Sardinia, although only slightly smaller than Sicily, produces seven times less wine. Yet, the island lays claim to over a hundred indigenous grape varieties and has more DOCs and IGPs than Calabria and Basilicata combined—the more visible ones being the island-wide Cannonau di Sardegna DOC, Vermentino di Sardegna DOC, and the catch-all Isola dei Nuraghi IGP, which, unusually for an IGP, does not permit varietal labelling. Before you ask, nuraghi are the stone towers built by the mysterious Bronze Age Nuragic civilization, still visible all around the island to stir the imagination. Even within a single DOC, there are often many styles including sparkling, late-harvest, passito, and fortified (dry and sweet). In short, it’s all terribly complicated—but I’ll try to give you some highlights.
The climate is Mediterranean, with hot, dry, summers and short, mild winters. As in Corsica, the sea greatly moderates temperatures and the shifting landscape and diverse soils harbour a variety of distinct terroirs. From 1324 to 1718, the Kingdom of Sardinia came under the Crown of Aragon, and the commoner grape varieties are more Spanish and French than Italian—so not Sangiovese and Trebbiano as you might expect, but Cannonau (Grenache), Vermentino, and Carignan, and even Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. In 1718, Sardinia passed to the House of Savoy, and, with Piedmont, came to form the rump of the Kingdom and later Republic of Italy.
Let’s begin in the granitic northeast with the island’s only, if quite large, DOCG, Vermentino di Gallura (not to be confused with Vermentino di Sardegna DOC). Vermentino di Gallura is made in a range of styles, including sparkling, late-harvest, and passito, although most are dry still wines of varying weight. These are typically fresh and mineral with notes such as white flowers, citrus and stone fruits, green mango, acacia, and sage. Robert Parker described Capichera’s barrique-aged VT (late-harvest) as ‘the best Italian white wine made from native grape varieties and the best Vermentino in the world’, although I found the more delicate and versatile Classico more to my taste.
In the port of Alghero, in the northwest, a dialect of Catalan is still spoken. Many varieties are cultivated on the surrounding calcareous soils, most notably Torbato, a low-yielding variety rescued by Sella e Mosca, which, with Argiolas down south, is one the island’s leading producers. Sella e Mosca’s Terre Bianche Torbato is dry, crisp, and smoky, but also rich and ripe, with notes of melon, pear, white flowers, fennel, ginger, turmeric, aloe vera, and honeycomb, and a lingering, salty finish. A fun pick for a blind tasting, their Alghero Cabernet Sauvignon, Marchese di Villamarina, is bloody, dusty, and savoury, with a long and elegant finish on coffee and dried fruits.
An hour from Alghero, in Sénnori on the other side of Sassari, is Dettori, the only certified biodynamic producer on Sardinia. Their wines, from single vineyards made picturesque by old bush vines, are deep and textured, with, it seems, a life of their own. Father and son work with Cannonau, Vermentino, and Moscato, and two lesser known indigenous reds, Monica and Pascale, which they are keen to rehabilitate. Monica is something of a workhorse grape on Sardinia, easy to cultivate with often very high yields—and therefore mostly associated with soft, simple wines. Pascale, on the other hand, is a rare and demanding breed. While at Dettori, I tasted a 2000 Pascale, which, to my delight, was delicate and silky with notes of pomegranate, cranberries, mushrooms, and dried fruits. I also tasted two vintages of the Vermentino, but, while the 2000 was still alive with notes of dried fruits and nuts, I preferred the vibrant and textured 2019. Still, who knew that 20-year-old Vermentino could be a thing?
While still in Gallura, at Olbios, I sampled some very inspired and off-piste wines, including a 2007 Vermentino part aged under flor. Flor ageing is in fact a tradition of the west coast, more specifically, of Vernaccia di Oristano DOC and Malvasia di Bosa DOC. According to lore, Malvasia was brought back to beautiful Bosa by the returning Knights Templar. The vines thrived in the area’s calcareous soils and the wine became highly prized, notably for holy sacraments: while in Bosa, I was shown a plot owned by the pope. But today the DOC counts just eight small producers and the sparkling styles shift more easily at Christmas.
The people of Sardinia, who are very long-lived, attribute anti-ageing properties to Cannonau, just as they attributed antimalarial properties to Vernaccia di Oristano. Cannonau, it is said, was brought over by the Aragonese, although there is some emerging evidence that it—and therefore Grenache—may have originated in Sardinia. Cannonau is cultivated across the island, although certain areas, such as Mamoiada in the eastern hills, with its old vines and granitic soils, are especially noted for it. Mamoida does not have a DOC of its own, but some 70 vintners, including favourites such as Francesco Cadinu and VikeVike, have recently banded together to form the Mamojà association. Cadinu’s two Perdas Longas cuvées are made from 70- and 120-year-old vines and are superlative in every sense, with almost physical layers of black fruit, plum, tobacco, chocolate, coffee, herbs, and liquorice. I called them ‘wines for giants’ and a burly winemaker I drank with confided, ‘When you go down into Cadinu’s cellar, you don’t know when or if you’ll come up again.’
Another area to watch, although still finding its feet, is Mandrolisai DOC in the central heights, which is noted for blends based on Bovale (similar to Spain’s Bobal), completed by Cannonau and Monica. I lunched with around half of the appellation’s 15 producers. After the final course of porchetta (suckling pig), one asked me: ‘So which was better, the food or the wine?’ But how was I supposed to answer that?
Down in the southwest, the noble Carignano del Sulcis, with its old ungrafted vines in sandy soils overlooking the sea, is surely deserving of a DOCG. Imagine a perfectly balanced Carignan, full of power and restraint, fleshy blueberry to balance the earthy spice, and a sign-off on squid ink… In the Languedoc, Carignan is often blended, so it is unusual to taste a Carignan in purezza. But until the vine pull scheme, Carignan was the most planted grape variety in France. When I gave a Carignano del Sulcis to a friend to blind taste, he put it in Bordeaux and I can see why. But on analysis, it’s earthier, spicier, and softer.
Around the capital city of Cagliari in the south there are a number of varietal DOCs, including for Malvasia, Moscato, Monica, Nasco, Nuragus, and Giro. Nasco (ultimately from the Latin muscus, musk) is a rare indigenous variety that is low yielding and susceptible to rot. The historical style is sweet, though less so than Sauternes, with notes of citrus, cream, and spice, and no botrytis. Incidentally, did you know that Sardinian is the living language closest to Latin?
Let’s end as we would a Sardinian meal, with mirto, a liqueur made from myrtle berries. Red mirto is more common than white, and superior. It is sweet, with intense notes of dried figs, bluebells, maple syrup, juniper, mint, eucalyptus, cloves, and orange zest, and a pointed, bitter almond finish. In fact, many wines I tasted on Sardinia were marked by myrtle, which grows wild on the island. So, for blind tasters, maybe myrtle can be to Sardinia what eucalyptus is to Australia.
See my related article, The Wines of Corsica