In focus: Sardinia’s native grapes

With its shimmering blue seas and bounty of native grapes, Sardinia could soon be giving Sicily competition as Italy’s most exciting island wine region. Lucy Shaw comes away converted to its charms.

I’m standing in front of a metal cage filled with bottles of recently resurrected sparkling wine that have been sleeping on the seabed for nearly a year. The smell is intense and lung-filling, like freshly opened oysters. Sealed with golden wax, each bottle bears the hallmarks of its underwater rest, the glass flecked with pink and white coral speckles, like a bright constellation seen from afar. The patterns differ from bottle to bottle, making each one unique.

The ocean-aged Akènta Sub

The wine inside is a sparkling Vermentino made from grapes grown on sandy soils close to the sea in Alghero. Masterminded by Sardinian co-operative Santa Maria La Palma, for the past five years a portion of Akènta Extra Dry has been aged under water next to Alghero’s craggy Capo Caccia cliffs to see how deep-sea ageing affects the character of the wine.

The standard version is fresh and fruity, with floral hints. The ocean-aged version is more intense and powerful, with racy acidity and a distinct salinity. Santa Maria La Palma first experimented with ocean-aged Vermentino in 2011, and in May 2014 plunged 700 bottles of Akènta, which means ‘cheers’ in Sardinian, 30 metres deep to rest on the sea bed.

The fizz is left for eight months to a year in its underwater ‘cellar’, which offers ideal ageing conditions thanks to its constant cool temperature between 12°C-14°C, a uniform five atmospheres of pressure, and a and lack of sunlight and oxygen. “Under water is the perfect place to age any wine because it is free from its two biggest enemies – light and oxygen,” says Igor Profili, the co-op’s export director.

Wrapped in blue cellophane to protect them from ultraviolet light, the bottles are sold as Akènta Sub at a significantly higher mark-up than the standard Akènta fizz – €55 (£47) compared with €8.50. Production is limited to 1,000 bottles. The hefty price tag doesn’t appear to be putting people off.

“The bottles are designed by the sea and no two are alike – people like to keep them after they’ve opened them,” says Profili. The ritual of bringing the bottles up from the ocean attracts so much attention that last July the brains behind the project launched Akènta Day, inviting customers and the media to witness the moment on a speed boat with its own DJ, chef and sommelier.

Founded in 1959, Santa Maria La Palma is formed of 300 growers with 700 hectares of vineyards between them, in Alghero on the northwest coast of Sardinia. The co-op produces a wide variety of wines from native grapes, championing the likes of Vermentino, Cannonau (better known as Grenache), Monica and Cagnaluri. With 8,000ha under vine, Cannonau is Sardinia’s flagship variety.

Sardinia is home to an array of native grapes

Often prohibitively high in alcohol, the island’s best are an attractive ruby red and exude a pretty perfume of raspberry, cherry and violets. Sardinians are so proud of Cannonau, many believe it originated on the island rather than in Spain, and spread to Spain while Sardinia was under Catalan rule between 1323 and 1708.

The Spanish influence can still be felt on the island, particularly in Alghero, where Catalan is spoken and many northern-Spanish traditions have been upheld. During Easter in Alghero, streetlamps are covered in red cloth and emit a spooky scarlet glow to symbolise the blood of Christ.

With 320ha of Vermentino under vine, Santa Maria La Palma is one of the largest producers of the grape in Italy. “It’s a very flexible variety – we make everything from dry whites and sparklers to Sauternes-style late harvest wines from Vermentino,” says Profili.

The co-op has also become a flag-bearer for native red grape Cagnaluri, nurturing vines on chalky soils close to the ocean and in the foothills of the Monte Doglia mountains.

“Cagnaluri has a wonderful wildness to it and an appealing herbal character, offering notes of bramble fruit, liquorice, eucalyptus and spice. Like Graciano in Spain, it’s something of a Marmite wine – you’re likely to love or loathe it as a solo act. Traditionally used for adding colour and tannin to Cannonau, there are now under 40ha of Cagnaluri left in the world.

Another grape to have been saved from extinction in Sardinia is white variety Torbato – the island’s best-kept secret. Leading producer Sella e Mosca has single-handedly brought the grape back from the brink. Once widely grown in Roussillon in Southern France, where it is known as Tourbat, Torbato was abandoned in Sardinia during the 1960s > because it’s hard to grow and vinify.

Undeterred, Sella e Mosca continued to cultivate the grape, and today is the world’s largest producer of Torbato, making a million bottles a year. “Torbato is a cloudy grape that producers turned their back on in Sardinia in the ‘60s. At the time we were the island’s biggest producer and felt passionately about preserving it. We knew that if we abandoned it then it would disappear completely,” says Davide Champion, Sella e Mosca’s export director. The winery has such faith in the grape that it has upped its plantings from 80ha to 130ha, grubbing up Merlot to make room for it.

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