Rare Grapes and an Unknown Land

Sardinia – An Italian island eager to join the international wine scene
by Steve Thurlow

Steve Thurlow

Steve Thurlow

Given that it is the second-largest island in the Mediterranean, it is remarkable that Sardinia is relatively unknown to most Canadians. Even among those Canadians who can trace their origins to Italy, there are few who have a past that includes Sardegna, as the island is called by the inhabitants. So it is not surprising that its wines are equally obscure to us. In fact it was the only wine producing region in Italy that I had never visited in nearly 40 years of global wine travel. So I was pleased to be invited to join a group of eight wine writers from Canada to spend three days last November on this large island that lies about 250km southwest of Rome.

It is not clear why Sardegna has been slow to join the international wine scene. It is distinct from the rest of Italy in that it was ruled for around 400 years until 1708 by Aragon, now part of modern Spain. This probably explains why its most widely planted red grape is cannonau (known as garnacha in Spain or grenache in the rest of the world). Cannonau is rare on the nearby Italian mainland despite, I am told, being the most widely planted red grape in the world. Moreover vermentino, the island’s most popular white grape, is supposedly a form of malvasia that also came from Spain.

Rare grapes and an unknown land made for an exciting three days in the northern part of the island.

The best vermentino comes from the northeastern corner, Gallura. So it was there that we started our exploration at the Cantina Gallura in Tempio Pausania. This is clearly a very poor part of the country with many small homes that stood in sharp contrast to the opulence of the Costa Smeralda, but more about that later.

The cantina makes several wines from vermentino and its wine shop displays the dozens of prizes it has received from wine competitions all over the world.

Cantina Gallura

My favourite was the Cantina di Gallura 2013 Canayli Vermentino di Gallura Superiore. It has a dry floral peachy nose, a rich minerally palate and very good length. A great seafood wine. It is not available at present in Canada but can be found in the USA for around $20.

After tasting wines at the winery we were whisked away in the fog to the nearby Ristorante Il Melograna da Claudio in Nuchis for one of the best seafood meals I have ever had. The menu consisted of the freshest seafood and delicious combinations of Sardegnan cuisine carefully prepared by chef Claudio. The service and atmosphere were superb, such that it could have been a fantastic eating experience matched to the wines of the Cantina. Unfortunately we were all exhausted from the travel, trying to stay awake having crossed the Atlantic with little sleep for 36 hours. It was frustrating that the trip planners timed this meal just after our arrival from Canada.

Pedres - Wine DispenserThe next day after a good sleep, there was a visit to a couple of wineries – Piero Mancini and Cantina Pedres. Piero Mancini makes a delightful sparkling Vermentino di Gallura Spumante Brut which has a fresh floral, mineral, lemon, baked pear nose with a soft elegant palate and long pure finish; a good reception wine. They have hopes of sales in Newfoundland.

We had an excellent buffet lunch at Pedres where, while tasting their wines, I noticed this wine dispensing apparatus.

It looks a bit like a gas station pump. Locals arrive with a plastic can, like one does for gas in Canada, and you purchase by the litre. It is €2 per litre for red or white, that’s about C$2 per bottle, tax included.

After lunch we went to visit the millionaire’s playground of the Costa Smeralda. The area was developed in the 1960s by an investment consortium led by Prince Karim Aga Khan. With white sand beaches, golf clubs, private jet and helicopter services and exclusive hotels, the area has drawn celebrities, business leaders and other affluent visitors.

Costa Smeralda is now the most expensive location in Europe for real estate. House prices of over $400,000 per square meter have been reported.

If you are just visiting, the Presidential suite at the Hotel Cala di Volpe can be yours for C$37,000 for the night. There are discounts for longer stays.

Porto Cervo, the largest community, has a resident population of 421 very wealthy inhabitants. It was created to resemble a fishing village on the shores of a  natural harbour. To me, it felt like touring a very large film set; a sort of make-believe village that could occupy part of Disneyland.

