Ep 403: Sardinia, Italy -- an Overview of Italy's Island with it's Own Accent
Sardinia is the second-largest island in the Mediterranean, and lies off the west coast of mainland Italy. Much larger than Corsica, the wines here have a distinctly Spanish influence, with some Italian and French to boot. The wines are unlike any other you’ll encounter (although many you can only encounter them if you visit!). In this show we try try to sort through the grapes and regions of this island to get to the heart of what’s here (Grenache, Vermentino) and what to look for in the future.
Sardinia is 150 miles (240km) off the west coast of mainland Italy. Across the Tyrrhenian Sea from Lazio (the province where Rome is located), Sardegna is sandwiched between French Corsica in the north and Sicily in the south at 38˚N and 41˚N latitude. The island is almost three times the size of Corsica with a population of 1.64 million people, with the largest city of Cagliari in the south. Known by the jet setters for the fancy Costa Smeralda in northeast tip, this big island is making more and better wines every year.
Photo: Getty Images/Canva
Here are the show notes:
After some facts and history, I get the hardest part of Sardegna out of the way: the fact that it feels like there are a million appellations: 1 DOCG, 17 DOCs, 15 IGPs and two-thirds is DOP level. It seems nonsensical – too many “line extensions” of the Sardinia brand!! There are more DOC and IGT titles than Basilicata and Calabria combined but has lowest production per hectare. This is especially confusing when you consider that there are just 25,000 ha/61,776 acres under vine, and 31,000 growers, who own tiny plots (and often form co-ops to economics work). To try to clear up the DOC confusion, I break it down into the three big buckets:
“di Sardegna” Appellations:
- Cannonau di Sardegna
- Monica di Sardegna
- Moscato di Sardegna
- Vermentino di Sardegna
- Sardegna Semidano
- Malvasia di Cagliari
- Monica di Cagliari
- Moscato di Cagliari
- Nasco di Cagliari
- Nuragus di Cagliari
Other important DOC/Gs:
- Carignano del Sulcis
- Vermentino di Gallura DOCG
- Vernaccia di Oristano
- For Bovale: Mandrolisai, Campidano di Terralba
Then we discuss the basics on this large island…
The climate of Sardinia is dry and hot with some maritime influences to cool down the vineyards. The rolling hills and different elevations mean there are many mesoclimates, so growers have to pay attention to their particular area.
Sardinia is made up of hills, plains, coast, and inland areas with varied soils – granite (Gallura), limestone (Cagliari), sandstone, marl, mineral rich clay, sands, gravel. The land tends to be undulating but there are also very high altitudes at which grapes can be planted.
Grapes… The top five varietals are nearly 70% of land under vine, and the area is home to 120 native grape varieties. Old vines (70+ years) are common in Sardinia
The top 5 grapes are:
Cannonau is about 20% of the output of Sardinia. Although it is identical to Grenache, some natives think the grape originated here, and are trying to prove that. These best wines come from a triangle that covers the eastern interior areas within the Cannonau di Sardegna DOC (these names will be on the label):
- Oliena (Nepente di Oliena)
- Capo Ferrato
Cannonau is known to have thin skin, medium acidity, a medium body with soft tannins, and high alcohol. It often tastes and smells like peppery spice, red berry, red flowers, and earth and generally has low or no oak aging. Cannonau di Sardegna is required to be 90-100% Cannonau, with other non aromatic, local red grapes permitted. There are a few styles of this wine:
- Rossoor classico (a little higher alcohol, more yield restrictions), which are often in one of two styles…
- Strong and tannic with lower acidity and higher alcohol – a steakhouse wine, as MC Ice called it
- Dry, fewer tannins and slightly fruity, with red berry, cherry, floral, spicy anise/herbal notes, earth, and strong acidity. This is a wine that improves with age
- Riserva is generally made with riper fruit, and is required to age at least two years with time in a barrel and a minimum alcoholic strength of 12.5%
- Rosato is a light to full rosé
- The fortified liquorosowines are made as dolce with a high residual sugar content, or secco, dry with a higher alcohol content.
