Wine region: Italy, Sardegna
Sardinians have sharply reduced vineyards and volume of production recently while notably improving the general quality of wines. Among DOC wines, whites prevail by nearly two to one over reds. The island’s most productive vineyard area is the Campidano, the fertile plains and low rolling hills northwest of the capital and major port of Cagliari. The varieties grown there, Girò, Malvasia, Monica, Moscato, Nasco and Nuragus, carry the name of Cagliari in their denominations.
The wooded slopes of the northern Gallura peninsula and the northwestern coastal area around Sassari and Alghero are noted for premium whites. Vermentino dominates the dry wines, notably in Vermentino di Gallura DOCG, though the Torbato under Alghero DOC can be equally distinguished. Vermentino, a variety also planted in Liguria and parts of Tuscany, makes a white of winning style in the Gallura hills, though it can be produced throughout the region under the Sardinia DOC.
The Vermentino variety can be found under fairly intensive cultivation in nearly all the Mediterranean coastal districts from Spain to Liguria and on the two major islands semi-enclosed by that arc, Corsica and Sardinia. It is also grown in small areas on the island of Madeira and at some places in southern France. Vermentino is clearly Spanish in origin. It traveled from Spain to Corsica in the 14th century and from there went on to Liguria. Its appearance on Sardinia was fairly recent, the final decades of the last century, and it was first planted in the Gallura at the island’s northernmost tip.
Although it is now found throughout Sardinia, Vermentino expresses itself best, yielding wines of outstanding personality, in the Gallura, an area incessantly swept by the fierce wind from the Alps, the Mistral. The area’s dry, harsh soils are not conducive to most agricultural growths.
The quality of the wine is due not only to the microclimatic conditions but also to the character of the terrain, which features a thin and poor substratum of granitic material. That material accounts for the wine’s pronounced aroma, which is balanced by a substantial alcohol level, fine fragrance and good body.
Moscato can be either still or sparkling, but it is always sweet, notably from Sorso and Sennori and the Gallura hills and the town of Tempio Pausania in the north. Malvasia may be sweet, but is perhaps most impressive dry from the town of Bosa and the Planargia hills on the western side of the island, as well as under the Cagliari DOC. Still another refined sweet white is Semidano, which has a DOC for all of Sardinia, though it is most noted from the town of Mogoro.
The most individual of Sardinian wines is Vernaccia di Oristano. From a vine of uncertain origin grown in the flat, sandy Tirso river basin around Oristano, it becomes a Sherry-like amber wine with a rich array of nuances in bouquet and flavour.
The most popular white variety is Nuragus, which is believed to have been brought there by the Phoenicians. Its name derives from the island’s prehistoric stone towers known as nuraghe. Nuragus is the source of a modern dry white, clean and crisp, if rather bland in flavour.
The island’s important red varieties are Cannonau, a relative of the Granacha brought from Spain, and Carignano and Monica, also of Spanish origin. Cannonau and Monica can be dry or sweet, though trends favor the dry type toned down in strength from its traditionally heroic proportions. Vineyards in the rugged eastern coastal range around Nuoro are noted for rich, red Cannonau. Wines of note comes from the towns of Oliena, Jerzu and Dorgali and the coastal hills of Capo Ferrato. Cannonau also makes a fine sweet wine, which can be reminiscent of port.
A Sardinian meal always begins with an appetizer: wild boar ham, sausage lamb or veal trotters, clams or mussels cooked alla marinara with white wine, garlic, and parsley, burrida (dogfish marinated in a walnut and garlic sauce), bottarga (salted, dried and pressed roe of tuna or mullet) served in paper thin slices with lemon and olive oil. The accompanying breads are fabulous. Some examples are: su civraxu, the most common, large, round, flour loaf; su coccoi made with hard-wheat semolina and cut on top with scissors to form small decorative points (is pizzicorrus) that become crisp and golden when baked; su pani carasau or carta musica (literally, sheet music) a round, wafer thin, crisp sheet of flour and semolina. Excellent served with salt and olive oil, it is then called su pani guttiau. Pani carasau is used to make a homely but delicious first course, su pani frattau, in which the thin sheets are first dipped in broth or boiling salted water, layered with tomato sauce, minced meat and grated cheese, and topped with a poached egg. Another flat bread is the soft, round spianadas.
