Tasting the Native Wines of Sardinia
The idyllic island is not just a vacation destination: Consider it your new go-to region for compelling Italian wines.
Situated off the west coast of Italy, postcard-perfect Sardinia, the second-largest island in the Mediterranean after Sicily, is celebrated for its clear turquoise waters, white-sand beaches and wild coastline. But it’s also a paradise for wine lovers.
The island is home to a variety of native grapes, like the island’s signature white—the rich yet refreshing Vermentino—and the lighter-bodied Nuragus. Fans of red wines can turn to selections made from Monica, Carignano and Sardinia’s flagship red, Cannonau, which range from savory and light-bodied to complex and structured. Although not household names, the best bottlings from Sardinia (Sardegna in Italian) are among the most fascinating wines coming out of Italy.
Another point worth noting: On the Italian mainland, the 2014 vintage ranges from decent to disastrous, but the torrential rains and cool summer temperatures never arrived in Sardinia. In fact, 2014 was a fantastic vintage on the island.
Here’s a primer on the best Sardinian wines, broken down by grape variety.
Known as Grenache in France, this dark-skinned grape is grown all over the island. Recent research indicates Cannonau was present before Sardinia fell under Aragon rule in the 14th century, challenging the long-held belief that the Spaniards brought it with them.
Cannonau-based wines range from easygoing and fruity to structured and cellar worthy, largely depending on whether a producer ages the wines in oak. Some producers use 100 percent Cannonau, while others blend it with other grapes. One of Sardinia’s best-known wines, Turriga, from Argiolas, falls in the latter camp.
It’s 85 percent Cannonau, with the balance made up of equal amounts of Carignano, Bovale and Malvasia Nera. The barrique-aged Turriga was an instant hit with critics when the 1988 vintage debuted in 1991.
“Traditionally, Cannonau was a rustic, high-alcohol wine that easily reached 16 and 17 percent [alcohol by volume],” says Valentina Argiolas, who now runs the winery with family members. “My grandfather, Antonio Argiolas, wanted to make a refined, ageworthy red that would pair well with food.”
In 1987, Antonio decided to bottle his own wine rather than sell in bulk, hiring legendary Italian enologist Giacomo Tachis. But when Tachis suggested that Antonio plant international grapes, the family patriarch refused, insisting on indigenous varieties.
“Like all Sardinians, my grandfather was extremely hard-headed,” says Valentina. Antonio, who remained active in the business until he passed away in 2009 at age 103, embodied another Sardinian trait: remarkable longevity.
In his recent book, The Blue Zones Solution: Eating and Living Like the World’s Healthiest People (National Geographic, 2015), author Dan Buettner points out that Sardinia has the highest population of centenarian men in the world. Besides regular exercise and a diet rich in fava beans, goat milk and whole grains, Buettner lists antioxidant-rich Cannonau as one of the secrets to the islanders’ longevity.
“According to several authoritative scientific publications, Cannonau contains high levels of proanthocyanidins, antioxidants that help against cholesterol and arteriosclerosis,” says Mariano Murru, enologist for Argiolas since 1991. “It has between five and 10 times the amounts found in Australian, South African and American wines.”
Yet there’s no need to splurge on high-end wines matured in barrel to get the presumed health benefits. Many of the island’s producers also make lighter-bodied, everyday versions of Cannonau.
“Our Sartiglia is made almost entirely in steel,” says Alessandro Contini, sales manager at the namesake family firm. “It’s fresh and approachable right away.”
Argiolas 2011 Turriga (Isola dei Nuraghi); 94 points, $80. A compelling blend of 85% Cannonau blended with equal parts Carignano, Bovale and Malvasia Nera, this opens with aromas of mature dark berry, mocha, toast and vanilla. The gripping palate delivers crushed blackberry, Marasca cherry, licorice and tobacco framed by firm, velvety tannins. Drink 2017–26. Winebow.
Pala 2013 Riserva (Cannonau di Sardegna); 92 points, $27. Structured but sleek, this has aromas of ripe blackberry, raspberry and ground cooking spice. The full-bodied palate delivers juicy black cherry, black pepper, anise, wild herb and tobacco, while ripe, polished tannins provide support. It nicely blends structure and elegance. Banville Wine Merchants.
