Wine 101: Italy Region Deep Dives: Sardegna

Today’s episode features Maze Row Wine Merchant’s esteemed partner, Tornatore, which is produced on Sicily’s Mount Etna. Yes, that Mount Etna, one of the world’s most active volcanoes. In fact, the Tornatore family started growing grapes in Etna in 1865, making them the most established wine-growing families there. To try Tornatore wine, follow the link in the episode description to, where you’ll find Rosso, Red, and Bianco White wine.

On this episode of “Wine 101,” VinePair’s tastings director Keith Beavers explores Sardegna, an island with a culture and native language very separate from the mainland. The same goes for the wine. Tune in to learn more!

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Keith Beavers: My name is Keith Beavers, and New Wave Wine Tastings slid into my DMs this week saying, “Hey, Keith, here’s a quip for you: Select-A-Size paper towels are just smaller paper towels.” I’m like, “It makes complete sense. Also, Select-A-Size, how many sizes are there to select?”

What’s going on, wine lovers? From the VinePair Podcasting Network, this is “Wine 101.” My name is Keith Beavers. I am the tastings director of VinePair. And how are you?

We’re staying off the coast. We’re going to another island. It’s called Sardegna. If you heard of or have had wines from Sicily, that’s awesome. There’s a really good chance you may not have had the wines from Sardegna, or if you had, you may not have known it. Let’s get into it.

Okay. Here we are on another island north of Sicily, another big island. Not as big as Sicily, but big, called Sardegna. You might know it as Sardinia. And I really want to get you guys into these wines if you have not. Sardegna is a wine region that… not a lot of people know about it, but often wines from there are consumed not knowing that it’s from there. I’m going to get into all that in a minute. But the beauty of Sardegna is its individuality. In Sicily, we talked a lot about the individuality of Sicily and how being an island, it had been occupied by many cultures. In Sardegna, this is also the same, but it goes even further. It gets even more intense.

Sardegna as an island has been occupied by a lot of cultures as well. But in doing so, those cultural languages would eventually come together to create an actual language specific to Sardegna called Sardo. Before the Romans, it was Carthage that owned this land, then the Romans, then the Byzantines, then the Arabs, then the Catalans. These languages would come together to create the Sardo language, and then you could also layer on top of that some very old Latin. And then after all of that, in 1726, the island was ceded to the house of Savoy, becoming an integral part of Italy — now we can put Italian on top of that. The Sardo language is this wild, beautiful language specific to Sardegna. What’s interesting about this is the language itself — this is a very general statement, and I’m sure it’s not completely true — but the majority of the words, well, especially in wine from Sardegna, they all end in an O-A-U vowel ending. This comes through in the names of the grapes and in the names of the areas in which these vines grow.

I’m saying all this because these wines are easy to enjoy, they’re easy to drink, and they’re just great wines coming from Sardegna. But because the language is what it is, and because sometimes on a label it can be a little bit confusing, it’s easy to go, “Okay, well let’s just not drink that.” But inside the bottle is amazingness.

Okay, let’s get into it. When we were talking about Sicily, we talked about wine and how wine was definitely a part of the culture, but wasn’t the most important part of the culture. This is the same thing in Sardegna. Whereas wine was absolutely important, part of the culture, part of the diet, part of all that, but it was, I guess you could say small compared to their livestock and what they got from livestock. There is a mountainous region in Sardegna, in the middle of the region, and all of the foothills start from the coast and work their way up into the foothills and then into the mountainous regions. There’s a lot of livestock happening here.

Also, because it’s an island, it has an extremely abundant seafood culture as well. The wine was complementary to this because just like in Sicily, Sardegna went into a bulk wine phase, and then had to get out of a bulk wine phase. That bulk wine phase wasn’t as big. The production was not as big as in Sicily, but it was big. And for a long time, this is what dominated the wine culture of Sardegna.

When you have a bulk wine element to your wine culture, you have co-ops. Now, co-ops before the EU were a little bit rough because they were subsidized by local governments who never really had enough money to help improve the conditions as these things aged. When the EU came around, it was easier to have co-ops because there were subsidies from the government to help keep these cooperatives up to date with technology and sanitation and all of that. As Sardegna drew away from quantity and started concentrating more on quality, a lot of cool things started happening. I think there are, well, almost 20 DOCs on this island alone and only one DOCG, and very similar to what you get in Sicily. And this is an indication that the island has moved away from this quantity over quality. But what’s really wonderful about Sardegna today is that not only does it have all these DOCs – and I can’t go through all of them, but I want to go through a couple before this episode is over, to give you a sense of what you’re going to see out there in the American market, but there is still a heavy presence of cooperatives in Sardegna.

