Sardinia, an island off the western coast of Italy, has everything it needs to produce great wines. But compared with the rest of Italy, it has only recently begun to explore its potential.
For the intrepid wine-lover, Sardinia offers a chance to dive into a little-known wine region that's really starting to shine. For more risk-averse wine-drinkers, the island need not be completely unfamiliar territory; unlike many Italian wine regions, Sardinia's primary varieties are French and Spanish grapes-albeit with Italian aliases.
Grenache and Carignan, grapes that are cultivated widely across southern France and Spain, make up about 50 percent of plantings in Sardinia, where they're known as Cannonau and Carignano, respectively. The white Vermentino, which goes by Rolle in France's Provence and Rhône regions, accounts for another 25 percent. Remaining plantings are a hodgepodge of the obscure (Monica and Nasco), the ubiquitous (Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah) and the quintessentially Italian (Vernaccia and Malvasia).
This medley reflects Sardinia's place in history. The island has belonged to a number of different empires over the centuries, and its location in the Tyrrhenian Sea made it easily accessible to the influence of everyone from travelers to invaders. But while the surounding mainland countries—Italy, France and Spain—all have long-established and strongly ingrained wine cultures (in certain places dating back millennia), wine only took root in Sardinia in the past few centuries.
Wine production on Sardinia was driven by cooperative wineries for much of the last century, and in a more contemporary and remodeled format, they still play an important role in the island's winemaking. In the past, the cooperatives mostly produced inexpensive plonk—wine that was high in alcohol and lacking balance, made from grapes harvested at high yields, with little attention to the details of fine winemaking. A small number of pioneers saw the possibility for more from Sardinian wine, and today practices in the vineyards and cellars have largely improved.
"In the mind of older people in this area, it's still hard to make the change," explains Luca Fontana, export director for the young Cantina Mesa winery, of the difficulties of adjusting vineyard management and production to quality winemaking. "A green harvest means a loss of yield. No chemicals means extra work."
Given the past century's prevailing mentality, it's not surprising that the former image of Sardinian wine was not very good. Over time, sales dropped and many vineyards were abandoned, the effects of which can still be felt today. Sardinia produces the smallest quantity of wine of any Italian wine region, and only a small percent of the island's 9,300 square miles are under vine, despite a wealth of vine-friendly terrain.
Part of Sardinia's great potential lies in the diversity of its terroir, which producers are exploring. Currently, most of the region's vineyards lie on the western side of the island, but the Vermentino di Gallura DOCG in the island's northeastern corner is successful, and there is opportunity to spread farther. Sardinia's topography offers potential vineyard sites both at elevation and on the plains, as well as locations along the coast, with strong maritime influence, and in more protected inland areas. Soil types range from sand and gravel to decomposed granite, limestone and more.
This small region currently boasts one DOCG appellation, 19 DOCs and 15 IGTs, a profusion that testifies to Italy's belief in the potential of Sardinia's wines (as well as the Italian love of bureaucracy). Along with the Vermentino di Gallura DOCG, look for bottlings from the Cannonau di Sardegna, Carignano del Sulcis and Vermentino di Sardegna DOCs, as well as the Isola dei Nuraghi IGT. All these designations deliver impressive bottlings from a number of different wineries.
In terms of reaching a broader audience and finding general recognition for high quality wine production, Sardinian producers are still near the start of what could be a long road ahead. But the island's winemakers are already beginning to realize the potential, with exciting results that merit your attention, whether you're looking to expand your horizons or just enjoy a good glass of wine.