Discovering Cannonau di Sardegna: one of Italy’s most underrated red wines

cannonau-sardinia

Whenever I taste extensively through Sardinian wines, I get the feeling that this is one of the most underrated regions in Italy, offering a noteworthy quantity of talented small to  medium-size producers who still fall under the radar. Unfortunately, qualitative improvements over the last two decades weren’t matched by proper communication efforts – Sardinians are notoriously shy and averse to public relations. If anything, they make up for their lack of eloquence and commercial skills with an uncommon ability to transpose the rural charm of their land into liquid form. 

At least ten of the over 150 native grapes found on the island currently give good to outstanding wine yet no other wine has gone through a more remarkable qualitative shift than Cannonau di Sardegna, the region’s key red. “Tasting dozens of Cannonau di Sardegna used to be a discomforting experience up to twenty years ago – explained Dario Cappelloni,  a leading Sardinian wine expert, during a tasting recently held in Rome – you found plenty of caricatural wines marred by unpleasant aromas, low acidity, and unbearable alcohol”. The lack of winemaking expertise wasn’t the only problem: Cannonau is part of a large group of Italian biotypes of the Grenache variety, and for many years, nurseries have regularly sold non-Sardinian clones of the variety such as as Tai Rosso from Veneto to growers who lacked the knowledge needed to understand the difference.

The revolution started from the re-propagation through massal selection of unique genetic material from ancient vines found in some of the island’s most remote areas, which are as long-lived as Sardinian themselves (in fact the region is considered a blue zone, meaning that it houses one of the world’s largest concentration of centenarians). The peculiar geology of Sardinia contributed to their survival: Cannonau thrives on the foothills of the Sardinian mountains, where sandy soils deriving from the disintegration of granitic rocks over the millennia create an unfavorable environment for phylloxera (which killed most of Italy’s century-old ungrafted vines). 

Cannonau di Sardegna in a nutshell

All misconceptions about Cannonau di Sardegna usually having a dark color derived from farmers’ erroneous assumption that the wines benefited from extremely long skin contact – whereas it often resulted in over-extraction and caused them to develop off-flavors. In fact, like most high quality Grenache-based wines from other parts of Italy, Southern France or the New World, top-notch Cannonau displays a transparent and luminous ruby color – not unlike Nebbiolo or Pinot Noir.

On the nose, they exude Mediterranean allure – almost capturing the fragrances of the bushy vegetation surrounding the vineyards. Aromas recalling wild fennel, eucalyptus, myrtle or oregano frame a core of lusciously sweet – but not overdone – red fruits. 

Torrid temperatures during summertime favor sugar accumulation so alcohol rarely falls below 14% (and often reaches 16%) but that rarely detracts from the overall balance of the wines. Lovely fruit density, ripe acidity and fine-grained tannins make quality Cannonau easily approachable and relatively easy to pair with food: despite their bodybuilder-like structure, the best versions dance on the palate with the elegance of a ballerina.

cannonau-grape

The different shades of Cannonau

Sardinia has a problem with its DOCs being too broad, too generic, and unable to reflect the island’s rich biodiversity. As of now, the Cannonau di Sardegna only houses three subzones – Oliena, Jerzu and Capo Ferrato – but producers have acknowledged the importance of introducing a greater number of U.G.A. (additional geographic units), and are lobbying to revise regulations.

In fact, the various parts of the island yield radically different takes on the grape. Here are just some of the key wine-growing areas for Cannonau di Sardegna: 

Mamoiada

This tiny village in the Barbagia region of eastern Sardinia has grabbed more attention than any other wine-growing area in Sardinia in recent years. While every single family in town has produced wine since the dawn of time, bottles used to be extremely rare in the past: most producers made wine for home consumption or sold it in bulk in the local market. Simply put, there were no commercial wineries in town, and that is the main reason why Mamoiada wasn’t granted a specific subzone early on. To make up for this flaw in the system, the growers of Mamojada decided to gather in an association, Mamojá, and developed their own trademark.