But today, due to its support from the EU, co-ops are a whole different entity than they once were. And when I was in Sardegna, I had the opportunity to visit one of these co-ops and it was amazing. It was extremely clean — of course, it was, this is modern winemaking, but they actually had a test vineyard. This is amazing. There are vineyards in Sardegna that are called test vineyards, and there are these vineyards all over the place. But what’s really amazing is they’re finding all these different native varieties that they don’t know what kinds of wine they make. They have these vineyards that are testing these varieties that you’ve probably never heard of because they’re not even on the American market with names like Moscadato. I know. That’s crazy.

But what’s cool about Sardegna is it’s old and it’s got a lot of history there with the wine and all that, but we’re still in a place where we’re seeing the island evolve in front of our eyes. Whereas, they have all these DOCs. There are a lot of winemakers, a lot of winemakers in Sardegna that are on the American market showing us the diversity of their island, and the co-op thing and the bulk wine thing still happens, but at a different quality level. It’s pretty amazing. When I was at the co-op, we went to the reception office. And before you get to the reception office, there is this station, a pump station with these nozzles. And as we were waiting to go for the tour of the winery, a family walked in, literally a mother, a father, and two children, and they had these big plastic jugs, and they just walked up to the pump station, got a nozzle, stuck it into their big plastic jugs and dispensed a bunch of red wine through a hose that they then capped and took away with them. That was their wine for, I don’t know, the month, the year.

It’s still happening, but it’s happening with modern technology. And it is a fascinating, wonderful, wonderful thing. It’s cool, when you’re drinking Sardinian wine, you’re drinking these wines that have been around for quite some time, but the old ways of doing things are still around but with modern technology. I find that fascinating. And I say these grapes have been on this island for a very long time, but usually, when we’re talking about Italian regions, we can go back way into antiquity and all this stuff. The thing about Sardegna is because of its occupation of all these cultures, the most popular varieties that are used to make wine on the island are actually from somewhere else through this history of occupation.

For example, the most popular red wine grape on the island is a grape called Cannonau, C-A-N-N-O-N-A-U. It’s a really cool name, but it’s also not the original name of the variety. Remember when we were talking about all those cultures, and had a list of them? Towards the end there was the Catalan, the Spanish were there for a long time, and they brought Garnacha, or in French, they call it Grenache. In Sardegna they call it Cannonau. And Cannonau, or Garnacha, or Grenache, is all over the island. And it expresses itself completely differently than it would in Spain or even in France.

It’s almost a different variety in itself because of how long it’s been on the island and exposed to the island, micro, and macro-climates. This grape is so ubiquitous and important that there is a DOC that covers the entire island called Cannonau de Sardegna. And this is what you’re going to see mostly on the American market, Cannonau de Sardegna, because it’s all over the island and they’re often very affordable, medium body, good fruit. They can be a little bit dense sometimes and they can be a little bit light sometimes depending on where on the island the Cannonau was sourced from. But it’s a really awesome medium-bodied red. It’s also actually, it’s a crowd-pleaser if I’m going to be real.

The other most ubiquitous or most popular wine grape on the island is a white wine grape called Vermentino. Vermentino is thought to have been brought to Sardegna from Corsica, a place we should definitely talk about at some point. But it was brought to the northern part of the island and it stayed there and became a very important grape in that part of the island to the point where now that northern part of the island is Sardegna’s only DOCG called Vermentino di Gallura. But just like Cannonau, it’s a very important variety for the island.

Just like Cannonau, it has its DOC that covers the entire island, again called Vermentino di Sardegna. On the American market, you’re going to see Vermentino, a lot of it from that large DOC. But you will also see Vermentino di Gallura, which is the DOCG. Gullura is G-U-L-L-U-R-A. Vermentino is a very light, bright, lemony, crisp, easy-drinking, sometimes a little bit structured, white wine that goes amazing with seafood. And the general DOC Vermentino you’re going to buy at $10, $15, is going to be very awesome. The DOCG Vermentino from Gullura is going to be awesome. All those things and focused. It’s a lower production, it’s a little more structured, there’s a little more angles to the wine. They’re absolutely delicious and with lobster? Forget about it. And that’s the majority of what you’re going to see on the American market from Sardegna.

And let me tell you, that’s enough because a lot of each of those varieties is available. But we have to talk about a couple of other places or wines that you’re going to see that really define this island. If Cannonnau is the dominant red wine variety of Sardegna, the second most important variety in Sardegna would be called Monica or just Monica. M-O-N-I-C-A.

This again is a variety that came to the island from Spain. It doesn’t have as much of a connection to… We can’t really figure it out… Well, I didn’t do any of the work… The research that I read couldn’t figure it out, but it is Spanish and they believe the word “Monica” [that] comes from the old Spanish word for “monks,” meaning this is one of those varieties that was in an abbey somewhere and made its way and spread throughout the island and now it’s just part of the island’s fabric in the wine-producing industry. Monica is a light to medium-bodied red wine. Again, just like Cannonau, just like Vermentino, there is a Monica di Sardegna DOC that covers the entire island. If you see Monica, grab it and check it out.