Contini 2014 Sartiglia (Cannonau di Sardegna); 91 points, $17. Fresh and polished, this offers aromas of mature black plum, crushed blackberry and cooking spice. The round, savory palate doles out fleshy black cherry, ground pepper and a note of wild herb alongside smooth, lithe tannins and fresh acidity. Drink through 2017. Vini Contini.
Sardinian growers believe that this red grape, also grown in France (where it’s called Carignan) and Spain (Cariñena), arrived on the island with the ancient Phoenicians. With few exceptions, it’s found in the Sulcis southwestern coastal area, where it’s still grown on traditional bush-trained vines.
The variety flourishes in its hot, dry, seaside home because it resists the effects of the region’s warm, salty winds and is protected from phylloxera by the sandy soils. While the parasite devastated most of Europe’s vineyards in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the louse can’t survive in sand, so many growers in Sulcis have a wealth of extremely old, ungrafted vines. It’s not unusual to find plants here that are more than 80 years old, and the advanced age of the vines contributes added concentration to the resulting wines.
The most famous Sardinian wine made with this variety is Carignano del Sulcis, which must contain a minimum of 85 percent Carignano. Producers blend in other grapes, including Cannonau, to add softness and round out Carignano’s sometimes hard edges.
A typical Carignano del Sulcis boasts structure and elegance, offering dark berry, licorice and spice sensations alongside polished, silky tannins. Most producers age their wines in oak for added complexity, although wines made for early consumption are made in stainless-steel tanks or glass-lined concrete vats. Both versions are remarkably drinkable.
Mesa 2013 Buio (Carignano del Sulcis); 92 points, $25. Scents of perfumed berry, eucalyptus, chopped herb and a whiff of leather unfold in the glass. The smooth, delicious palate doles out juicy black cherry, crushed raspberry, freshly ground black pepper and anise alongside polished, velvety tannins. Montcalm Wine Importers.
Sella & Mosca 2010 Terre Rare Riserva (Carignano del Sulcis); 92 points, $15. This elegantly structured wine opens with aromas of black plum, mocha, Mediterranean herbs and a note of scorched earth. The round, enveloping palate doles out ripe black cherry, blackberry, cinnamon and white pepper, while firm, silky tannins provide the framework. A fantastic wine, it’s already enjoyable and will offer fine drinking over the next few years. Palm Bay International. Best Buy.
Argiolas 2011 Is Solinas (Isola dei Nuraghi); 91 points, $40. A blend of 95% Carignano and 5% Bovale Sardo, this savory wine offers aromas of black currant, coffee, cooking spice and chopped herbs. The firm palate delivers blackberry, baking spice and a hint of licorice alongside velvety tannins. Winebow.
Known as Rolle in France, Vermentino is most associated with Sardinia, despite being grown in several different parts of Italy. Now found throughout the island, Vermentino was cultivated for centuries almost exclusively on Sardinia’s northern tip, in the Gallura area. Here, granite cliffs loom above the island’s celebrated emerald waters, and the surrounding Mediterranean brush imparts a pervasive fragrance of wild herbs.
The grape thrives in Gallura’s windswept vineyards, which are dotted with standing stones erected by the island’s Bronze Age Nuragic civilization. It’s no coincidence that the only Sardinian Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG), the most strictly regulated denomination in Italy, is Vermentino di Gallura.
Besides the DOCG, producers can also make Vermentino di Sardegna Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) or label it as an Isola dei Nuraghi Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT). Blending other grapes (like Sauvignon Blanc, to enhance aroma) is allowed in varying amounts under all the designations, but the best are made entirely of Vermentino.
Vermentino doesn’t have the racy acidity of most Italian whites, and Sardinia’s specimens run the gamut from round and exotic to linear and mineral-driven. The differences depend largely on vineyard location and winemaking style. Most producers use steel, although some also age in wood.
“Vermentinos from Gallura are structured but elegant, with pronounced mineral, almond and balsamic notes,” says Emanuele Ragnedda of Capichera, who works at the family-run winery alongside his father, Mario, and uncle, Fabrizio. “They also have a hint of saltiness, thanks to the vicinity to the sea.”
In the mid-1970s, the family began to plant new vineyards and built a modern cellar to produce quality Vermentino. Its 1980 Capichera Vermentino put the variety on the map when it came out in 1981. However, in protest of DOCG rules that allow the use of 5 percent other varieties, the estate doesn’t bottle its top Vermentinos under this designation.
