Eye-opening. That is probably the best way to describe our recent trip to Sardinia. If you had asked me what sprung to mind when thinking about the island before we went I would probably have mentioned golden sands, bronzed tourists, clear turquoise waters and the superyachts of the rich and famous. Now that mental image has completely changed and instead of tourist Sardinia, my thoughts now turn to a more rugged, wild Sardinia. A land where gnarly old vines grow within spitting distance of the sea, where wild chamomile and bitter herbs scent the air and where rocky limestone mountains soar over the land to create a spectacular backdrop. In other words, the sort of place we felt sure would produce some great wines – and we weren’t disappointed.
Our first day in Sardinia took us down into the Sulcis region in the southwest of the island. Only an hour’s drive outside the island’s capital, Cagliari, and yet this region felt completely undiscovered by the tourist trail. Little blink-and-you-miss-them towns were surrounded by open land full of wildflowers, scrubby trees and bushes and the occasional field of artichokes. Packs of stray dogs roamed the fields, pink flamingos posed one-legged in the lagoons and ‘fences’ of cactus were used to protect fields from wild boar. And yet here we also got our first taste of Sardinian hospitality and generosity – and the first inkling that Sardinian wine really is worth tracking down.
Luca Fontana from the winery Cantina Mesa was a delightful and generous host, not only treating us to a delicious lunch but also giving us some insights into the region, its people and the wines. Sadly much of this is unrepeatable “this is not for writing!” – but we did also get regaled with some wonderful Luca-isms, such as “there are two ways to know there is a God – bubbly wine and beautiful women”. A native of Milan, Luca moved to work in his uncle’s winery when it was set up 10 years ago, and whilst we got the feeling some aspects of Sardinian life were still an anathema to him, witnessing the pride and joy he took in showing us their vineyards and wines made it clear the importance this region now holds for him. It is not every export manager who will get down on his knees in a vineyard and lovingly caress the vines as if they were his own children.
Cantina Mesa’s vineyards were amongst the oldest we saw on the island, planted in the traditonal ‘albarello’ (bushvine) way. These were truly beautiful vineyards, right next to the sea and full of wild flowers and herbs whose scent hung in the air – and, as we later discovered, also scented the wines. These vines were Carignano – the local name for Carignan – apparently the only variety on the island that can grow this close to the sea. The Vermentino for Mesa’s white wine comes from vineyards further inland to protect it from the salty sea air, which can burn its leaves and grapes.
We tried 7 different wines at Mesa: 3 whites, a rosé, 2 reds and a passito red. Their Opale Vermentino was my pick of the bunch – and turned out to be one of our favourite wines of the trip. It is made from a blend of two vineyard sites: one in Sulcis on sandy soils to give elegance and one in the north of the island on calcareous soils to give more power. The result was a mineral, textured wine with a lovely weight and yellow-fruited core. We were also treated to the 2010 vintage (the current vintage is 2012) – and it was fantastic to see how well Vermentino can age, with an almost Riesling-like petrol nose and then a complex, honeyed palate with chamomile, ginger and still that intense minerality. As Luca said: “you usually give the shoulder to a white wine by ageing in oak” – but here it is that mineral core that gives the structure.
After the Vermentino it was onto the Carignano reds which seemed completely different to any Carignan I had tried before. Full of wild bramble fruit but always with an undertone of herbs and balsamic giving a savoury finish. The Meno Buio Carignano in particular was really delicious: unoaked to allow the primary fruit to shine through, and with a lovely smooth texture and bright acidity. Perhaps not as complex as the Buio Buio which sees some time in oak, but exceedingly drinkable.
We left Mesa on a bit of a high, excited about what we had tasted and learnt – and looking forward to our visits to follow. The second winery we visited in Sulcis was Agricola Punica – and this proved to be a completely different style to Mesa, neatly showing how diverse the wines from this one region can be even when based on the same varieties.
Punica is a joint venture set up in 2002 between Santadi, a local co-op, and Sassicaia, one of Tuscany’s greatest estates. Instead of producing the more typical single varietal wines of the region, they decided to follow the Sassicaia model of making blended wines as their point of difference. So here the native Carignano and Vermentino are the main components and are blended with well-known international varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Syrah for the reds and Chardonnay for the white. As these grapes are not widely grown on the island, this involved replanting all of their vineyards between 2003 and 2007 and the 1000 year old olive trees in the vineyards now stand watch over neat rows of trained vines.
Perhaps aided by the association to Sassicaia, Punica is also unusual for the fact that it exports a full 80% of production (compared to 20% for Mesa). I am sure the inclusion in the blend of some well known grape varieties make these wines more understandable to overseas consumers. Indeed, Punica is the only Sardinian wine I had tasted prior to visiting the island – in my previous life at The Sampler we used to sell one of their reds.
The wines themselves were obviously well made: very polished and supple, powerful yet balanced and with a lick of sweet oak on the reds. Whilst for me they perhaps lacked the personality of the Mesa wines – with the inclusion of international varieties overshadowing the wild herbal complexity I had so enjoyed – I can see how these would be very popular wines. In particular the fresh, crisp ‘Samas’ white with only 12% alcohol would go down a treat whilst anchored in a bay in the summer. I wonder if perhaps in a few years once the vines get a bit older if the terroir of the region will shine through more and that herbal complexity may show itself in the wines?
I shall leave my fellow monkeys to fill you in on the rest of our trip when we tasted old vine Cannonau in a truly garagiste winery and discovered some new-to-us varieties: Bovale, Monica, Nuragus and Nasco. Sardinia was eye-opening in many ways and I now look forward to tracking down some of the wines over here and sharing them with other people.
If you fancy tasting any of these wines yourselves, Cantina Mesa is distributed in the UK through Liberty Wines and Agricola Punica through Armit Wines. You can search for stockists via www.wine-searcher.com