Part 1 of 3: wine as a window to the soul of Sardinia
A recipe for Sardinian serendipity: rest your body on a cozy stone wall as the sun dips low, sip a 2003 wine made from 140-year-old vines old set snugly in a high and rugged landscape where you had to pull up your collar that windy October morning. Observe, reflect, as you sit near the place where the wine is made, for this is a land where people take a long view of time and where old traditions are treasured.
A village, a vineyard, the grapes, the people. This is at the heart of any good wine.
The wine: Giovanni Sedilesu’s 2003 Reserva. The town: Mamoiada. The grapes: Cannonau.
Late October 2016 and I had just finished a series of wine tastings with fellow journalists, invited by producers of Sardinian Cannonau wines on an educational trip so we could better understand this Italian regional specialty. I enjoyed comparing vintages and different wineries’ products and our hosts were men and women of the earth whose company was excellent. But when you’re working like this sometimes you have to slip away for a few minutes to absorb the setting, the centuries-old backdrop that has helped create a wine.
I watch widows – many of them not so old – with roughly woven black shawls scurry into the village church as the six o’clock bells beckon them. A young man on a bright tractor makes slow progress down a narrow old street; I hear the giggles before I see two young girls who tripped while peering at a cell phone. Shopkeepers tug shutters to pull them in. The late sun casts long shadows from granite mountains that were once the territory of brigands.
The wine in my glass is a dark purply red. I hold it to my nose again. Notes of ripe red fruits, rosemary and a hint of violets come through clearly, even outdoors, not entirely suitable for serious wine tasting. But these are powerful wines, with strong characters, from grapes grown a bit higher than 600 metres. Cannonau is also grown at lower altitudes, where the vines gives lighter, fruitier wine, more akin to those of cousin Grenache grapes in southern France. A month earlier I was in Chateauneuf-du-pape photographing the harvest of Grenache grapes. These are darker, richer, deeper, higher in alcohol. Just right for a Mediterranean climate that bit more rude.
DOC Cannonau rules call for 85% of this grape and up to 15% other Sardinian reds.
I take another sip. This is a comforting wine as the seasons change. Earlier in the day in Oliena I sampled other Cannonau wines, served with copious plates of Pecorino (Fiore Sardo) and other mountain cheeses, breads including the famous pane carasau (twice-baked crisp flat bread), sausage and other meats. Centuries of sending family members into these wild hills of the Supramonte chain for the lonely job of herding sheep and goats has to have created a strong sense of the importance of a warm hearth and good company.
Story continues below; photos from central Sardinian highlands
Sardinian travel virgin
O! the joys of a clean slate! I was invited to Sardinia for a wine trip and promptly said yes because I was a Sardinian travel virgin: I knew nothing at all about the place (shame, shame on me) or its wines, and if possible, even less about Cannonau, the grape variety that would be the theme of the trip. I mentioned Sardinia to one friend who said it is known as a playground for the rich and famous. Another, who said she loves Sardinian wines, and a third who mentioned religion and made vague noises about kidnappings.
I did my own research and found that my friends were all right, but there is much more to the place, starting with the curious fact that while the island is Italian, it spent 400 years under Spanish rule. Then again, the Romans were here and so were the Byzantines. At times it felt and looked more Spanish than Italian to me. Sardinians speak Italian – officially since 1760 – but treasure their own language, Sardo, streaked with the influences of many other Mediterranean languages, including Spanish. The small city of Alghero in the northwest, the closest bit to Spain, continues to speak Catalan.
The island’s history is ancient, with the countryside dotted with fortress-like nuraghe towers that are several millenia old. It is not prone to earthquakes, but some evidence of long-extinct volcanoes survives in the profiles of the hillsides and possibly in the soils of some vineyards.
Tourism arrived after the second world war; a leftist movement as well as organized crime left their mark from 1970 to 1990, roughly, and the island stepped onto the world stage with several famous kidnappings at that point – reviving an old reputation for banditry and crimes in the highlands, a view that was long held by urban Sardinians, whose history includes a 14th century punishment for setting fire to another man’s vines: cut off his left hand. One of the mountains, Corbeddu, is named after a famous 19th century bandit. It’s hard not to stare at the granite mountains in Nuoro Province, where 20th century kidnap victims were held, and wonder how such crime and punishments could co-exist with this land of white beaches and bucolic fields of sheep, vineyards like postage stamps stuck willy-nilly onto hillsides.
Past versus present
Violent crimes have given way to mountain bike trails, and while the island still has the majority of Italy’s one million goats and sheep, according to Eurostat figures (more pleasing: see Nicola Okín’s photos), compared to Sardinia’s human population of 1.66 million, it’s the beauty of the landscape coupled with fine food and wine that give the Sardinian mountains their charm today.
They have been making wine here for eons. The island has three main wine grapes: Carignan, Vermentino and Cannonau. Another dozen are frequently used. Cannonau’s forebears are a matter of some debate, but the grape is a variety of Grenache that may have been brought in when it was part of the Kingdom of Aragon (Grenacha is the grape’s Spanish name) or, as more recent research on the island appears to show, Sardinia could be the home of this grape. In any event, about one in five Sardinian wines are Cannonau.
Cannonau and the bigger picture
I write about the wines in part 2 of this series, and tourism highlights from my trip in part 3, but keep in mind that these wines make wonderful sense in the overall context of this extraordinary Italian island’s pastoral yet also very sophisticated seaside areas. Some of the wines are crisp and light, mostly whites, and perfect with seafood and Mediterranean fish. The wines, mainly from the central hills, which I spent four days tasting were reds that pair very well with the hearty food of shepherds and people who work the land – cheese fritters, dried meats, shanks of pork and lamb cooked over a spit, and, in season, gently cooked young goat, or kid.