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Wine Therapy

A wild Sardinian settles down—and so do his wines
Photo by: Courtesy of Dettori
Alessandro Dettori works harvest with his father, Paolo (left), on the Italian island of Sardinia.

Posted: May 11, 2015 11:00am ET

A decade ago, Alessandro Dettori was a young, crazy winemaker making wild, unpredictable wines on his family's farm at the northwestern tip of Sardinia, off Italy's western coast.

Dettori made surprisingly big reds from what's considered an easy-drinking grape, Monica, and some tamer wines from Cannonau (the local name for Grenache) which typically makes full-bodied inky reds on this Mediterranean island.

They were exciting, often confusing wines—the vinous equivalent of an artist hurling paint at canvas. When you opened a bottle, you quickly understood that they were made by a talented winemaker who definitely had an edge.

Today at 39, Dettori has mellowed. And so have his wines.

"You can live your life in peace or at war," Dettori says, trying to explain his evolution as a winemaker. "I realized I was at war."

Dettori's head is still topped by dark curls, and he often still speaks about wine with messianic urgency. But nowadays he breathes between sentences. He is wearing a jacket and button-down shirt, relaxing after a day pouring his wines at the spring Vinitaly wine fair in Verona.

Dettori grew up on his family's farm atop a panoramic sea-view bluff worthy of a five-star resort; now his parents run a B&B and agriturismo restaurant there. Dettori's father, Paolo, a man with a chiseled face who is as granitic as his son is ethereal, was a shepherd who later opened a wine shop in Alghero. Dettori's grandfather tended the vineyards and made wines that were sold in demijohns (large 5- to 15-gallon jugs known as carboys in the U.S.) to locals and restaurants.

"I never understood how my grandfather made such perfect wine," says Dettori, who worked with his grandfather starting at the age of 12. "He never wanted to bottle wine. To him, wine was something to be drunk without all this ceremony."

Dettori left the farm to study economics and sow his wild oats in the wider world. He was living in Brazil for a brief period in 1998 when he learned his grandfather had died, and he rushed back to Sardinia.

"I needed to make wine because I was the only one who worked with my grandfather," he says. "It was my time."

Dettori took over nearly 148 acres of vineyards, which he eventually culled to 111. After considering international varieties, he set out to duplicate his grandfather's white Vermentinos, as well as reds from Cannonau, Monica (a grape of uncertain origin widely grown in Sardinia) and Pascale (a local grape more often used for blending). 

Dettori worked in his grandfather's cellar, with his 60 small cement tanks used for both fermenting and long aging. He farmed organically, as his grandfather had, didn't filter the wines and added little or no sulfites.

Dettori first showed his wines at Vinitaly in 2000. They were ripe and powerful with alcohol levels upward of 17 percent, and they quickly found a niche following internationally. But he remained unsatisfied.

"They were good wines, but they were chaotic," Dettori says. "Like my life."

Dettori says it took marrying and becoming a father at the end of the decade for him and his wines to settle down. "I finally made the same wine as my grandfather in 2010," he says. "When I tasted it, I cried."

Today, his wines are cleaner and more consistent. There also seems to be more focus to his lineup of seven wines, totaling more than 3,000 cases and all classified as Romangia IGT, one of the island's 35 appellations.

At the heart of Dettori's production are three Cannonau crus: Tuderi is a rich, spicy wine from 50-year-old vines; the more complex and elegant Tenores comes from an 80-year-old site, and the Dettori bottling is a rustic wine with a tinge of sweetness, reminiscent of Amarone, made from vines planted on their own roots in 1883.

Dettori is hard to pin down on how his technique has changed. He still walks a spoilage-tempting tightrope by picking late-harvest fruit, adding little or no sulfites and aging his wines up to three years in cement. He says he racks his wines more often and, once any defect is detected—such as high volatile acidity—he sells that batch off in bulk.

But more than anything, Dettori says, the biggest change has been between his ears: "To make a great wine, you have to accept all. Not just the weather. Everything. You have to accept life."

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