Over the past decade, the Italian island of Sardinia has become famous for being one of the blue zones, regions where people live longer than average. With its beautiful beaches, artisan food traditions and mountain scenery, it’s easy to see why people would want to stick around as long as possible.
Sardinia is home to Cannonau, the local name for Grenache, as well as Vermentino and Carignano, also known as Carignan. These three are the island’s most prolific grapes, but a cache of indigenous varieties that only escape the island occasionally are like a rare wine treasure map. They include Bovale (Bobal), Monica, Malvasia Bianca, Moscato, Nasco and Nuragus.
Before you explore the island, the second largest in the Mediterranean Sea, map out a few restaurants and local specialty foods. Look for sea urchin, tuna, bottarga from Cabras, Catalan-style lobster in Alghero, snails and artichoke around Sassari and suckling pig. There’s also pecorino cheese, made a hundred ways here that includes a method that utilizes maggots, called casu marzu. And, of course, the dozens of village-based variations on pasta.
Fly into Olbia in the north and find yourself alongside Sardinia’s only Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG), Vermentino di Gallura. Dry, full-bodied white wines made from Vermentino taste of the sea, white flowers, lemon and stone fruit.
There are a few wineries to seek out around Olbia that include Vigne Surrau, one of the better-known Sardinian brands in the U.S. Visit the shop or relax with a glass and some pecorino cheese. Family-run Capichera, near Arzachena, has been in business for more than 30 years, and produces high-quality Vermentino. Two others to try: family-run Mura, known for its Vermentino, and the larger Masone Mannu, which makes reds and whites.
The Costa Smeralda, the glitzy coastline near Olbia, harbors mega-yachts and mega-resorts that boast rooms often double the price of elsewhere. However, a few standout inns and small hotels exist, like picturesque Antica Dimora La Corona. For breezy digs that embody Italian sprezzatura, or effortless chic, reserve a suite at Petra Segreta Resort & Spa. Set to a view amidst boulders, this low-slung property’s restaurant Il Fuoco Sacro maintains a thoughtful wine list.
For dinner, spend at least one night among the glitterati of Porto Cervo with a visit to Al Pescatore. Right on the water, it specializes in seafood with regional wines.
Head west toward Sassari and stop at natural wine producer Tenute Dettori. Enjoy a leisurely dinner and spend the night at the winery’s agriturismo, Kent’ Annos, tucked within craggy hills. Nearby, the Sennori Vineyard of Cantina Sorres overlooks the Gulf of Asinara. Owned by two sisters, it makes organic Cannonau.
Throughout the trip, stop to admire the stone towers called nuraghi. Thousands of these Bronze Age structures are scattered around the island. Their purpose isn’t clear, though it’s thought that they acted as fortification and defense for the Nuragic civilization.
For a beach detour, drive the slender peninsula north of Alghero toward Stintino. Two sandy stunners will spoil you for life: La Pelosa, with its glassy, shallow waters, and smaller Pelosetta, which offers breathtaking views of Piana Island. You can practically swim to the nearby Torre della Pelosa, a stone tower built in 1578.
Sardinia’s west coast
Continue to Alghero, a coastal city with architecture reminiscent of its Catalan rulers. Well-preserved stone streets are packed with bars and restaurants like old school Al Tuguri, a Michelin star recipient acclaimed for its Mediterranean-Sardinian plates.
If you’re in mood for something offbeat, look for bottles labeled Alghero Cagnulari Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC), a dry red typical of the region. You might find one at SardOa diVino, a cute spot that serves small bites and Sardinian wine. If on the menu, a regional white wine from the Torbato grape is a must try. Well-known Sella & Mosca winery, near the Alghero airport, makes a notable example. While in its shop, pick up La Cala, a delicious, affordable Vermentino for beach picnics. Nearby, Cantina Santa Maria la Palma sells large volumes of crisp dry whites, but its Cannonau also shines.
For a rest between drives, stay in a sunny yellow farmhouse turned wine resort, Ledà d’Ittiri. Rooms are simple and bright, with views of the vines and a pool which beckons on hot days.
Sardinia’s western seaboard goes by the moniker Coral Coast for its wealth of red coral which has been harvested since Roman times for jewelry. The stretch of land that hugs it also impresses. Provincial road 105, between Alghero and Bosa, evokes the panoramic stretch of California’s Highway 1 south of Carmel.
