“People can’t find Sardinia on a map,” complained Valentina Argiolas, a member of the family that owns Sardinia’s leading winery. She was speaking literally in describing the fundamental hurdle producers need to overcome to sell their wines. At a recent tasting and seminar of Sardinian wines in San Francisco and again in Japan, she was mortified when the map the organizers projected onto the screen failed to show Italy’s second largest island. “There was the boot and Sicily, but Sardinia was nowhere to be found,” she said, lamenting that Sardinians constantly need to remind people that they are part of Italy.
Squabbling among producers has led to bizarre wine regulations that act as a further impediment to consumers even recognizing Sardinia’s wines. All over Italy, regulations for IGT (Indicazione Geografica Typica) wine (one category level below the DOC or Denominazione di Orignie Controllata) wines allow producers to label wines using the name of the grape and the name of the region. For example, Bottles labeled Sangiovese di Toscana or Nero d’Avola di Sicilia IGT give the consumer a clear indication of the grape and its origin. Contrast that with Sardinia, where the IGT wines are prohibited from using either the name of the grape or the name of the island. That’s because many producers feel that using Vermentino or Sardegna for an IGT wine would dilute the significance of the island’s two major DOC wines, Vermentino di Sardegna and Cannonau di Sardegna.
As a result, IGT wines from Sardinia are labeled with proprietary names and Isola dei Nuraghi (instead of Sardegna), after the name of the bronze-age stone structures located on the island, the most important of which, Barumini, is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The problem is that few people know about the Nuraghi. My informal, admittedly unscientific poll turned up a zero name recognition rate among 10 graduate-school educated individuals.
This bickering hurts consumers because it needlessly complicates and obscures Sardinian wines. And that’s a shame because many Sardinian wines are as unique and noteworthy as the island’s stunning emerald green water and gorgeous beaches.
The Indigenous Grapes
The vast majority of Sardinia’s vineyards are planted to indigenous varieties, such as Vermentino and Cannonau, though some wineries, such as Agricola Punica (the newly-established partnership between the owners of Sassicaia and Santadi and Sella & Mosca, the island’s largest producer) are using international varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon.
Vermentino, which makes a clean and lively, slightly aromatic wine perfect for the island’s abundant seafood, is Sardinia’s primary white grape and is gaining tremendous worldwide attention. While most Vermentino is light, breezy and lemony, such as Argiolas’ Costamolino or Sella and Mosca’s La Cala (each about $12 and both DOC Vermentino di Sardegna), Argiolas also makes a more full-bodied one, called “Is Argiolas” (about $17 and DOC Vermentino di Sardegna), still with excellent acidity and verve, but with an almost pear-like spice and texture that holds up to more intensely flavored seafood or chicken dishes.
The Phoenicians brought the less well-known white Nuragus grape to Sardinia, where it grows only at the southern end of the island. The last white grape to be harvested, it makes a dry but rich and concentrated aromatic DOC wine (Nuragus di Cagliari) with good acidity that can weigh in at 15 percent alcohol.
The origin of Cannonau, Sardinia’s most important grape, accounting for 20 percent of the island’s production, is uncertain. Conventional wisdom says it is the same as the Spanish Garnacha and was brought to the island when Spain’s Aragon ruled Sardinia. The Sardinians dispute that and point to archeological evidence that it existed on Sardinia around 1000 B.C., well before Aragon’s domination, which raises the intriguing possibility that Garnacha in Spain–and perhaps Grenache in France–originated on Sardinia.
Other red varieties include Modica, which makes a fruity red wine, Carignano (likely related or identical to Spain’s Cariñena and France’s Carignan), Malvasia Nera, and Bovale Sardo, which, with its small berries, is decidedly different from the Bovale Grande, which is thought to be identical to the Spanish grape, Bobal.
Argiolas: The Island’s Locomotive
Unlike Tuscany, fine wine never played an important role in Sardinian culture. The hot dry island was known more as a source of high-power red wines sold in bulk for blending with thinner wines from northern Italy or other parts of Europe. But that is changing, in large measure due to Argiolas, which like Antinori or Frescobaldi in Tuscany or Gaja in Piedmont, is the locomotive pulling Sardinian wines into the modern age.
Antonio Argiolas started the still family-owned company in 1937 with a 7.5-acre farm in the southern end of the island. He was a merchant at heart and for years he traveled from Sardinia to Genoa selling cheese, olives, bulk wine and fruit. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Antonio’s son Giuseppe, and Giuseppe’s uncle took the reins, collaborated with famed Italian enologist Giacomo Tacchis and made the now-common progression of reducing yields to focus on quality over quantity and of moving from bulk to bottled wines. The estate, now run by the third generation of Argiolas, currently has 575 acres under vine and produces about 2.4 million bottles annually, exclusively from indigenous varieties.
Valentina noted that the feisty Antonio may have turned the daily management over to others, but until he died at the age of 103 a few years ago, he still negotiated the prices of the family’s wines with Leonardo LoCasio, the president of Winebow, Argiolas’ American distributor.
Argiolas’ research and innovation has focused on the challenges of making top-notch wine in an inhospitable climate. This summer, for example, they had only two days when it rained briefly, which must have seemed like a downpour compared to 2003, when they had no rain for six months. Sophisticated measuring devices affixed to the trunks of the vines or implanted in the soil determine when and how much irrigation is needed. In their experimental vineyard, they study clones of indigenous varieties to see which are best adapted to particular climates and soils.
The southern part of the island is reminiscent of Châteauneuf-du-Pape with its arid sun soaked climate and vineyards composed of obviously different soils practically next to each other. Even non-geologists will notice the change from white limestone infused plots to ones rich in black lava, a marker of the volcanoes that were active on the island thousands of years ago. As with Châteauneuf-du-Pape, different varieties are planted in close proximity depending on the soil, and the resulting wines are then blended. Despite a hot climate that results in abundant sugar in the grapes and corresponding relatively high alcohols, the wines are balanced because, like the Grenache in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the Cannonau and the other local red varieties are capable of making wines that carry the alcohol harmoniously.
Argiolas’ currently available line up is a superb example of the range of blended red wines coming from the island. All carry proprietary names and the IGT Isola dei Nuraghi designation. Each is based primarily on one of the indigenous varieties with complementary ones that add complexity.
The 2009 “Perdera” (about $16), based mostly on Monica, is fruity with soft tannins and could easily be served chilled. Its easy-to-drink character makes it a good choice this Thanksgiving.
The 2009 “Costera” (about $16), a Cannonau-based wine, is more herbal, pleasantly rustic, with an engaging combination of earth and dark fruit. Easy to recommend, it, like the Perdera, can be enjoyed upon release without additional bottle aging.
The 2007 “Korem” (about $45), a rich blend of Bovale Sardo (50%) and equal parts Carignano and Cannonau, conveys a bolder, slightly tarry signature without being over the top. It’s surprisingly graceful for its size.
Their top-of-the-line wine, “Turriga” (about $80), is formidable and shows the tremendous potential of Sardinian wines. The 2004, a finely polished barrique-aged blend of primarily (85%) old vine Cannonau and roughly equal amounts of Carignano, Bovale Sardo and Malvasia Nera, has power and elegance. It expands in the glass with time, suggesting it would benefit from additional bottle aging.
Valentina is optimistic despite the challenges. “Ten years ago, few people knew the varieties of Cannonau and Vermentino. We have come a long way.” Given the quality of the wines, I suspect they will go much further.
November 15, 2011