Hitting the Sardinian wine trail between myth and tradition
There are two ways to get under the skin of a place: interact with its natives and unearth its traditions.
Travelling the world made me somehow discover the importance of unearthing my own roots. This is how I loved to explore Sardinia‘s ancient handicraft, I enjoyed the chill of hearing and writing about its spooky stories, and I inevitably felt a pervasive sense of pride photographing Orgosolo’s controversial street art.
As I write this post, the daylight is slowly fading away. I’m sitting in my balcony as a privileged observer of one of the many breathtaking sunsets this corner of the Mediterranean Sea offers and I’m embarking on this wine-led journey through myth and tradition that, although it takes place in my very hometown, it acquires a new light every time I tackle a different angle of it.
If, by some quirk of fate, you happen in the improbable destination of Cabras, central-western Sardinia, please knock at the door of Cantina Contini, one of the oldest (if not the oldest) wineries in the island, where you will find out that Sardinian wine is not just a drink, but an essential feature of our history and culinary tradition.
With all this in mind, I entered the cantina, the president of which, Paolo Contini, is the founder’s nephew.
Established in 1898 by Salvatore Contini, the winery started producing only Nieddera, the red wine typical of the island, coming from the homonymous grape and that earned them their first award in Milan in 1912.
The company today still belongs entirely to the family: Salvatore’s son, Attilio passed it onto his three sons Salvatore, Antonio and Paolo, and since 2000 other two nephews Mauro and Alessandro have started working in the family business that produces between 600.000 and 700.000 bottles every year.
Between white, red and rosé, Cantina Contini produces multiple award-winning wines, the last one being the white Karmis, obtained with a secret blend of Vernaccia and Vermentino types of grape, awarded with the first prize by Vinitaly, Verona-based that organizes every year an international wine competition. Karmis is defined by a bright straw-yellow color, a gentle, fruity scent and a dry, soft, full taste that perfectly corresponds to its fragrance. It’s the ideal match for fish-based dishes, vegetarian meals and white meat.
Some of their other wines are the red Nieddera Rosso, dry and warm of taste, ruby-hued, intense, vanilla and black cherry scented; Tonaghe, another red, full-bodied drink obtained with Cannonau grape, a very native Sardinian wine, it boasts a warm taste with unmistakable structure and a scent reminding of ripe plum and wild blackberries.
Among the whites, apart from the already mentioned Karmis, they produce Tyrsos, straw-yellow colored with a greenish shimmer, intense, soft, slightly fruit-scented and with a gentle and fresh taste. Apart from the usual wines, they also produce Vernaccia, coming from the homonymous white grape, golden, to be more precise, reason of pride of the entire island. This is a fresh wine to be either taken as aperitivo, with starters, or associated with cheese or almond-based desserts at the end of the meal. Aged strictly in the barrel, its alcoholic strength ranges between 15 and 18 per cent.
Vernaccia is compared to “gold” as symbol of wealth, nobility, a precious gift from nature to be carefully preserved. Vernaccia’s history beautifully blends with the island’s past, especially the one of the Tirso Valley, its natural cradle. The origins of this vine are wegded between history and myth, it draws its power from the many elements that give life in the planet, Mother Earth in the first place, the water coming from the Tirso River that many times flooded the valley, the fruit, the very essence that often was considered a connection between mankind and its divinities, and man himself, who receives the gift from such deities, and shares it with other men, with whom founds an art able to preserve, perpetuate, improve the gift itself. Vernaccia’s history goes together with Sardinian winemaking tradition, as its presence probably dates back to the very first human presence on the island.
The harvest for all vines happens from August to October, and the rest of the year the grapes are cherished and taken care of by Contini’s excellent oenologist, Piero Cella. If you happen in Sardinia and decide to try a wine from Cantina Contini, my personal advice is not to buy it from the shop but to fully experience the purchase moment directly at the winery, where the owners will enrich you with historical, traditional, culinary details of both the wines and their birthplace, revealing their secrets and suggesting daring combinations with different dishes.
However, in the unfortunate case you are not planning a trip to Sardinia, fret not, you can still try these wines abroad, although maybe you won’t be able to find the entire selection. The very first market of the winery, making for about 60 per cent of its revenue, is Sardinia (yes, natives always prefer local wines), but Contini also exports to the other Italian regions (15-20 per cent of its trade) and abroad (20-25 per cent) to Germany, Switzerland, United States, France, United Kingdom, Belgium, Netherlands, Australia and Puerto Rico. If you do plan a trip to this island and your love for wine brings you here, please, don’t let the Contini family think you take wine as simple booze. In Cabras, the Sinis Peninsula and all of Sardinia, for that matter, wine is a fine aspect of a tradition that has always existed.
The origins of the wine get lost in the mists of time, and all we can do is refer to those legendary authors whose works have shown us a primordial earthly experience, such as Hippocrates and Plato, who have even highlighted the healthy properties of the beverage. With time, wine has been widely considered dangerous, Christian religion was never very much comfortable with it because worried about the negative consequences, and Islam, we know, even forbids it. As research has shown, the danger is not in wine itself but in its abuse, like pretty much everything else. In Sardinia we have the highest percentage of centenarians, and I know no one man who has lunch nor dinner without his glass of wine. With this, I’m not suggesting you to increase your daily dose.
After thousands of years, from the days when wine was offered to gods as a precious gift, still now this drink retains much of its original charm loaded with mystery and legends. So far research has shown that mankind has been drinking wine for already 8,000 years. Back then, the preservative used was tree resin and now in Greece they still produce Retsina, a wine in which they add resin to the must.
