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A First Course in Wine: From Grape to Glass. Copyright 2013; Race Point Publishers, NY. 224 pages. Forward by Mario Batali.

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Sardinia’s Secret Saline Seduction

If you’re in the northern hemisphere, chances are your radar is turned to red wines for a the next few months, but I’d like to take a moment and discuss the mysterious whites from one of my favorite Italian regions:  Sardinia.

Known for its mixed cultural history, cork oak tree forests, and reclusive beach resorts, Sardinia is the second largest island in the

Sardinian bush vines takin in the afternoon sun

Mediterranean.  The region has periodically changed hands throughout the course of history as various empires have used the island as a docking point for access to other conquered lands.  Although great cultures such as the Byzantine and Austrian empires once ruled the island, no other culture has had more influence on the modern culture of Sardinia than Spain, as evidenced by the surplus of Spanish grape varieties used for wine production.  The economy is dominated by tourism, with many of the local wines consumed by the ten million visitors that travel to the island yearly.  Two thirds of all DOC production is white wine, ideal for the region’s maritime cuisine.

Stumped on where to begin?  Luckily there’s plenty of variation between the white wines of Sardinia and there are endless flavors to explore.  The most highly regarded white grape is Vermentino.  Scientists believe the grape originated in Spain, and was brought to the island by Aragonese monarchs, who controlled Sardinia for most of the Renaissance period and beyond.  It is a popular grape grown throughout the Mediterranean basin, including neighboring Italian regions, Tuscany and Liguria.  It’s also cultivated in Corsica and southeastern France, where it takes the name, Rolle.  Many Sardinian Vermentinos have a crisp and mineral character with a distinguished briny tone mixed with lemon rind.  These wines are perfect companions for any seafood pasta or cheese and bruschetta platter.  The harmony found when drinking the very best Vermentinos – the balance of fresh fruit, acidity, and salinity – is truly a wonder to be experienced.

Vermentino vines in Gallura

The most revered Vermentino wines come from the island’s only DOCG, Vermentino di Gallura, located on the northern coast of the island where the terrain turns rugged and the temperatures drop.  Vineyard elevations can creep up to a third of a mile, and at these elevations, Vermentino grapes benefit from the cooler evening temperatures.  Grown in a mixture of sand and granite soils, vines can dig deep into the soil to obtain water trapped in the bedrock in summers of extreme drought.  Vermentino di Gallura wines are the most interesting and complex of all Vermentinos with flavors of mints and herbs mixed with tropical fruits and fennel aromas, ideal for the cuisine rich in cheeses, faro (couscous), and fish.

Nuragus is a popular grape to grow in Sardegna, partly for its fortitude.  The grape is quite malleable to various types of soil, and often produces rich and bountiful clusters.  Wines labeled, Nuragus di Sardegna DOC can, in effect, come from anywhere on the island, and must be produced from at least eighty five percent Nuragus.  The majority of Nuragus wines come from the southern portion of the island.

Vernaccia grows along the western coast of Sardinia, and is used for production in one of the most unique wines from Italy,

Sardinian riders between afternoon Vermentino sessions

Vernaccia di Oristano DOC.  The grape, which has no affiliation with the Vernaccia grape from Tuscany, produces fortified wines rich in alcohol with nutty aromas that rival the famous Spanish fortified wine, sherry.  Vernaccia di Oristano wines must be aged a minimum of two years in wood barrels.  Superiore wines must be aged for three years in barrel, and Riserva wines must be aged for at least four years in barrel.  The longer the wine is aged in barrel, the longer the liquid inside is exposed to oxygen, thereby magnifying the nutty and oxidative quality that, when controlled, can make some of the most perfumed and powerful whites in all of Italy.

Do all these indigenous grape names leave you feeling frustrated and wanting to reach for a beer instead?  No worries if the unfamiliar are challenging to accept.  Producers grow many of the grapes we’re all used to hearing as well such as Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Viognier, and Pinot Grigio.  Use these wines as stepping stones to get to the heart of Sardinian whites.

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