A Tasting of Red Wines from Sardinia

The island of Sardinia (Sardegna) lies off the west coast of central Italy. With its rugged mountains, rocky coasts and dazzling beaches accentuated by enigmatic pre-historic stone structures, Sardinia has long been a popular destination for Italian and other European tourists. However, Sardinia is not particularly well known to most Americans and not on the American travel industry's radar screens.  For most Americans, Sardinia is probably the least well known of all Italy’s regions.

The same may be said for Sardinia’s progressive and dynamic wine industry. It has a long and diverse wine history that is, like the Sardinians themselves, complex and multi-layered. With its warm Mediterranean climate, hilly terrain, volcanic soil, sunny dry climate and mollifying sea breezes, Sardinia is an ideal place for growing wine grapes. Grapes have been grown on Sardinia for thousands of years and the island's wines were much prized by the ancient Greeks and other bygone Mediterranean civilizations.

However, it may be an understatement to say that Sardinian wines have not been held in high regard over most of modern history. That is, until the 1970s when some progressive producers began to undertake initiatives designed to improve the quality of their wines. Spurred by subsidies from the European Union as well as by demands for better quality wines from its wealthy and sophisticated tourist trade as well as just plain old regional pride, some progressive producers began to reduce vineyard yields and grape outputs as well as improve vineyard and winemaking procedures, all designed to enhance the overall quality of wines produced.

As these quality-focused initiatives began to take hold and gain critical mass, the overall quality of Sardinian wines improved dramatically. Privately run, thoroughly modern vineyards and wineries focused on quality rather than quantity slowly began to supplant the cooperative wineries that historically produced vast quantities of mediocre wine.

Today, Sardinia has one DOCG wine, Vermentino di Gallura, 19 DOC zones and 15 IGT zones. Given its relatively hilly topography that limits its available wine area, Sardinia’s relatively large number of certified wine categories denotes a significant attention to quality.

Sardinia’s best known red grape is Cannonau, a relative of the Granacha grape that originally came from Spain, and its most famous white grape is Vermentino, a dry white variety grown primarily in northern Sardinia that is also of Spanish origin.  Another red variety that is becoming increasingly popular is Carignano. Known as Carignan in France, this variety achieves its greatest potential in the Sulcis area in southwestern Sardinia where it produces a spicy and rich wine known as Carignano del Sulcis. But Sardinia’s vineyards include a wide range of grapes, including familiar international varieties such as Cabernet and Chardonnay, and lesser-known local varietals such as Monica, Bovale Sardo and Nuragus. All of these varieties, particularly the local varieties, have contributed to enhancing the reputation of Sardinian wines on the international market.

I recently sponsored a tasting of red wines from Sardinia. It was a mixed collection of wine varieties that included several Cannonau Sardinia wine bottlesand Carignano del Sulcis-based wines in addition to some blended wines incorporating other grape varieties. The wines ranged in price from inexpensive to some of the best and most expensive that Sardinia has to offer. This was an informal, walk-around tasting where people where people were free to chat with one another about the wines. The wines were tasted blind and while there were some clear favorites, there was no formal ranking of the wines or point scores. This was not the point of the tasting; rather, the objective was simply to better acquaint a group of wine enthusiasts with the styles and varieties of the wines of Sardinia.

My notes on the wines (in alphabetical order) are as follows:

Argiolas, “Perdera” 2008 (about $17)
From the highly respected family winery in southwestern Sardinia not far from the regional capital of Cagliari comes this earthy and interesting wine. Made primarily from the indigenous red Monica grape with the addition of small amounts of Carignano and Bovale Sardo, the Perdera is a full-bodied, earthy, robust red that doesn’t hold anything back. But its jammy black fruit flavors are balanced with good acidity and ripe tannins that keep you coming back for more. This red is a great introduction to the wines of Sardinia and a terrific value at this price.

Argiolas, “Turriga” Isola di Nuraghi Cannonau IGT 2005 (about $70)
This is the flagship wine of the Argiolas estate and a shining star in Sardinia’s wine firmament. Argiolas’s “Turriga” is a seductive blend of some of Sardinia’s most engaging red grape varieties – Cannonau, Carignano, Bovale Sardo and Malvasia Nera. Notice that none of the elements of the blend are international/foreign grapes, a confident declaration by the folks at Argiolas that purely local grapes are all that’s necessary for producing a complex world-class wine.  The blended wine is aged for 12-14 months in new French oak barriques and then spends an additional 12-14 months in the bottle prior to release.

