The curious thing about Sardinia, the second largest island in the Mediterranean, is that the kilometers of pristine beaches we consider its most popular asset today didn’t begin to attract visitors until after fashion designer Coco Chanel invented the two-piece swimsuit nearly a century ago.
The sexy swimwear resulted in a new identity for Sardinia as Europe’s ultimate seaside playground, but before the invention, the island was squarely focused on inland activities, such as farming and goat herding. The surrounding waters were to be avoided, as they were occupied by dangerous Saracen pirates. If you look at a map of the island today, you’ll notice that many of its towns were built in safer inland areas. As a result, Sardinia’s traditional cuisine is based on meats and cheeses (it’s a leading producer of organic produce in Italy), and not the cornucopia of fresh seafood ingredients that characterize seafront restaurants today.
Sardinia’s agricultural is rich. Archaeological evidence affirms that this Mediterranean crossroads is the birthplace of modern wine. In fact, scientists have recently uncovered sites dating back to 1200 B.C. that reveal clay containers with ancient grape seeds inside. Evidence shows that when Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Genoese and Spaniards occupied the territory, that grape-growing continued.
Sardinia has cultivated the many unique varieties that best match the island’s vast gastronomy. Hearty reds pair with roasted meats, suckling pig (porceddu) roasted with juniper and rosemary or sharp Pecorino Sardo cheese. Crisp whites make a perfect match to lobster, squid, clams and sardines.
Sardinia boasts various important winemaking regions: Well-recognized is Vermentino di Gallura (based on the white Vermentino variety from the northern tip of the island), which makes a crisp, dry, but full-bodied white that pairs with shellfish, spaghetti con vongole and a fish soup known as cassòla. Malvasia di Cagliari, from the southern half of the island, is an often-floral white wine with a compact mouthfeel that would match fried fish or calamari. Nuragus di Cagliari is another white wine with a drying mineral note on the finish that would pair well with smoked salmon or swordfish carpaccio.
The island is also home to fresh, medium-bodied reds, such as Monica di Sardegna (Monica is among the island’s oldest indigenous varieties); It pairs with pasta and ragù sauce, or white meat, wild fennel and myrtle sauce. Prestigious reds include Cannonau di Sardegna, which can achieve rich concentration and dense red berry flavors. The local name for Grenache is Cannonau. There is a Riserva expression that sees at least six months of oak aging.
Another important red wine is Carignano del Sulcis (Sardinia’s iconic Terre Brune is one famous interpretation) that comes from the southernmost tip of the island. Many ancient vineyards with this variety see head-pruned vines planted on their original pre-phylloxera rootstock. The wine boasts the intensity and persistency to compare to the best wines of Tuscany and northern Italy.
Sun-drenched Sardinia is also a natural environment for the production of dessert wines. Fragrant Moscato grapes are grown region-wide and make a variety of sweet wines to pair with desserts or aged cheeses. Look for a rare sweet red wine called Girò, a white wine called Nasco, and the Sherry-like Vernaccia di Oristano.
93 Santadi 2006 Terre Brune Carignano del Sulcis Superiore, $68: Terre Brune is an iconic wine of Sardinia in the same way that Sassicaia is an icon of coastal Tuscany. Helping to shine the quality spotlight on this beautiful Mediterranean island, this plush red wine boasts rich berry density and sophisticated background tones of smoke and spice. Imported by Empson (USA) Ltd. Cellar Selection.
91 Sella & Mosca 2005 Marchese di Villamarina Cabernet Sauvignon Alghero, $68: This rich, oak-aged Cabernet Sauvignon shows that Sardinia can produce both indigenous and international grape varieties that compete with the best wines of the world. This opulent expression delivers dense berry flavors and dried fruit backed by mineral, spice and polished tannins. Imported by Palm Bay International.
90 Agricola Punica 2008 Montessu Isola dei Nuraghi, $35: This wonderful blend of Carignano (60%), Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Syrah is one of the island’s emerging “super Sardinian” wines. Plush, rich and extracted, the wine offers the density and longevity to stand up to veal or pork. Imported by Kobrand.
88 Tenuta Soletta 2010 Isola dei Nuraghi, $32: Here’s a special blended white wine from Sardinia that shows the natural density and richness to pair with lobster or baked halibut. There’s a soft, creamy mouthfeel that is backed by aromas of stone fruit and melon. Imported by Tricana Imports.
86 Santa Maria La Palma 2010 Aragosta Vermentino di Sardegna, $11: Aragosta is one of those wonderfully light and crisp Italian whites that would pair so well with the seafood dishes we love most (think fried calamari and crab cakes). Aromas of peach, citrus and white flower emerge from the nose. Imported by Frederick Wildman & Sons, Ltd. Best Buy.