Sardinia is taking over the conversation
Italy’s two largest wine producing islands share much in common. Sardinia and Sicily both hold strategic positions in the Mediterranean and, as a result, were occupied and settled throughout history by numerous different peoples whose influences are still evident and present. Both islands possess incredibly beautiful landscapes and delicious and diverse cuisines which have made them popular tourist destinations, and both are home to a plethora of indigenous grape varieties.
Sicily, though, unlike Sardinia, did experience a significant period of misguided infatuation with producing wine from international grape varieties (and to some extent, still does).
Over the past two decades, Sicily has attracted the larger share of attention from the wine industry, press and consumers. While the wine spotlight on Sicily continues to shine, Sardinia is deservedly receiving a greater share of the light, perhaps in part because of the renewed interest in all native Italian grapes, but undoubtedly due to the evolution of the quality of Sardinian wines produced by family operated estates and the island’s many cooperatives which are among the country’s finest.
Cannonau, a local biotype of Grenache, may receive the most attention, but there is growing interest in many indigenous varieties such as Monica, Cagnulari, Nieddera, Nasco, Nuragus, Semidano and Vernaccia di Oristano, all of which are capable of producing wines that are very good quality, interesting and distinct. The wines that arguably best define Sardinia, though, may well be those produced from Vermentino.
Vermentino is grown throughout the western Mediterranean in numerous regions and is known by a multitude of synonyms. Liguria’s Pigato and Piedmont’s Favorita may be genetically identical to Vermentino, but look, act (viticulturally) and taste distinctively different. Vermentino grown in the south of France is known as Rolle, Verlantin and Malvoisie a Gros Grains. The grape is also grown in Corsica and there are many examples from the Tuscan coast.
But, in my opinion, the expressions that highlight Vermentino’s most appealing qualities of freshness, salinity, drinkability and food versatility are grown predominantly in Sardinia.
According to many of the producers I recently visited on the island, Vermentino is a variety that loves the sun and heat, does well in poorly fertile soils and tolerates well salty maritime winds — conditions, not coincidentally, characteristic of Sardinia. While typical characteristics of Vermentino tend towards crisp, floral, tropical fruit, salty and lightly herbal (some say reminiscent of Sauvignon Blanc), many different expressions and styles are produced in Sardinia. The differences result from the diversity of soil types and microclimates that exist on the island as well as the different viticultural and winemaking techniques utilized by producers. I tasted the gamut — from sparkling, still, sweet, light and fresh, rich and fresh, linear, textured, rich and alcoholic, oaked, unoaked, extended skin contact and aged on the lees with varying degrees of batonnage.
Site, not surprisingly, plays a significant role. On Sardinia’s northeastern tip in Gallura, the soils are mostly granite, resulting in wines with weight and complexity, but also, when not overdone, intense, bright, linear, mineral, saline and with a bitter almond finish. The cold, northwesterly mistral wind blows in across the sea from southern France, contributing to the salinity and freshness of the wines. This area is home to Vermentino di Gallura, Sardinia’s only DOCG. It is apparent that many producers in the area are experimenting with extended skin contact and varying degrees of oak — some interesting, some still finding their way and some not so successful as by doing too much to the wine, the essence of the grape is masked.
The interior of the island is mostly rocky, the northern and southern areas are typically limestone, the south-central area is rich in clay, while the central western area is predominantly sandy. Elevation and the location of the vineyard sites in relation to the sea also affect the character of the wines. The maritime breezes that blow salty air through the vineyards often leave salt deposits on the vines and grapes. The winds also aid in keeping the grapes dry and healthy, which facilitates sustainable farming practices.
In general, I found the quality of the fruit grown on most of the island to be excellent. The inconsistency in the conviction of the producers is surprising, though. There are several outstanding wines being produced, many very good wines, and some which just make you wonder, particularly when the producers themselves can’t seem to explain the over-ripe, over-oaked and over-manipulated styles. (Often the explanation is that this is what they believe the market wants. But, it should be clear, by chasing market trends, one will always be chasing the market and will never actually catch and lead it.)
Producers such as Sella & Mosca, Cantina Santa Maria la Palma and Argiolas are, in many ways, the leaders in terms of quality and international commerce and promotion. There are several Tuscan Vermentinos available in the Canadian market (more than from Sardinia), but, in my opinion, most of the Tuscan examples tend to be somewhat flat in comparison to their Sardinian counterparts.
The most significant issue with Sardinia is that they haven’t done and don’t do a good job of promoting themselves, partly because, according to the producers themselves, there is a reluctance for them to work together. This is unfortunate as the island is stunning, with many outstanding wines, food comparable to Italy’s finest and it possesses a rich culture and history with archeological sites covering the island. Sardinia has a story to tell and its wines, led by Vermentino, can be the conduit.
Vermentino wines are approachable, pleasurable and gastronomically versatile. The cachet of Tuscany is taking shelf space and wine list placements away from several higher quality Sardinian examples. Sardinian producers need to work collectively and collaboratively to earn the placements they deserve for not just Vermentino, but for so many of the wines composed of its wealth of native grapes.
There are too many good grapes grown on the island and there is too much potential for the region to be as underrepresented as it is. We need more Sardinia.
Cantina del Vermentino Funtanaliras Vermentino di Gallura DOCG 2017 ($28)
Fresh with ample amounts of ripe pear and a touch of pineapple, salty and minerally with a finish of bitter almonds.
Cantina Tani Taerra Vermentino di Gallura DOCG 2017 ($32)
Grown at 350 metres, the wine is fresh and textural, slightly rich, salty, long and persistent and quite alluring.
Unmaredivino di Sini Gioacchino Bianco Smeraldo Vermentino di Gallura Superiore DOCG 2017 ($28)
Pretty and elegant with a restrained fruitiness, lovely mineral and salinity with richness, but still fresh and bright and pleasantly bitter on the finish.
Audarya Vermentino di Sardegna DOC 2017 ($25)
Fresh, delicate and lightly floral with citrus and mineral and lifted finish.
Sella&Mosca Cala Reale Vermentino di Sardegna DOC 2017 ($22)
Citrus, pineapple and tropical fruit, fresh and clean with a hint of salinity.
Cantina Santa Maria la Palma Akenta Vermentino di Sardegna Vino Spumante DOC 2016 ($36)
Complex, textural and floral with aromas of crusty bread, bright acidity, fresh salinity, elegant bubbles with a long, persistent finish.