First courses include: sa fregula, an irregularly shaped, grain sized pasta served in fish broth; malloreddus a small grooved pasta flavoured with saffron and served with tomato sauce and cheese; culingionis, ravioli made with semolina (often with a potato puree and mint filling); and panadas, a round cylindrical pie filled with vegetables, meat or eels. Panadas are such a popular specialty that there is a yearly festival dedicated to it in Assemini in July.
The traditional Sardinian meats are spit-roasted suckling pig (porceddu), baby lamb, and kid. The more adventurous might want to try sa cordula, cleaned lamb intestines sautéed with peas, or knotted into an intricate braid with variety meats and oven or spit roasted. Another speciality is sanguinaccio, a pork-blood sausage sweetened with raisins and sugar, served boiled or roasted. The big powerful Cannonau is the ideal partner for this hearty peasant cooking.
Sardinia is Italy’s leading producer of organic produce, accounting for nearly a third of the nation’s land cultivated by biological methods. Tomatoes are used generously in sauces, as are artichokes, fava beans, peas, eggplant and zucchini. Foods here are redolent of herbs, including wild fennel, juniper and myrtle, used with hare, boar and game birds.
The varieties of fish that Sardinians prefer roasted over coals are: orate (gilthead bream), mormore (striped bream), spigole (sea bass), triglie (red mullet), muggini (grey mullet), and anguille (eel). Aragosta (lobster), gamberi (shrimp), vongole (clams), and seppiette (tiny squid) are used in all sorts of pasta and rice dishes. The Vermentino, with its delicate aromas of fruit and hint of almonds in the finish, is a wine to be drunk with the smell of the sea and the heat of the sun. In addition to being the perfect complement to all kinds of seafood recipes, from shrimp salads to elaborate seafood platters with vegetables and smoked cernia or swordfish, this wine is delicious as an exciting aperitif for all occasions. The Vermentino di Gallura DOCG’s finesse comes from the combination of ongoing quality control, the richness of the granite decomposition of soil and the microclimate where the original grapes are grown.
The shepherd’s ancient tradition has led to the production of many different types of cheese now produced in modern factories. Among the most well known is the popular fiore sardo or pecorino sardo, a firm cheese made from fresh, whole sheep’s milk and lamb or kid rennet. Pecorino romano is a drier, sharp cheese made with boiled steep’s milk and lamb rennet. Dolce sardo is a softer, cow’s milk cheese. A singular cheese, unlikely to appeal to the tourist, is casu marzu (literally, “rotten cheese"). It is produced when tiny white larva form in the cheese, gradually reducing it to a creamy consistency. The taste is said to be both delicate and piquant. Casu marzu is not sold commercially but is still made privately for home use. The idiosyncratic sherry-style Vernaccia di Oristano is a marvellous wine for all occasions to go with cheeses for all occasions.
“Another market with its own very characteristic flavour is that of Cagliari, in the island of Sardinia. Spread out in large baskets large as cartwheels are all the varieties of fish which go into ziminu, the Sardinian version of fish soup; fat, scaly little silver fish streaked with lime green; enormous octopus, blue, sepia, mauve, turquoise, curled and coiled and petalled like some heavily embroidered marine flower; the pescatrice again, that ugly hooked angler fish; cold stony little clams here called arselle; tartufe di mare; silvery slippery sardines; rose-red mullets in every possible size, some small as sprats like a doll’s-house fish; the fine lobster for which Sardinia is famous.”
Elizabeth David – Italian Fish Markets
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