Sardinia’s Eclectic Wine Regions—The North
This is the first of two articles about various wine regions on the Mediterranean island of Sardinia.
Wine is produced throughout the island of Sardinia, with many regions having features that create unique vintages. Yet be wary: maps of Sardinia’s wine regions appear at times inconsistent—showing patches of agricultural terrain varying in size and title. Deciphering them, however, can provide entertainment—a geographical vinous treasure hunt that may incite you to travel.
Sardinia and Sicily—two Italian isles in the Mediterranean Sea—differ in both subtle and significant ways. They are about the same size (Sicily is 6% greater in land area), while Sardinia has less than a third the population of its sister island (1.6 million compared to 5 million residents—as of 2019). Sardinia has between half and a third the quantity of wine grapevines found in Sicily (100,000 acres as opposed to 240,000 acres).
About 21 million years ago the terrain that now comprises Sardinia separated from what is now mainland Europe to form an island. Occasionally, agronomists will emphasize that this break wrenched away land from what is now the region of Provence, rather than from Tuscany. Hence Sardinian soils—and their impacts on wine—derive from French rather than Italian roots. Similar geologic subsoils may be reason for a preponderance of Cannonau (Grenache) grapes growing on Sardinia.
Some 64 grape types grow on Sardinia, although more than two thirds of the total grown is from five grape types—predominantly red Cannonau (29%) and white Vermentino (17%).
While Cannonau grows predominantly in the south, Vermentino white grapes are generally cultivated in the north (and form 80% or Italy’s overall Vermentino production). Other popular grapes grown on Sardinia include Carignano and Cagnulari for reds, and Moscato, Nuragus and Torbato for whites.
Local Mediterranean island conditions are excellent for viticulture: hot, dry summers and ample coastal winds. Average rainfall is about 15 to 22 inches (400 to 550 millimeters). The island has 17 Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) wine classifications and one higher Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG) level (Vermentino di Gallura—in the north).
An energetic and inclined individual could visit many of the island’s wine regions during one long weekend. Spending a week would be obviously be more sensible.
As an island, Sardinia might lack the Middle Earth volcanic beauty of the Azores islands, the surreal and sometimes bizarre landscapes of the Canary Islands and the statured pedigree of island festivals on Madeira. Yet the island abounds with cheerful locals, rough and attractive mountains and coastlines and rich plates—Italian pasta merged with a bounty of fresh seafood. Island infrastructure is generally good—including roads (although local driving etiquette can be eye-opening).
Northeast—Vermentino di Gallura
Northwestern Sardinia (and much of the isle) includes dry mountain landscapes reminiscent of those of the Rio Grande Valley in the U.S. state of New Mexico, or the inland countryside surrounding Saint-Tropez in France. The northwestern 35 mile (55 kilometer) long Costa Smeralda (Emerald Coast) includes halcyon ports and suave yachts cruising below winding coastal hillside roads—similar to Saint-Florent on the French island of Corsica further north. The road from northeast Costa Smeralda to the northwest passes between roadsides fluffy with perfumed maquis scrub, and lush green landscapes interspersed with patches of desert brown soils—resembling the eastern approach to the California wine town of Paso Robles. This is where white Vermentino di Gallura DOCG quality wine dominates—both in terms of size of the wine region, and overall quality.
Try sampling wines at Cantina Li Duni—a winery named after surrounding sand dunes. The glass walled wine tasting room faces the gulf of Asinara and its islands.
Their Renabianca Vermentino di Gallura DOCG wine is made from ungrafted grape vines. It is lime/lemon colored and includes magnificent aromas of peach, nectarine, grapefruit, honey and intense florals—lilacs and lupines. This juice has lingering acidity, feels oily smooth in the mouth and includes flavors of gin and tonic, tropical fruits and slight nuttiness.
Or try a 16% alcohol Nozzina, also a Vermentino di Gallura Superiore that is a complex and layered beauty—soft as a lemon pie with a creamy/silky texture. For food pairing, consider a plate of pecorino sheep cheese and caramelized figs, or local carasau flatbread. If drinking during a meal, sample with a Sardinian classic dish—culurgiones. These semi-funnel shaped pasta shells are stuffed with ricotta cheese, spinach and fresh mint, or perhaps potatoes, pecorino sheep’s cheese and garlic.
Tasting these wines provides clarity: Vermentino is a chameleon. It can have the sublime mouth feel of a buttery Chardonnay, can be as florally aromatic as a Viognier and can sometimes be as layered as a well-crafted Chablis.
North of the city of Sassari—in northwestern Sardinia—is Sorso, a town and also a wine region that faces northward toward miles of beaches on the gulf of Asinara. It is renowned for its appellation of Moscato di Sorsi-Sennori DOC wine, but also for other wine types.
Mario Bagella is a fifth-generation winemaker with a trimmed beard and bright brown eyes. His grandfather was the first to plant Vermentino grapes in this region. After studying to be an agronomist, Mario convinced his father to sell their family wine in bottles rather than in bulk.
‘I said to my father—enough! We must bottle our beautiful grapes. And so, I jumped into a black hole, and began.’
Mario described the region.
‘Sorso is one of the most important wine areas in Sardinia. There are 1,100 hectares [four square miles] of vines in this region known as Romangia because it was conquered by Romans. Cannonau grapes—in the same family as Grenache—cover 60% of vines here. There is also the Cagnulari red grape—very rare, with only 130 hectares of vines nearby. For whites we have Vermentino, as well as yellow Muscat and dry Muscato.’
Mario’s grapes grow over soils bulging with fossilized shells. They grow without herbicides or insecticides and he drapes seaweed over vineyards to reflect certain wavelengths of sunlight. His wine ferments with indigenous yeast and because he is allergic to sulfites, Mario adds as few as possible. He does not age wine in barrels and keeps it unfiltered.
