Sardinia is one of Italy’s 20 administrative regions. It is the second largest island in the Mediterranean, after Sicily (which is also Italian) and ahead of Cyprus. Sardinia also includes smaller islands off its coast, such as Sant’Antioco and San Pietro, off the island’s south-western corner.
The name: The name Sardinia ‘may have come from the Shardane, a mysterious tribe from Asia Minor,’ (Burton Anderson, 1990, p287). Another mystery concerns why the stone ‘nuraghi‘ towers were built, leading to the island being called Isola dei Nuraghi.
Language: The local dialect or ‘Sardo’ described as a ‘neo-Latin tongue spiced with Spanish, Basque and Arabic, though the dialect in the northern Gallura is more closely realted to Corsican,’ (Burton Anderson: 1990, p.287).
Culture: ‘Haunting folk music, pan pipes, seemingly unchanged for centuries,’ (David Gleave: 1989, p.145).
The first wines were made as early as the 8th-century BC with knowledge gained from itinerant Phoenician traders (Burton Anderson: 1990, p.287). Subsequent incursions by Carthaginians, Romans, Vandals, Byzantines [Sardinian wine gained in prominence with the fall of the Byzantine Empire], Moslems, Genoese, and Pisans left little evidence of wine-growing, but this changed with the arrival of the Spanish in the late 13th-century (Burton Anderson: 1990, p.287).
The Aragonese gave the wines a ‘Spanish tang’ via imported varieties eg. Grenache (‘Cannonau’), which endured even after the House of Savoy proclaimed the Kingdom of Sardinia in 1720 and then brought it into the Kingdom of Italy in 1860. Iberian wine styles such as the Sherry-like Vernaccia di Oristano and Nasco, the Port-like sweet Cannonau, Girò and Monica, and the Madeira-like Malvasia di Bosa and Malvasia di Cagliari endure today (Burton Anderson: 1990, p.287-8).
David Gleave MW (1989, p.145) says that despite having as tumultuous a history as Sicily, Sardinia ‘remains more isolated, and more enigmatic than Sicily. Cretans are thought to have been the first to colonise the island, after which Romans, Pisans, Genoese and Spaniards took turns in lording it over the natives. The Sards, though, absorbed little from these outsiders, with the bulk of the population remaining in the wild and isolated mountains of the interior, tending their sheep.’
Geology: Sardinia is geologically one of the oldest parts of Italy and geographically that country’s most remote (Burton Anderson: 1990, p.287). Sardinia and Corsica (the third biggest island in the Mediterranean) were once part of a mountain range that existed before the Alps and Apennines were formed (Burton Anderson: 1990, p.290). Although now separated from the Italian mainland by 112miles (180km) of sea, until 150,000 years or so ago Sardinia was linked by isthmuses across which humans may have been able to travel (Burton Anderson: 1990, p.287). Despite having Italy’s most extensive sea coast of 506 miles (1,850km) the locals remained a hill people of shepherds, farmers, woodsmen, and brigands from the Stone Age almost to the present (Burton Anderson: 1990, p.287).
Terroir: The territory is 14% mountainous, 68% hilly and 18% flat. The climate is mediterranean with long summers and very hot, dry, and windy short winters with little rainfall. The soil is calcareous on average, rocky and stony, but varies greatly over the island, with many sandy sites yielding characteristic wines.
DOC wines: The first DOC was Vernaccia di Oristano in 1971 followed in 1972 by the typical Sardinian wines: Cannonau, Girò di Cagliari, Monica di Sardegna, Monica di Cagliari, Malvasia di Bosa. For many years, Sardinian wines were not so popular because they gave products with a lot of body, little in the way of acidity, and considerable alcohol. However, things have drastically changed in the last 30 years, and now Sardinian wines are all the rage.
Vineyard area: Sardinia has about 28,000 hectares of vineyards.
Production zones: Most of the island’s wine comes from the Campidano plains, with other areas including around Alghero, the Tirso river basin (for Vernaccia di Oristano), the eastern hills (for Cannonau), the Planargia hills on the west coast (Malvasia), and the northern Gallura peninsula (Vermentino).
The north: See Gallura, Sassari & Alghero.
The Eastern Hills: See Cannonau and Mandrolisai.
West-Central Sardinia: See Planargia and Oristano.
The South: See Sardinia south, Cagliari’s Campidano and Sulcis.
Topography: About 85% of Sardinia is hills, plateaux or mountains, where the granite or volcanic rock has been smoothed by erosion and is covered by mainly pastures, brush, and woods. Most vineyards are at lower levels in the rolling hills and flatlands of the Campidano between Cagliari and Oristano and the plains of Alghero (Burton Anderson: 1990, p290).
