(Photo ©Tom Hyland)
I’ve recently returned from a two week trip to Italy – my 63rd trip – finishing up in Piemonte. I’ll write about my time there soon, but for today’s post, I’d like to share some thoughts on the beginning of my trip, which was spent in the Sulcis area of Sardinia.
Sardinia is probably more famous for its beaches than its wines, but given the beauty of its seascape, that’s not a surprise. There are several marvelous wine types made on this island; proof of that is the fact that 13 Sardinian wines just received a Tre Bicchieri designation from Gambero Rosso, arguably the most important Italian publication on the country’s wines.
Carignano del Sulcis is a wine made primarily from the Carginano grape; Sulcis is an area in southwestern Sardinia. The grape is thought to have arrived on the island from settlers from Spain. It has found a great home here, as the grape thrives in the hot climes. It also works well here, as this area has very little rainfall; in fact when it rained on October 24 during my visit, I was told that this was the first day of rain in five months!
I visited five producers: Cantina Santadi, Agricola Punica, Cantina Mesa, Sardus Pater and Calasetta. Santadi, Sardus Pater and Calasetta are cooperative wineries, meaning they have member growers that supply grapes. Punica is a joint venture between Santadi and Tenuta San Guido, the famed Tuscan estate that produces Sassicaia, while Cantina Mesa is a privately held firm.
Cantina Mesa (Photo ©Tom Hyland)
Carignano del Sulcis takes on an identity based on where the grapes are grown and the philosophy of the producer. There are some examples that are light to medium-bodied, while others are full-bodied, meant for peak drinking some seven to twelve years (or more) after the vintage. Some are aged only in steel or cement tanks, while some are aged in barriques, thus resembling a more international style of wine.
One of my favorite wines was the Cantina Mesa “Buio” (Buio is local dialect for “dark”). The 2013 is the current release, aged only in stainless steel, this has appealing cranberry and red plum flavors and modest tannins; in this way, the wine is not unlike a Dolcetto from Piemonte. This is an uncomplicated wine, but I mean that as a compliment, as it is straightforward and quite delicious! You could almost serve this chilled and to my way of thinking, this would be a great introduction to consumers who’ve never tried a Carignano del Sulcis. Vegetarians would love this wine at meals, while it would also be an ideal match with lighter poultry or simple pastas.
Another lighter-styled Carignano is the Grotta Rossa” bottling from Santadi, while their “Rocca Rubia” is a Carignano riserva, aged a bit longer before release. The latter is a richer wine with a bit more wood aging, but it is an elegant, delightful offering that is medium-bodied and never overpowering. The 2011 is meant for consumption now and over the next 5-7 years.
If you’re interested in a more powerful style of Carignano, Santadi offers a riserva known as “Terre Brune.” This is a true showcase wine for the territory and is aged in barrique and meant for consumption in 10-12 years. Enthused with ripe black cherry and black plum fruit flavors, this demands serious red meats or aged cheeses. The newly released 2010, incidentally, is one of the Tre Bicchieri winners for the 2015 Gambero Rosso guide.
Another signature example of Carignano del Sulcis is the “Barrua” bottling from Agricola Punica. Produced from 85% Carignano, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Merlot, this is beautifully made, as the wood aging is perfectly integrated with the blackberry and bramble fruit (the wood aging is 50% new barriques and 50% second passage). Expect this to be at its peak in 12-15 years. (This is the 2011 that is the new release; you may be able to find the 2010, which is an outstanding wine and was awarded Tre Bicchieri last year.)
Alberello vines on the island of Sant’Antioco (Photo ©Tom Hyland)
It’s always a challenge to teach consumers about little-known Italian wines and to some degree, Carignano del Sulcis is one of those wines. So perhaps the best way to educate others is not to tell them that it tastes like other famous red wines of the world. That being the case, the examples of Carignano del Sulcis from the island of Sant’Antioco are glorious wines that taste like nothing else. This is an island that can be reached by automobile and there are two excellent cooperatives here – Sardus Pater and Calasetta – that produce wines from alberello vines. These are bush vines (also known as head-trained) that are only seen in a few areas of the world (Sicily has numerous alberello platntings as well). The reason for this system is easy to understand, as the climate is so hot (it was 95 and 96 degrees the first two days of my visit), that the fruit needs to be sheltered from as much sunshine as possible; thus these vines only reach heights of a few feet off the ground, with the bunches being only about a foot off the ground.
The vineyard in this photo is planted on pure sand; sand so fine, you think you were at the beach (yes, there’s that reference to beaches in Sardinia again). The vines in this photo are between 60 and 70 years of age, which limits production, but what quality they produce! The style of wines from these vineyards is quite different as well, as these are rustic wines, ones with a bit of a wild or sauvage character to them. It’s quite a change from the examples from the vineyards with today’s modern cordon spur system; That’s not to say that one wine style is better than another, it’s just to point out the differences. It’s clear that it is much more economical and productive for a producer in the Sulcis area to plant with modern training systems, so it’s unlikely there will be many new planting of alberello vineyards in Sardinia, but not to worry, as these vines last a long, long time.
Sardus Pater produces an excellent riserva offering from these vines; named “Is Arenas” (the name means “the sands”), the 2009 has very good acidity, rich maraschino cherry fruit and even a note of truffle. It’s a very classy wine – enjoy over the next 5-7 years. From Calasetta, the 2008 riserva “Aina” has beautiful structure, a touch more oak than the “Is Arenas” and will drink well for 5-7 years. Both of these wines are a tribute to times past, given their rustic edge, but make no mistake, these are wines of beautiful freshness and balance. They’re a pleasure to drink!
The past meets the present in Sulcis and these five producers are carrying Carignano del Sulcis to new heights. As these wines are relatively unknown, prices are reasonable, so grab a few bottles now – you will discover some distinctive wines that speak of their origins.
Note: I was invited by the Consorzio Carignano del Sulcis for this trip. My thanks to them for thinking of me and for their excellent job in organizing this event.