‘In filtering you lose a lot of years of hard work, could lose 30 percent of the aromas/flavors.’
Bagella sells his family wines to the Netherlands, Denmark, Poland, Lithuania, and Australia as well as to western U.S. states: California, Oregon, Washington. His current production is 25,000 bottles, yet he lacks desire to surpass 30,000 bottles because he wants to keep his work load manageable. His own art work—images of raptors and owls—are on his wine labels.
Bagella’s Isoro line of Vermentino and Cannonau wines comes from grapes up to 12 years old, while his Olieddu estate wines (named after a nearby topographical ridge) originate from vines up to 50 years old for Cannonau, and 35 years for Cagnulari.
Local winds benefit the crop.
‘We are cauterized by exposure from the Mistral wine, which arrives from the northwest. It brings aerosols with salinity all season long to our grapes.’
The Vermentino wines taste silky, with flavors of mandarins, salt and butterscotch, and provide an oily mouthfeel. They are slightly honeyed with beautifully soft flavors.
‘With saltiness on the finish,’ he added.
His upper end 2019 Olieddu Cannonau (Grenache) is a creamy and layered treat, with flavors of cola, cherries, tarragon and treacle as well as maple syrup. It is delicate enough to masquerade aromas of a Pinot Nor. This overt, elegant yet full-bodied wine tastes similar to the Alpine wine from the Lagrein grape, and shares characteristics with Armenian wine made from the Areni grape.
‘Cannonau evolved to be elegant here—with tannins not strong, but very smooth. It’s also versatile because of the salty breeze—which keeps vines dry and healthy. This wine is fruity with spices in the back ground. The wine is easy to drink, but it is not an easy wine.’
Mario also produces a high-end wine from the rare indigenous northern Sardinian Cagnaluri grape. He explained that the reason goes beyond his personal interest in the wine. ‘People are interested in local varieties. They want to discover something new.’
His 2019 Olieddu Cagnaluri includes bright aromas of sage, eucalyptus, Oreo chocolate cookies, tobacco and Marie biscuits and opens up to a wider aroma profile with tar and treacle. It is a complex and layered but soft wine with deft tannins and flavors of chocolate, mint and cherries. In Hong Kong, his importer organizes tastings of this wine with cigars.
Whereas many Sardinian winemakers appear recalcitrant to respond to email or phone calls (in any language), Mario and his family always welcome any curious passerby.
‘My parents live upstairs and my father works with me. We are always open for visitors.’
The northwestern Sardinian city of Alghero has been populated for 6,000 years. Here, Sella Mosca has produced wine for 120 years. It was founded by two men from the Piemonte region of Italy—a wealthy lawyer and an engineer—who visited the island on hunting trips. During these ventures, they noticed how the sandy soil had prevented the spread of the phylloxera louse that decimated European and international vineyards in the 19th century. Recognizing an opportunity, they founded a nursery for vines. Bordeaux soon became their biggest customer.
Tasting notes for several Sella & Mosca wines from Sardinia are below.
Sella & Mosca. La Cala. Vermentino di Sardegna. DOC. 2021. 89-90 points.
Lime colored. Green grass, green apples and gooseberries on the first nose. Some grapefruit and melon included. A honey layered mid palate of mandarins, white plums, peaches and oatmeal. Easy drinking, rounded, with a slightly candied finish. Pair with mussels or with a creamy dessert pastry.
Sella & Mosca. Monteoro. Vermentino di Gallura Superiore. DOCG. 2020. 93+ points.
The color of gold and yellow apples. Mildly effervescent. A bouncy set of green apple, yellow apple, gooseberry, teak and slightly saline aromas. Fresca and honey dew melon mid palate and some mint on the finish. A fun and creamy wine with well enfolded acidity. Pair with a barbecue opening plate of sardines or with a lime doused roasted snapper fish. Light and refreshing, but also layered and soft.
Sella & Mosca. Cannonau di Sardegna. Riserva. DOC. 2019. 93 points.
The color of brick or Nebbiolo in this reserve wine aged for two years; six months of that in wood—a combination of chestnut and oak. A perky Mediterranean set of semi-spicy aromas reminiscent of Nerello Mascalese from Sicily. However, Cannonau is a late ripening grape with aromas of red and black cherries and chocolate biscuits, as well as a slight acidic tang also reminiscent of a Nebbiolo. Red plums, figs, cocoa powder and brandy mid palate and a slab of chocolate and orange slices on the finish. An easy drinking, well-made and well-balanced wine. Good for pairing with charcuterie or wild game or even cheese fondue.
Sella & Mosca. Tanca Farrà. Sardegna Alghero Rosso. 2018.
Light colors of brick and unripe prunes. Hefty aromas of cherry, country lane wet ferns, coal and leather. In the mouth a sleek river of dark black fruit, cocoa and red cherries. Figs on the attack, raspberry, mocha and a bit of cumin and black pepper mid palate, and tarragon, licorice and sage on the finish. Complex, well-structured and semi-beguiling—a vibrant mix of fresh acidity and oily tannins and fruit that includes blueberries, fresh strawberries and prunes. A robust wine to pair with goulash or minestrone soup.
Sella & Mosca. Marchese Villamarina. Alghero Cabernet Riserva. DOC. 2016. 93 to 94 points.
The color of plums and prunes. Semi volatile aromas of cocoa, red cherries, maple syrup, red plums and acorns. A soft, layered and lambent wine mid palate with flavors of maraschino cherries, treacle, golden syrup and strawberries, and with eucalyptus on the finish. Complex and compelling. Pair with sirloin steak or with hand-torn bread loaf chunks slathered in honey and molasses. Rich and delicious—a dessert in the mouth.