Porto Cervo

Anyway after hearing stories of billionaires and film stars it was time to get back on mission and taste some more local wines.

The Surrau winery is close to all this splendour and it fits right in. It is a stunning modern winery built by three brothers who are all active in the local construction industry.

It is built on the site of their grandfather’s farm and is called Surrau after the name of the valley in which it is located.

Surrau Winery Visitors Centre

The visitor area is opulent and the winery is modern and  splendidly equipped with the latest that technology can deliver. The wines are also very impressive.

Surrau 2012 Cannonau di Sargenga Sincaru is a deep ruby red with a rich fruity nose and palate with white pepper, raspberry and strawberry fruit. It sells in the USA for around $30.

Surrau Isola Dei Nuraghi Rosso 2012 Surrau Sciala Vermentino Di Gallura 2013The single vineyard Surrau Sciala 2013 Vermentino di Gallura has a floral nose of white peach and baked lemon with a minerally firm rich fruity palate. Most impressive was Surrau 2012 Isola dei Nuraghi Rosso. This is a blend of cannonau, carignano and cabernet sauvignon with 10% of the local grape muristellu. It is a lively, fruity, fresh well-structured cool climate red with smoky, savoury, cherry and cranberry jelly aromas and flavours and excellent length. Both are available in Ontario for $27.95 through WineWire.ca. After supper at the winery we left our hosts for the hotel. It had been another very long day.

Our final day was spent driving back across the north of the island to Alghero, where we had landed two days before, to visit the Sella & Mosca winery. The trip organizers had left the best to last. This winery was established in 1899 and was initially planted with over 1600 different grape varieties. Experimentation over the years has reduced this to less than 20 today. The estate has around 520 hectares planted  making it the largest on the island.

The soil is still incredibly rocky. Even after over a hundred years of cultivation and rock removal, rocks still keep appearing out of the ground.

Altogether they have 1200 hectares of vines on the island making Sella & Mosca one of Italy’s largest wineries.

Sella & Mosca became part of the Campari group in 2002. Subsequent investment in the property and equipment is starting to show in the quality of the wines.

Campari also has a vast distribution network which means that wines from the property are widely available throughout the world. In Canada, Quebec has been their most successful market in terms of numbers of wines but Ontario is important from a volume perspective, with Sella & Mosca 2010 Riserva Cannonau Di Sardegna as a VINTAGES Essentials for many years.

Sella & Mosca Riserva Cannonau Di Sardegna 2010 Sella & Mosca Marchese Di Villamarina Alghero 2009 Sella & Mosca Terre Rare Carignano Del Sulcis Riserva 2009 Sella & Mosca Capocaccia 2010

The flagship wine is Sella & Mosca Marchese Di Villamarina. The 2009 vintage of this cabernet sauvignon would not be out of place in a line-up of top quality Bordeaux.

They also produce a wine from carignan, Sella & Mosca 2009 Terre Rare Carignano del Sulcis Riserva, that is in the stores in Quebec, as is the Sella & Mosca 2010 Capocaccia, Alghero Rosso.

The latter is a beautiful blend of cannonau with cabernet sauvignon. It is elegant and well balanced with excellent length.

The winery is a delight to visit with massive underground cellars and a fascinating museum of artifacts that have been found on the estate. The remains of a stone-age necropolis have yielded many interesting finds, copies of which can be seen at the winery.

Sella & Mosca winerySella & Mosca winery

We packed a lot into the three days spent in the north of Sardinia. I enjoyed the fresh, pure, rich Vermentino do Gallura whites and the island’s reds, mostly based on cannonau. I hope to return one day to see the southern part of the island better known for reds wines from the Cagliari and Sulcis areas.

Thanks are due to the Italian Trade Commission for organizing the trip and to our many hosts on the island. The welcome we received, the hospitality, the meals and the wines were exceptional. I wish them every success as they strive to market their wines in Canada.

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