Sardinia: Winemaking in the Extreme


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 Vermentino.

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. 

Recent Vintages

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.

Meanwhile, 2021 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.

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