 The town itself and its surroundings may be seen as the Sardinian equivalent of Etna in Sicily – almost an island within the island, with hills rising all the way up to 800 meters above sea level and the vineyards ranking among Italy’s highest. The grapes benefit from a milder climate than in the rest of the region, and the long growing cycle allows Cannonau to develop striking aromatic finesse. 

The best reds from Mamoiada display intoxicating floral and balsamic aromas – at times resembling an artisanal Vermouth or a high quality Amaro – and piercing acidity that energizes the bold structure, making for a terrific combination of depth and drinkability.

Members of the Mamojà association have also developed a complex system of designated vineyards called “Ghirada”, and most of them currently produce tiny volumes of single-vineyard, top-shelf Ghirada wine  (not unlike Etna producers, whose most ambitious label is usually a “Vino di Contrada”). The association also plans to sponsor geological research on the Ghiradas and publish a map in the near future.

Wall paintings in Orgosolo

Orgosolo 

On the foothills of the Supramonte dolomitic chain, the village of Orgosolo is best-known for mural paintings by local street artists. Its surroundings also house a good quantity of vineyards planted to Cannonau, many of which belong to members of the Cantina di Orgosolo, a small yet incredibly successful cooperative.

With Mamoiada lying only ten kilometers away, you would expect the wines to taste quite similar yet lower elevations – 300 to 550 meters – result in fruitier and smoother styles with milder acidity. Those by Cantina di Orgosolo deliver excellent value for the money.Jerzu

Jerzu is the main wine-growing area in the Ogliastra subregion on the east coast of Sardinia – renowned for its dramatic landscape with steep white cliffs diving into dazzlingly clear waters. What this area stands out for is a different geology from the other key wine-growing areas for Cannonau, with white schists and limestone prevailing over granitic sands. 

Together with cooling breezes from the sea, limestone favors the retention of high acidity  and low PH, so the wines tend to be quite austere in their youth, offering more in the way of crisp acidity and racy tannins than fruit. Aging in oak allows the mouthfeel to soften a bit and achieve balance at an earlier stage but they still require a bit of cellaring to show best. 

Romangia 

Romangia is poles apart from Mamoiada, but that does not mean it produces lower quality wines. This wine-growing district lies in the province of Sassari, in the northwestern corner of the island, and a stone’s throw from La Pelosa, arguably the most beautiful beach in the entire region. The vineyards insist on low sandy hills overlooking the sea: some of them are very old and yield exceptionally concentrated fruit. 

Power and opulence are the key words to describe the wines of Romangia: examples clocking above 16 percent alcohol are by no means rare. But they hardly ever come across as overdone or tiring: the extra richness is allied with enough acidity and tannic heft to keep the mouth-filling structure in check. While aged versions aren’t exactly easy to find, the wines possess the right credentials to perform well in the long haul.  

Oliena 

The high-sounding name “Nepente”, which was invented by poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, and means “without sadness” and “without repentance”, should not trick you into thinking that Oliena is a well-established production district. For sure the wines must have reached mainland Italy early in the 20th century, and the area was granted its own subzone from the very beginning. The truth, however, is it still enjoys little recognition in Italy – let alone in other countries. One reason for that is that most growers in this area only sold wine in the local market until a few years ago. Like in Mamoiada, though, they recently decided to join forces and establish an association, ASCOS, that will allow them to overcome the marketing and communication challenges deriving from the miniscule output of each estate. The above-mentioned event held in Rome was one of the first occasions n which they participated as a group with a collective stand.

Similarly to Orgosolo, which lies about 20 km away, Oliena stands on the foothills of the Supramonte, with the vines benefiting from the cooling effect of the massif. Making general statements might prove a little tricky as most producers need longer time to perfect winemaking techniques. In general, however, well-made Nepente di Oliena represents a good compromise between the opulence of Romangia and the delicacy and brightness of Mamoiada.

Check out the 10 best Cannonau di Sardegna to try