In the pretty town of Bosa, set along the Temo River, stop for Malvasia di Bosa DOC and some fried seafood. Any riverfront restaurant will do. All sport views of colorful houses, palm trees and the medieval Castle of Serravalle. For beachfront seafood and back vintages of Sardinia’s best wine producers, book Essenza del Gusto. To stay overnight, Palazzo Sa Pischedda is small hotel with a relaxing garden and good wine list. Check for Malvasia by Emidio Oggianu.
From there, move south to Oristano. It’s believed that, in 800 B.C., the Phoenicians brought wine grapes here that would morph into the local white wine Vernaccia di Oristano DOC. Its first recorded mention was in 1327. It is made in several styles from dry to sweet, and even a Sherry-like, flor-aged version. For a no-fuss visit, pop by Cantina della Vernaccia, founded in 1953. For other examples, track down a bottle from Francesco Atzori, though he makes tiny quantities, or wines from Silvio Carta and Fratelli Serra.
Carve out an afternoon for activities along the Sinis Peninsula, a protected marine reserve ringed in stunning beaches, but please don’t take a sandy souvenir from Is Arutas, known for its rice-like quartz beach. Act out high-noon showdown fantasies in San Salvatore, a dusty town used in spaghetti western films.
Back in the car, delve 40-minutes into the interior of the island for Slow Food restaurant Su Carduleu. Owner/Chef Roberto Serra has been recognized for preserving heritage recipes through his hyper-local, “zero kilometer” approach to cooking.
Sardinia’s southern coast
Cagliari is the key city of the south, with history that dates to the Phoenicians. Art Nouveau architecture and scenes of daily life play out in quaint streets and encourage wandering. Just be sure to check out Inu Sardinian Wine Bar for Sardinian-only products. In the mood for another Michelin-starred experience? Third-generation chef Stefano Deidda brings classical training to local products at Dal Corsaro, run by the Deidda family since 1962. Otherwise, sample his wallet-friendlier perspective at informal sister restaurant Fork Easy.
Head west to explore Carignano del Sulcis DOC. The hot, dry climate and sandy soils preclude grafting and most sprays. Instead, many vines are resilient bush-trained specimens. Rich and assertive, Carignano brims with sweet spice, macchia, tobacco and dark fruit, along with high alcohol typically that’s testimony to the climate.
Iconic and expensive, “Terre Brune” by La Cantina di Santadi shows the brooding side of south Sardinian fruit. Visit the cantina for older vintages. Nearby, Cantina Mesa makes blockbuster reds as well as softer, more accessible versions. If you have time, cross over to the island of Sant’Antioco. Visit cooperative Sardus Pater for spicy reds scented with Sardinian scrub brush. And if a leisurely meal is your desire, drive about an hour north and ferry to A Galaia restaurant in Carloforte, on the island of Isola di San Pietro. One dish to not miss: carbonara with bottarga. Air-dried, grey mullet roe is morphed into a savory-salty brick that’s shaved like gold foil over pasta. This is life-changing food.
Finally, Cannonau is Sardinia’s red wine calling card. Though the Cannonau di Sardegna DOC covers the entire island, top producers are clustered in the eastern half of the interior. Under the Sardinian sun, Cannonau reveals itself as broad and potent. It rides the edge between sun-dappled raspberry fruit and floral-spice earthiness.
Head deep into the wilds of the Trexenta hills north of Cagliari. Nuragus and Monica grapes also flourish there. It’s a place with more sheep than people, one of hairpin turns and silent, profound landscapes. Shepherds traverse the rugged hills with their flock, fortified with traditional pane carasau, the ubiquitous flat bread served at every restaurant.
Argiolas, one of Sardinia’s preeminent brands exported to the U.S., offers tastings in an ochre-hued stone house. The interior, like the winemaking, is modern. As if one needed further proof to sip polyphenol-rich Cannonau, consider that Antonio Argiolas, founder of the estate, died at age 102.
Between the folded terrain of the hinterland around Mamoiada, the very center of the island, the wines encapsulate place, pride and profundity. Notable bottles of Cannonau can be had from Cantina Gungui and Giuseppe Sedilesu. Many of Sardinia’s best, traditional restaurants are in this province of Nuora. Roberto Petza of S’Apposentu earned a Michelin star for his down-home cooking with a contemporary twist. He personally selects wines for his dishes.
Finish with a few days on the east coast. Gorgeous whitewashed resort Su Gologone has a terrace bar for sunsets with a mountain backdrop. The traditional restaurant serves local specialties like lamb with copious amounts of Cannonau.