Climate: Mediterranean. Temperatures vary between the warm southern and western side of the island which is exposed to winds across the Sardinian Sea from North Africa, and the higher eastern and northern sectors, influenced by cooler Tyrrhenian currents. Modest annual rainfall: from 450mm along the southern coast to 700mm in the high interior. Strong winds meant low ‘alberello‘ training became traditional (Burton Anderson: 1990, p290).
Native wine grapes: The island’s native grape varieties are described as ‘a curious array of relics from different epochs’ (Burton Anderson, 1990, p288). Sardinia’s red wines are based on three main grapes, namely Cannonau (Grenache Noir) which ranges from ‘soft and generous to sweet and fortified’, Monica (quaffing wines usually, apart from those around Cagliari on the south of the island where stronger, sweeter and fortified wines can be found), and Carignano or Carignan in the island’s south-west corner in an area centred on Sulcis (David Gleave: 1989, p147-8). The main white wine grapes are Vermentino (in the northern Gallura zone), Nuragus (around Cagliari in the south), Torbato, Nasco and Vernaccia (David Gleave: 1989, p148-9).
‘Most of Sardininia’s grapes are recent arrivals, due to four centuries of Spanish domination. One estimate says Sardinia has 250 different grapevines (native, traditional, international), only 24 of which are in the National Registry. Some will be synonymous with others, but likely there are more cultivars to be discovered,’ says Ian D’Agata (2014, p45-6).
Typical wines: These include Nasco di Cagliari, especially interesting in the sweet version with hints of moss from which it derives its name (‘nasco’ derives from a latin word meaning musky or moss). Malvasia di Bosa and Monica di Cagliari are little known but outstanding Sardinian wines. The most cultivated red grapes include Cannonau, Monica, Carignano, Pascale and Bovale, while Nuragus, Vermentino and Malvasia di Sardegna are the main white grapes. Semidano is little known but makes a lovely dry white wine.
Sardinia’s only DOCG is Vermentino di Gallura. There are 16 DOCs. Girò di Cagliari DOC is made from the native red grape Girò. Bovale grapes are the basis of the Terralbatra Cagliari DOC and Oristano DOC. Vernaccia di Oristano (DOC) is made from the native Vernaccia di Oristano grape, and is a wine that can be aged two years in barrels, with a minimum alcoholic strength of 14% rising to 15.5% for the Riserva type. There is also a fortified or ‘liquoroso’ version (fortified: dry max 40 g/l of sugar, sweet max 80 g/l), with an alcohol content by volume of 18% obtained by adding alcohol wine or grape brandy.
Native wine grapes: Cagnulari (r). | Cannonau (Grenache Noir) (r). | Carignano (r). | Girò (r). | Malvasia di Lipari or Malvasia di Sardegna (w). | Nasco (w).* | Nuragus (w).* | Semidano (w).* | Vermentino. | Vernaccia di Oristano (w). Key: * = probably original to Sardinia (Dr Ian D’Agata: 2014, p.45-6).
DOCGs: Vermentino di Gallura DOCG.
DOCs: Alghero DOC. | Arborea DOC. | Cagliari DOC. | Campidano di Terralba or Terralba DOC. | Cannonau di Sardegna DOC. | Carignano del Sulcis DOC. | Girò di Cagliari DOC. | Malvasia di Bosa DOC. | Malvasia di Cagliari DOC. | Mandrolisai DOC. | Monica di Cagliari. | Monica di Sardegna DOC. | Moscato di Cagliari DOC. | Moscato di Sardegna DOC. | Moscato di Sorso-Sennori or Moscato di Sorso or Moscato di Sennori DOC. | Nasco di Cagliari DOC. | Nuragus di Cagliari DOC. | Sardegna Semidano DOC. | Vermentino di Sardegna DOC. | Vernaccia di Oristano DOC.
Burton Anderson, The Wine Atlas of Italy (Mitchell Beazley, London, 1990).
David Gleave, The Wines of Italy (Salamander Books, London, 1989).
Ian D’Agata, Native Wine Grapes of Italy (University of California Press, 2014) pp xi, 567.
Nicolas Belfrage MW, From Brunello to Zibibbo–The Wines of Tuscany, Central and Southern Italy (2nd edition, London, 2003).
Oxford Companion to Wine 4th edition ed. Jancis Robinson MW and Julia Harding MW (Oxford University Press, 2015).