The Argiolas family has long been leaders in the Sardinian wine industry. They have been assisted in their quality-driven initiatives by the renowned consulting winemaker Giacomo Tachis, a native of the island famous for his role in producing Sassicaia and other great super-Tuscan wines. Giacomo Tachis was recently named Decanter Magazine’s Wine Man of the Year 2011.

The 2005 Turriga has an effusively rich and complex bouquet with generous notes of plums and dark berries. It is full-bodied and concentrated with firm tannins yet has a refined, sleek mouth feel and a finish that never seems to end. This is a serious red wine that really delivers the goods.

Cantina di Santadi, “Grotta Rossa” Carignano del Sulcis 2007 (about $12)
Located in the Sulcis area of the scenic southwestern corner of Sardinia, Cantina di Santadi is one of those rare Italian gems, a cooperative winery that after an uneven start is now dedicated to producing quality wines from primarily local, indigenous varieties. Like the Argiolas estate, this quality-driven cooperative has also enjoyed a long-term consulting relationship with the consulting winemaker Giacomo Tachis.

Santadi’s “Grotta Rossa” is a great and inexpensive introduction to the Carignano varietal. This spicy red is made entirely from Carignano and has lively acidity and soft tannins accentuated with subtle herbal notes in the finish. This medium-bodied wine has an astonishing depth of flavor and complexity that you wouldn’t normally associate with a wine this inexpensive. It is a great alternative to the more popular and overpriced Chianti wines that line wine shop shelves.  It would be ideal served with roast veal or pork tenderloin dishes.

Cantina di Santadi, “Terre Brune” Carignano del Sulcis Superiore 2001 (about $60)
This is the Santadi cooperative’s top wine and one of southern Italy’s most celebrated red wines. It is made primarily with Carignano with the addition of a small amount (5 percent) of Bovaleddu, another native red variety. The grapes are hand-selected from the best vineyards and the wine is aged in French barriques for 16 to 18 months.  It has compelling, textured aromas of red cherries and cedar. Intense and lavish with black fruit and plum flavors and tongue-coating fruit tannins, this full-bodied, polished, elegant wine will appeal to the hedonist that lies concealed in each of us.

Cantina di Santadi, “Shardana” Valli di Porto Pino Carignano IGT 2005 (about $30)
This fascinating wine is a joint venture between the prominent cooperative producer Santadi and U. S. importers Neil and Maria Empson. This exuberant wine is a blend of 85 percent Carignano and 15 percent Shiraz and spends 12 months ageing in barriques. The result is a very dark and intense wine with black cherry fruit flavors with subtle notes of vanilla, figs and kitchen spices. It’s rich and concentrated but with sufficient fruit tannins to keep everything in balance. While the competition was tight and no formal rankings of wines were kept, it was clear that this was our tasting group’s favorite wine of the evening. As one member of the group commented, “there’s a lot to love here!” Open at least two hours and decant prior to serving.

Sardus Pater, Carignano del Sulcis – Canai Riserva 2005 (about $32)
The Sardus Pater winery is located on the small island of San’Antioco, located a short distance southwest of Sardinia. It’s a cooperative winery with about 280 members that emphasizes production of Carignano-based wines although they also produce other wines such as Vermentino and Moscato. Their premier red wines come primarily from 60 to 80 year old, low-yielding Carignano vines. The cooperative winery has engaged one Assorted corks from tasting of Sardinia winesof Italy’s most successful wine consultants, Riccardo Cotarella, as consulting enologist/winemaker.

The Canai Carignano del Sulcis is vinified in steel for 15 days, aged in barriques for 10 months and then spends 6 months in the bottle prior to release. The wine has a pretty, deep purple color that leads to inviting and complex aromas of plums and sweet cherries. This medium to full-bodied Carignano delivers plenty of fruit, structure, balance and polished tannins. It’s a real charmer.

Tenute Soletta, Cannonau di Sardegna Riserva DOC 2003 (about $28)
Located in the Sassari province in northwestern Sardinia, an area known primarily for the quality of its Vermentino wines, winemaker and owner Umberto Soletta has been crafting highly-regarded red as well as white wines since 1996.

Soletta’s Cannonau di Sardegna Riserva is only produced in outstanding vintage years. It is full bodied, ripe and juicy with bright cherry and kitchen spice flavors, soft tannins and a long, flavorful finish. This wine goes well with grilled red meats, game dishes and aged cheeses. This wine is hard to find in the U.S. but well worth the effort.


©Richard Marcis

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