Phoenicians, Greeks, Egyptians, Romans, wine has quickly become one of the most typical traits of the Mediterranean area.
As just about everything in Sardinia, also our wine tradition belongs to ancient times and civilizations, and like many other aspects of our culture, it can be linked to West Asia. As long as wine and grape varieties are concerned, we either have our native vines, such as Vernaccia, or we can establish our thread directly with Lebanon and its Pheonician roots. Phoenician merchant spirit and nomadic nature made them settle along the most pristine stretches of the Mediterranean shoreline, in order to make it easy to travel and get on with their trading business that brought them also to Sardinia. Here we do have some remains, such as ruins and symbols, but also features of their culture, one of which was as a matter of fact some vines they brought from Lebanon to integrate with our own.
At the beginning, Phoenicians established with Sardinia’s natives at the time, the nuragic population, commercial exchanges that slowly developed into proper political and military relations. Sardinia is the Italian region with the highest number of native vines, but with time other foreign types have become so embedded with our own ones that now it’s difficult to tell them apart.
Today typical Sardinian vines fall in two categories, red (Cannonau, comparable to French vine Grenache, and Nieddera) and white (Vernaccia, native, and Vermentino, likely arrived from Spain through Corsica in Santa Teresa di Gallura, in the nineteenth century), and the vineyards where Contini takes the grapes from are the Tirso Valley near villages of Zeddiani and Baratili, and Marrubiu, at the foot of Mount Arci. On top of that, they use other non-local grapes to mix and create new blends.
Sardinia has always been a favorable land for anything agricultural. Its being located on the western side of the Mediterranean Sea makes it influenced by both the ocean air of the Atlantic through Gibraltar Strait and the winds coming from the Sahara desert. Moreover, its “sandal” shape makes every place close to the coast, determining blessed climate and meteorological conditions. Apart from the weather, also soil properties play an important role in determining the future traits of the wine. In fact, in Sardinia, even though the native grapes are the same all over the island, wines come out different depending on where the grapes were harvested and where the wine was made. For example, in the Barbagia region, quite mountainous and far from the light winds coming from the sea, wines are very full-bodied.
Like for the beverage, also food in Sardinia is very much influenced by agricultural and farming tradition, and dishes are mainly composed with ingredients that in the past were cheap and easily available. This is how our cuisine uses cheese, milk, honey, mushrooms, vegetable soups, bread, olive oil, meat and fish. Also the main herbs and spices we use to cook have always been the ones we directly produce, such as saffron, rosmarine, mint, bay leaf, myrtle, thyme and sage among the most popular.
Contini’s winery has its headquarter in Cabras, a sundrenched hamlet set in the Sinis Peninsula and one of Sardinia’s prettiest towns. Rich in ponds full of fish, fertile lands and a diverse fauna, the area was densely populated already 6.000 years ago. Here many ancient relics belonging to different civilizations have been found, such as Phoenician tombs, statues representing Mother goddess, the oldest deity in the island, symbol of the earth’s fertility very likely introduced by Middle Eastern populations, and Roman columns. Near Cabras there is the former Roman settlement of Tharros which, before becoming Roman was Nuragic and Punic (Latin term that refers to the Carthaginians’ Phoenician ancestry). Its strategic position near the coast made it an excellent place for ships to moor and trade agricultural products and minerals from the inland. Despite the many populations that followed each other in Tharros, today it appears to us as it was during Roman times, straight paved roads, a wide square called forum, temples, aqueducts, thermal baths and a small amphitheatre.
Phoenician relations with Sardinia is what directly connects us to Lebanon, Phoenicians’ original land, probably our first connection with Middle Eastern populations, way before the Moorish presence in the Middle Ages. We don’t know much about Phoenician lifestyle in Sardinia, as we have found mainly necropolises, but by studying and observing the traditions of similar populations we can still gather that there was a mutual exchange in many aspects of living, such as food, cooking styles, ingredients’ combinations.
Sardinia is an extremely ancient land, the origins of which become as blurry as the ones of wine itself. There’s evidence it was inhabited since the beginning of mankind, and throughout history its native population never shied away from establishing relations with foreign civilizations.
Once you are here and you know the background of a wine, when you are tasting it, you can close your eyes and a picture of the land where its grapes grew and of the fruits that influenced its strength and color, will take shape in your mind and your way of drinking will get to another level.
To research for this article I’ve read books, visited many times Cantina Contini, talked to its owners, and last but not least, used all my knowledge of native of the area. Despite its length, this post is far from being an exhaustive piece. The more I read the more I keep finding new information, new angles, new fascinating details, to the extent that at some point I had to stop.
When I decided to write an article on Sardinian wines, all I thought except that it’s a potentially unlimited topic. I enjoyed the journey, one of the many I’m embarking on in my hometown, which I believed I knew more of and that’s revealing more obscure by the day. Its wine history is a perfect metaphor of just about everything here in Sardinia, a relatively small island where every village, for as small as it might be, boasts its own traditions, food, costumes, songs, dances, mentality, landscape, flavors. It’s this unending variety of memories from past lives with their cargo of mystery that makes it a Continent on its own rather than a region defined by administrative boundaries.
For all the precious information about such a new topic for me I have to thank Mauro Contini who, apart from explaining the basics of wine-making to me, also gave me the books “Vernaccia. L’oro della Valle del Tirso” by Mario Tendas and Enrico Marceddu, and “Vino Amore Mio” by Enzo Biondo, without which I wouldn’t have been able to write this post.