- Passito styles are made, where grapes are dried on straw mats and then pressed. The resulting wines have similar sweetness toliquoroso dolce.
*Many of the other red grapes are made in all of these styles as well
Photo: Getty Images/Canva
- Carignano del Sulcis DOC is for red and rosato wines made from Carignano in the southwest corner of the island. These vines are quite old, and the flavors are like sweet spice, smoke, and dark fruit. The wines tend to be full bodied with high alcohol. Similar to Cannonau, the are made as rosso, riserva, rosato, and passito. There is also a nouveau, or novello style for this wine.
- Bovale has 24 different names in Sardininan dialects but the idea that it is Bobal from Spain has been debunked. The two common versions of Bovale are Bovale Grande, which is Carignan, and Bovale Sardo, Rioja’s Graciano grape (also called Cagnulari). Mandrolisai and Campidano di Terralba focus on Bovale
- The Monica grape is -- grown almost nowhere else in the world, and is definitely from Spain. It is either light and fruity or more intense. There is potential for the grape but now the yields under the Monica di Sardegna and Monica di Cagliari DOCs are so high that it’s hard to glean the true potential of the wine.
- Pascale di Cagliari is originally from Tuscany and now mostly used to blend with other varieties, like Carignano.
The whites…Vermentino is a sun-loving grape, which works well in Sardinia’s hot, dry climate. The styles range from light and fresh to fuller-bodied, with lower acidity and higher alcohol. Good versions taste and smell either like citrus, white flowers, herbs with salinity/minerality or for the fuller styles, almonds, peach, apricot, ripe tropical fruit, with a fat body.
- Vermentino di Sardegna covers the entire island of Sardinia, so quality is highly variable. Often it is dry, slightly bitter, herbal, and light to neutral in flavor. It can be dry, off-dry, slightly sparkling or Spumante (dry or sweet).
- Vermentino di Gallura is Sardinia’s only DOCG. Located in the island’s northeastern corner, the area has sharp diurnals, strong winds from the Mistral and vineyards are on weathered granite soil. The result is a wine that is flavorful, with white flowers, lemon, peach, almond, minerals, and especially a salinity to it. The wine is dry with a slight bitterness on the finish, good acidity, and high alcohol (14%+ is common). The wine is made as Superiore (higher alcohol requirement, riper grapes), frizzante, spumante, passito, late harvest, and off-dry versions. Winemakers are experimenting with skin contact, amphora, lees stirring (battonage), oak aging, and other techniques to spice things up for Vermentino.
Photo: Getty Images/Canva
Other white grapes include
- Nuragus, which was planted by the Phoenicians, and is light-bodied, dry, acidic, with citrus, green apple, pear, and melon notes. It can be high in alcohol.
- Nasco is grown around Cagliari, and is used for passito and liquoroso, with some dry styles.
- Torbato is an acidic, minerally white with pear notes that can be creamy with some age. It is also made as a sparkling wine.
- Malvasia, dry or sweet is made here, as is Moscato (Muscat) – both are floral, aromatic, and generally lighter in style, although Moscato is bolder than Malvasia
- Vernaccia di Oristano is made from a grape that is unique to this area, and the wines, which range from dry to sweet, but are most famed when made in a sherry-like fortified wine, are rarely seen outside Sardinia.
Photo: Getty Images/Canva
Here is the list of top producers we mention:
Argiolas, Antonella Corda, Capichera, Contini, Ferruccio Deiana, Cantina Santadi, Sella & Mosca (Campari owns), Siddura, Vigne Surrau, Pietro Mancini
Some sources I used for this show:
- Strictly Sardinia
- Ian D'Agata for Vinous, Sardinia's Wines: High Quality, Low Visibility, March 2018
- Wine-Searcher, Sardinia
- Italian Wine Central:Sardegna
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