Capichera 2013 VT Vermentino (Isola dei Nuraghi); 94 points, $69. Made with late-ripened Vermentino, this gorgeous white opens with an alluring fragrance of citrus blossom, white wildflowers, ripe orchard fruit and a hint of wild herbs. The rich palate boasts depth and complexity, delivering layers of succulent nectarine, honey, yellow peach, flint and ginger. A white almond note closes the long, lingering finish. Lyra Wine.
Vigne Surrau 2014 Sciala Superiore (Vermentino di Gallura); 93 points, $23. Creamy and delicious, this offers aromas and flavors of juicy pear, ripe green apple, white almond, sea salt, mineral, wild herbs and ginger. Fresh acidity brightens the creamy flavors. A.I. Selections.
Piero Mancini 2014 (Vermentino di Gallura); 90 points, $16. Aromas of Spanish broom, ripe apricot and yellow peach lead the nose and carry over to the round palate. Fresh acidity accompanies the juicy fruit flavors while an almond note closes the finish. Oliver McCrum Wines.
Monica yields easy-drinking, savory reds with medium body, although aging in oak can add some complexity.
Nieddera, found almost exclusively near the town of Cabras on the west coast, makes medium-bodied reds with succulent fruit and an almost weightless quality. The Contini firm, founded in 1898, saved the indigenous grape from extinction and makes a great rosato as well as a fantastic red from 90 percent Nieddera and 10 percent other local varieties.
Bovale Sardo, cultivated in the central south, makes earthy, full-bodied wines with concentrated fruit flavors. Low yields have caused some growers to abandon the grape, but it’s making a comeback, thanks to producers like Pala, whose Essentija bottling is 100 percent Bovale from 80-year-old ungrafted vines.
“Thanks to the concentrated wines it yields, Bovale Sardo was usually blended with other grapes to add body,” says the winery’s Mario Pala. “But when cultivated in sandy soils with the traditional alberello training system, it can yield rich wines on its own. Many growers have abandoned Bovale, but for the last 15 years, we’ve been on a mission to recover it.”
Nuragus makes bright, light-bodied white wines that are perfect for everyday enjoyment. Nasco is best known for concentrated dessert wines, but some producers also make a savory dry version, too. Vernaccia di Oristano can yield a dry expression, a rich dessert wine or a spicy meditation version using Sherry’s solera method.
Torbato, an ancient white variety, makes crisp, polished wines boasting pear, mineral and saline sensations, but also a rich, creamy version that develops more complexity with modest aging. The variety is grown exclusively by Sella & Mosca at the firm’s beautiful I Piani estate founded in 1899 outside the town of Alghero.
“Torbato is a difficult grape in the vineyards and the cellar and needs a lot of attention,” says Antonio Posadinu, external relations director of the historic winery. “But it yields wines with crisp acidity and structure, allowing us to make four distinct expressions, from a light sparkler to our Cuvée 161 that has more body and complexity.”
Contini 2013 Nieddera (Valle del Tirso); 91 points, $20. This delicious wine delivers succulent black cherry, blackberry, white pepper and a hint of anise. Supple, polished tannins and fresh acidity provide the framework, while a salinity note provides backup. Vini Contini.
Pala 2011 Essentija Bovale (Isola dei Nuraghi); 91 points, $30. Made with old vines, this soulful red opens with aromas of mature black-skinned fruit, game, baked earth, wild herbs and a smoky note. The ripe, round palate doles out mature black plum, black cherry, grilled rosemary and wild fennel alongside solid, velvety tannins. Concentrated and accessible, it will offer several more years of sheer drinking pleasure. Drink through 2021. Banville Wine Merchants.
Sella & Mosca 2014 Terre Bianche Torbato (Alghero); 91 points, $21. Vibrant and elegant, this refreshing, mineral-driven white offers aromas of white spring flowers, ripe orchard fruit and citrus blossom. Bright acidity frames the juicy pear, apple and energizing flint flavors while the crisp finish closes on a note of saline. This is a fantastic wine from a grape grown only at the Sella & Mosca estate in Sardinia. Palm Bay International.
- 4Other Noteworthy Natives