Sardinia’s Eclectic Wine Regions—The South, West And East

This is the second of two articles about various Sardinian wine regions—highlighting locations in the south, as well as in the west and east of this island. The first article highlights northern Sardinia, and includes general information about this island and wines.

Vernaccia di Oristano—Western Sardinia

The western Sardinian town of Oristano was previously named Aristanis when ruled by the Byzantine Empire—basically the late Roman Empire when the capital had moved from Rome to Constantinople (Istanbul) in what is now Turkey. This inland town was formed in the 9th century as a refuge for locals wanting to avoid coastal seafaring raids by Saracens from northern Africa. Today the town includes an impressive lone stone tower built in 1290 by King Mariano II as one of four gates that once entered the city.

This city and region are also known for Vernaccia di Oristano—the name of a white Sardinian grape used to make a fortified wine produced in an oxidized style—with air kept in barrels during fermentation. This provides aged characteristics to still young wine. This distinct wine received the first Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) wine status conferred to Sardinia, in 1971. Aged in oak or chestnut, this wine is dry, potent and suave.

A delicatessen owner in Oristano insisted that Vernaccia di Oristano wine does not pair well with food, is drunk only during festivals, is best served as an after dinner digestif and that most people dislike its flavor. Her apologetic behavior was partially understandable in that the wine is truly different (yet her viewpoint was unnecessary because it is also delicious). Here homemade samples—light and dark—are served in shot glasses.

The lighter includes aromas and flavors of candied pears, gingerbread cake and apple cider and is surprisingly easy to drink. The darker version includes aromas of red-hot candies, apple strudel and Moscato wine, and flavors of rum, candied apples and ginger—coated in sleek acidity. Both—whether there is a festival or not—are unique and enjoyable.

Southwest—Carignano del Sulcis

In Sardinia’s southwestern province of Cagliari is located the DOC zone of Carignano del Sulcis, where red and rosé wines are made from the Carignan grape. They are renowned because many vines are pre-phylloxera—hence not grafted onto American vine rootstock. After century phylloxera louse decimated vineyards throughout the world in the 18th century, such grafting solved this international problem. Vines not needing such grafting are rare but still exist on sandy soils, through which the louse cannot tunnel.

The Sulcis region includes the island of Sant’Antioco—joined by road to the mainland. In its northernmost coastal town of Calasetta you can taste a 2019 Marchese di Tabarka Carignano del Sulcis DOC. It includes hefty dark aromas of cola, gunpowder and prunes—a dark surprise reminiscent of a Nerello Mascalese from Sicily meeting a Tuscan Sangiovese. Flavors include those of chocolate, dark plums, mandarins and a hit of minestrone; tannins are assertive but elegant and the background acidity is fiery.

Next—try a more renowned 2017 Cantina Santadi Terru Brune Carignano del Sulcis—a 95/5 blend of Carigna and Bovaleddu from pre-phylloxera vines. It ages in French oak for up to a year and a half. Aromas are brisk and somewhat saline and include those of red plums, some leather, mocha, black cherries and wet granite. This is a layered, well balanced and textured wine with suave tannins and rounded acidity, as well as flavors of cocoa, cooked plums and even beef; on the finish—cherries and morels.

East—Jerzu

Arid and scrub covered portions of southern Sardinia resemble rural Wyoming. Road tunnels here are as serious and prolific (and demographic-altering) as those within the Portuguese Atlantic island of Madeira.

Historically, Sardinian highlands have been associated with stability. Consider that seafood does not form many traditional recipes compared to inland vegetables, meat stews and cheeses. The reasons include the fact that coastal lands were historically prey to marine invasions as well as to malaria—which pushed populations inward to higher elevations to survive.

The hillside town of Jerzu—which has existed since the 12th century—is located at an elevation of about 1,500 feet (450 meters) above sea level in the east central highlands. This is a land of chestnuts, almonds, olive oil and vineyards, as well as rocky outcrops and switchback roads.

Jerzu produces a highland version of Cannonau (Grenache). The wine is renowned enough that a local ‘wine road’ was documented here in the sixteenth century, and today a summer sagra del vino—wine festival—is held annually. Then, locals dress in traditional garb and haul ancient grape carts around the steep town.

As an example of local wine, try a 2017 Josto Miglio Cannonau di Sardegna Jerzu Riserva DOC. It includes zippy and beautiful aromas of red cherries, chocolate brownies, orange peels and even mint crisp. The somewhat huddled fruit flavors—red cherries and plums—are bathed in mouth-watering acidity. The wine is soft and layered, and local eateries, such as Ristorante su Cannonau da Concetta, will serve this (or wine from Cantina Jerzu) with cinghiale in umido—stewed wild boar.

For a classic Sardinian dessert? Try seadas—basically a huge ravioli stuffed with pecorino sheep’s cheese and zested lemon, then deep fried and slathered in honey. For a dessert wine—a Zedda Piras digestif made from myrtle: a black beauty with flavors of nutmeg, cinnamon and white pepper. Scrumptious.

Sardinia is divided into four administrative provinces, and also a sizable portion of land comprising the Metropolitan City of Cagliari in the south. You can find local wines throughout each of these regions. If you live elsewhere, try buying a selection of bottles from different regions of Sardinia; then, cook a dinner with friends. Sample these while trying to find the best map of Sardinia’s wine regions. That will keep you nourished, sated, and curiously analytical at least through dessert.

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