And continuing on these grapes from somewhere else, being here and becoming different is a DOC called Carignano del Sulcis. This is crazy. This is Carignan. Carignan, if you’re not really sure, we should probably talk about Carignan at some point. It is, how do I say this? It is a variety that was very prominent in the southern part of France. It is something that’s being phased out a little bit in the southern part of France because it tends to have a very sharp, aggressive character to it. And some people are just going with it and just like, “You know what? I’m going to make Carignan happen.” It’s one of the varieties that really helped us get out of the phylloxera epidemic; go to the phylloxera episode if you want to get a little bit of that. But the thing about Carignano, or Carignan, in Sardegna, in the DOC of Carignano del Sulcis, you have these soft, voluptuous, round Carignano. It’s wild. You don’t really get these anywhere else on the planet.

Carignan is, like I said, [it] can be sharp and angular. These wines see a little bit of that malolactic fermentation in some certain kind of, I don’t know, the oak exposure they have, it really softens them up and rounds them out. They’re just such nice, enjoyable wines. And I can’t talk about Sardegna and not mention Mandrolisai. I just love that word, Mandrolisai. This is cool. The thing is, we’re not going to see a lot of these wines on the American market, but I got to tell you guys if you have a chance to seek them out, these wines are very special, and not a lot of people know about them. And they should. It’s a small production area; not a lot of it makes it on the American market. But Mandrolisai is this DOC smack dab in the middle of Sardegna, and it’s in the more hilly or mountainous region of the island.

And here they feature a red grape variety, again from Spain, they call Bovale. But in Spain, it’s Bobal. And where in Spain, Bobal is not very, I don’t want to say not popular, but it’s not a variety, a noble grape of Spain. But in Mandrolisai DOC, the Bovale grape, or the Bobal from Spain, reaches an incredible height of quality, an incredible height of quality, age-worthy quality, a tannin structure, a roundness, a little bit of spiciness. These wines are spectacular. They’ll make you pause for a second: What is this and where is it from and why didn’t I get into this before? And wow. Again, they’re not easy to find. They can be a little bit expensive, but if you get a chance, this is one of those special wines in the world that you can find on the American market if you look. And they’re very special.

And that’s pretty much Sardegna for us. There’s more stuff to talk about. They do a lot with a grape called Malvasia. They do a whole thing with Moscato. They have another big old island DOC for Moscato. We’re just not going to see a lot of that on the American market. There’s other stuff that’s coming onto the American market. We’re going to start seeing some more of yet another grape called Nuragus, which is a reference to the Nuraga, which are these ancient conical-like fortress/mound-like settlements that were around before the Carthage occupation of Sardegna. It’s a white wine grape. Literally is not really on the American market yet, but it’s coming because it’s very popular in Sardegna, popular in Italy, and it’s on its way. Look out for that.

And I got to tell you, Sardegna is not done. I saw all these other varieties that I cannot pronounce, except for Muscovado, because it was just easier to pronounce. These grapes that are… they have these native names in their native tongue and they’re very hard to pronounce, but they’re very excited about these grapes. The future of Sardegna is more and more of these native varieties. And I think the varieties that are going to be coming out in the next 20 or something years will be products of the varieties that came from somewhere else through natural crossings and stuff like that. It’s going to be a lot of fun. Sardegna is definitely a place to enjoy now and keep your eye on.

Okay, guys, I hope this helped you out with Sardegna. I hope you go out and buy some Sardinian wine and tag me on Instagram, @VinePairKeith, and I’ll talk to you next week.

@VinePairKeith is my Insta. Rate and review this podcast wherever you get your podcasts from. It really helps get the word out there.

And now, for some totally awesome credits. “Wine 101” was produced, recorded, and edited by yours truly, Keith Beavers, at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big ol’ shout-out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin for creating VinePair. Big shout-out to Danielle Grinberg, the art director of VinePair, for creating the most awesome logo for this podcast. Also, Darbi Cicci for the theme song. Listen to this. And I want to thank the entire VinePair staff for helping me learn something new every day. See you next week.

Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.

E. & J. Gallo Winery is excited to sponsor this episode of VinePair’s “Wine 101.” Gallo always welcomes new friends to wine with an amazing wide range of favorites, ranging from everyday to luxury and sparkling wines. I mean, Gallo also makes award-winning spirits, but this is a wine podcast. So whether you’re new to wine or an aficionado, Gallo welcomes you to wine. We look forward to serving you enjoyment in moments that matter. Cheers. Visit today to find your next favorite, where shipping is available.