Off the coast of Italy, 200 km due west of Naples, the second largest island in the Mediterranean rises from the Tyrrhenian Sea. Sardinia, or Sardegna as it is known in its native Italian, has an illustrious past, being governed by Carthage, then Ancient Rome, the Byzantines, Spanish Arabs then Spanish Catalans, until it was ceded to the wealthy and influential House of Savoy, who were based in Piedmont, and led the charge in the unification of Italy. It is often said that the state of Sardinia is the most detached from Italy, which sounds like a silly thing to say- it is an island after all! However, this detachment goes deeper than geography, and is reflected in its place names, architecture, languages and dialects, as well as its unique portfolio of wine grapes.
From the Valle d’Aosta in the north to Sicily in the south, wine is an integral part of life in Italy. Wine, tomatoes and flour are the three pillars of Italian cuisine- the cornerstones of the vast majority of Italian meals. Wine has played a central part in everyday Italian life for millennia. On the island of Sardinia however, this is much less the case. Whether due to the North African and Arabic influences of the past, or the rugged, rocky landscape, wine has only been grown in earnest here for just over 200 hundred years. Sheep grazing is what takes up many of the hillside sites, and you get the impression from the hard, rocky landscape that milk and meat hold more importance for survival than grapes and wine do in this part of the world. That’s not to say Sardinia cannot make good wine; in fact it has one of the highest percentages of quality production compared to total yield every year. In this tough, craggy land, they are much more focused on quality over quantity. But what kind of quality wine do they make in Sardinia?
As mentioned above, Sardinia’s history has made it unique to the mainland, including key differences in language, culture and of course wine production, making Sardinia a distinctive wine region. The Italians are of course proudly protective of their native grape varieties- each region holds tight to its own wine styles, regarding their versions as better than all others. Sardinia is no different in that it is fiercely proud of its wine; however the centuries of foreign ownership and inter-Mediterranean trade mean that many of the grape varieties the island considers their own are actually not Italian! For reds, Grenache (known here as Cannonau), Carignan (Carignano) and Cabernet Sauvignon are the most grown varieties- all of which are of French origin. Bobal is the next-most grown red variety- a native of the Utiel-Requena region of southeast Spain. The most ‘Italian’ varieties here are also the most-grown white varietals; Vermentino and Malvasia. But even Vermentino can only just be considered Italian, being more widely planted northerly neighbour Corsica and the South of France (where it is called Rolle) than in its Italian homeland of Liguria. Muscat Blanc (Moscato Bianco) is found here, just as it is all around the Mediterranean, further contributing to the pan-Mediterranean feel of Sardinian viniculture. There are a handful of varieties found throughout Sardinia that can be classified as ‘local’ such as Torbato, Semidano, Niederra, Nuragus, Monica and Nasco. Though it is doubtful you have ever heard of them (let alone tasted them!), the latter three are showcased in their own variety-specific DOCs, all from the wine region surrounding the capital, Cagliari.
All up, there are just shy of 20,000 hectares of vineyards across Sardinia, winning this island the title of lowest wine production per hectare of any Italian state. Despite this, there are quite a few regional designations of high enough quality to be rewarded with their own appellations. Top of the tree is Vermentino di Gallura DOCG, which produces crystalline pure and saline mineral whites made from 100% Vermentino. Of the next quality level down, known as DOC, Sardinia has 19, producing a wide variety of wines from rich, meaty reds from Cannonau right down to Fino Sherry-like whites aged under flor made with Vernaccia. Finally there are 15 IGT designations, for regions showing hints of regional distinctiveness and quality. For an island this small, that is a lot of recognised quality sites; more than the mainland states of Calabria and Basilicata combined! It seems the Sardinians are not immune to the Italian love of complicated bureaucracy!
Despite this obvious focus on quality, Sardinia’s wine industry faces an uphill battle to sell their wines in the global wine market. Sardinia’s terroir is full of promise for the hopeful vigneron; the combination of hills and plains, coastal regions and inland areas offers a useful diversity of topography and mesoclimates. Further to this, the available soils and bedrocks vary from granite, limestone and sandstone to mineral-rich clay and free-draining sand and gravel. Located between 38 and 41 degrees north, the island lies at the southern edge of European viniculture, but thanks to the cooling effects of the Mediterranean, the maritime climate here is more forgiving than in other regions at this latitude like Greece and Turkey. The thing holding them back is the relatively short period of time they have made wine on the island. Despite several centuries of trial and error, compare this to the literal millennia of time vines have been planted in more popular regions such as Chianti on the Italian mainland, which predates Roman civilisation. The collective work of hundreds of generations of vignerons has found the perfect match of clone, slope, site and soil (as well as a thousand other immeasurable aspects). As yet, it is a very broad methodology used to match grape varieties to vineyards in Sardinia- and even when a great site is found, the hodge-podge of varieties used on this island tend to confuse more than excite. Sardinia seems to be in the middle of a personality crisis, and to break out of it requires clarity- of region, of variety and of key producers.
Wine Sales Manager