevation Spanish Garnacha from Gredos.
Then there is Carignano,
known as Carunena or Marzuelo in Spain, and Carignan in the south of France.
Its own Carignano del Sulcis DOC is in the southwest of the island, which
allows at least 85% Carignano in the blend. Producers such as Santadi, Argiolas
and Sella & Mosca make good use of this DOC to create powerful and brooding
wines that require aging to show their best. However, most producers use the
Isola dei Nuraghi IGT, which spans the entire island, to create Carignano-heavy
blends balanced by doses of Cannonau, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. One of the
most well-known is Agricola Punica. When tasting these wines, I sense that
Carignano could have a bright future in Sardinia, yet the quality is all over
the map from producer to producer.
The barrel aging room at the Argiolas winery.
There are several
lesser-known varieties that are worth seeking out. Cagnulari, also known
as Bovaleddu and Bovale Sardo, is a dark, full-bodied and spicy red from the
northwest. Monica is a grape that creates pretty, lifted, floral reds
with a tannic heft that provides a lovely balance. Even more rare is Pascale
di Cagliari, often used as a blending grape, but in the hands of Tenute
Dettori, one of the region's iconic producers, it makes an intense yet
high-energy red that goes down almost too easily.
As for white wines,
without a doubt, Vermentino is king. Once again, there can be a vast
disparity in quality, from simple and fruity to salty and mineral. There are a
few that are world-class and built for the cellar. For the least cerebral
experience, look to the all-encompassing Vermentino di Sardinia DOC. This is
yet another DOC that allows the grapes to be sourced from any location on the
island. For a perceived step up, the Vermentino di Gallura DOCG (Sardinia’s
only DOCG) is located in the northeast of the island. Gallura is known for its
rocky and sandy soils and is an area that benefits from warm Mediterranean
influences balanced by the cooling currents from the mountainous interior
overnight. Based on my tastings, focusing on producer before DOC or DOCG is a better
way to enjoy a great Vermentino. For instance, the Vermentinos of Cherchi,
Pala, Tenute Dettori and Argiolas all received high marks in my book yet are not
produced from the Vermentino di Gallura DOCG. Meanwhile, Piero Mancini, Jankara
and Surrau all make an incredible Vermentino di Gallura.
Then there is Vernaccia
di Oristano, not to be confused with Vernaccia di San Gimignano from
mainland Italy. The Oristano province is in the western, central part of
Sardinia and produces wines resembling a Fino or Amontillado Sherry. This results
from a long aging process under flor in any combination of different-sized
barrels of various wood types, with chestnut being the most common. It’s a
style not often seen throughout Italy and creates excellent wines of depth that
can mature for many decades due to the long-lasting controlled oxidation under
flor combined with a high alcohol content. Lastly, Nuragus deserves an
honorable mention, even if I witnessed a much smaller representation for this
report compared to previous years. The Nuragus di Cagliari DOC is located south
of the island in the Campidano plains, which runs from the province of Oristano
down to Cagliari. Nuragus can be a bit simple, floral and fruit-forward due to
the extremely warm and dry region, which is heavily affected by the Scirocco
winds blowing from Africa. However, when a good amount of acidity and
minerality is retained, it can be a total pleasure.
Cannonau in Antonella Corda's Mitza S'Ollastu vineyard, planted on an ancient river-bed.
Winemaking in the Extreme
Like most of Italy,
Sardinia is witnessing the onset of global warming and is making changes to cope. However, producers have
a few things already going for them. For one, the island has been dealing with excessively
warm and dry conditions for decades, forcing producers and the vines to adapt
long before most of mainland
Italy. Marco Montali, export manager for the Siddùra winery, explained, “In the
last ten years, I have no memories of a vintage which has not been defined by drought.”
That said, it should come as no surprise that irrigation is permitted and
preferred throughout much of the island. Carla Bocchio and winemaker Piero
Cella of the Cherchi winery explained that they refuse to use irrigation and
that “the grape varieties Vermentino, Cagnulari, Carignano and Cannonau are typical
of the south and therefore very resistant.” Even so, when considering new
vineyards in the region, a northern exposition is the preference, and most
producers are looking to higher altitudes for planting.
I covered the 2019 vintage
in my last report on Sardinia. However, I believe it’s worth mentioning that
the later releases and more important wines included in this year’s article continue
to show the merits of 2019 over surrounding vintages. This was a warm and dry yet
balanced year. Rains in August helped relieve stress on the vines and cool
conditions throughout harvest. It will be a fantastic year to follow as these
wines slowly mature in the cellar.
As for 2020, the
wines show rich, fruit-forward profiles while maintaining elegance and
freshness. The year started with an early bud break and rainy spring season
that helped build water supplies in the soils. Late spring into summer brought
much warmer and dryer weather yet balanced temperatures with large diurnal
swings between day and night. Several heat spikes in August pushed ripeness,
yet for the most part, harvest started on time and with healthy maturation of
the bunches and larger-than-average quantities. Most 2020s will be best enjoyed
on the young side to take advantage of their primary fruit.
Mistral winds and a soil composition of granite dust, sand, clay and limestone form a unique terroir in the Siddùra Valley.
has the potential to be the next good to very good vintage for Sardinia. The
young wines are racy yet rich with vividly ripe fruit and balanced acidity.
Even the early-release reds show fine tannins that add a sense of inner
harmony, balance and structure symmetry. The season started dryer than usual,
with isolated frost leading to a warm summer. Without any severe heat events
and large temperature swings between day and night, fruit on the vines maintained
excellent health. Producers reported timely harvests and a combination of phenological
and technological (sugars, organic acids and pH) maturity. The 2021
vintage is one to watch.
I tasted all the wines in this report in
New York between September and October 2023.
© 2023, Vinous. No portion of this article may be copied, shared or re-distributed without prior consent from Vinous. Doing so is not only a violation of our copyright, but also threatens the survival of independent wine criticism.
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