Giovanni Loi sat at the front of the hall for the lecture by the learned professor. The subject was age, something Giovanni knows a lot about. He is 98, looks about 70 and is a fit as a fiddle. He walked up the steep hill to the lecture and was going to walk home afterwards. After all, he is almost a youngster when compared with others in his community in the hills of Sardinia. The oldest person recorded here was 113, but in the last 20 years there have been over 3000 centenarians, out of just 1.6 million people.
This has put Sardinia and in particular the mountainous area of Ogliastra on the eastern side of the island, amongst the very few places in the world where people live significantly longer, healthier lives. This is known as a ‘Blue Zone’.
And the secret of their long life? Undoubtedly there are many factors, but Giovanni is convinced it is the wine. ‘A glass of Cannonau every day is good, two are even better,’ he said.
Cannonau is the local name for the Garnacha grape. It is the same as the Garnacha of Spain, but it is believed that this particular variety is an ancient strain that over the centuries has adapted itself to the steep slopes, high altitude and climate of this island. It is dark in colour and high in polyphenols, especially when grown at higher altitudes and it is this factor which may have an influence on the longevity of the locals. The flavours change with altitude too. Lower altitude wines are lively, fresh and full of cherry fruit but at higher altitudes the flavours are deeper, more concentrated and structured.
Cannonau makes up almost 30 per cent of Sardinia’s vineyard area with the majority grown on the hilly eastern side of the island but this is not a place of vast vineyards stretching over the horizon. Most grapes are cultivated by families who have a few hectares of vines as well as sheep, olives and other crops. Many send their grapes to be made into wine at the local co-operatives known as Cantina Sociale, but recently things have started to change. There is more focus on individual winemakers, smaller, well-equipped wineries and a definite drive to produce quality wines.
At Viticoltori Della Romangia there are just 10 members with 58 hectares between them. By concentrating on quality, and avoiding oak, they are making wines that demonstrate Cannona’s vibrant red fruits, with touches of liquorice, spice and a structured yet soft finish. It is wines like this that go so well with the local food, roast lamb, barbecued sausages and pecorino cheese.
The co-operative in Jerzu is much bigger with 430 farmers but here too there have been changes. The old winery is still in place, its massive concrete heart transformed into offices and a rooftop tasting room, but there is a new winery with new tanks, and a new philosophy. Winemaker Renato Loss is convinced that the future of Cannonau wines is at the fruity, non-oak aged end of the spectrum, where the grape’s natural exuberance can shine.
At the family-owned winery of Cantina Giuseppe Sedilesu in the hills of Mamoida there is a sparkling new winery to handle mainly Cannonau but also some of the historic old grapes still being grown. Organic, and in some places, biodynamic viticulture is creating individual styles.
While Cannonau is the flagship grape, there are excellent wines made from old Carignano vines. They are velvety soft, with plum, black pepper and herbal notes. Try Carignano del Sulcis ‘Negrominiera’ from Field and Fawcett (£11.60).
There are excellent white wines too, in particular the refreshing Vermentino di Sardegna which is light and lemon-fresh and acts as a great aperitif. Try Nord Est Vermentino 2015 at Majestic (£7.99). Sardinia is also working on its sparkling wines. I tasted one that had been aged under the sea for six months in an experiment. Whilst this is probably not commercially exportable, it does show that Sardinian wine overall is pushing forward with experiments in winemaking.
Sardinian Cannonau wine is still difficult to find but most independent wine merchants in our region have at least one. Try Halifax Wine Co. for the excellent, cherry and blackberry style Cannonau di Sardegna ‘Tonaghe’ 2015 from Contini (£13.50) or the robust, deep flavours of Primo Scuro Mesa Cannonau 2015 from Roberts and Speight (£11.99). Who knows, if we all drink one glass of Cannonau a day, or maybe even two we may follow in the footsteps of the Sardinian centenarians.
The best way to get a taste of Cannonau is to visit the island, and while the main holiday resorts are beautiful, if a little crowded, heading off the beaten track will reveal the true Sardinia, a little rustic, authentic and full of warm, generous people as well as glorious local food.
There are magnificent caves at Grotta Su Marmuri, with underground lakes, and vast 70 metre-high caverns. There is the history and culture of the region of Mamoiada with its carnival and masks and there are the ancient Nuraghi – tall stone towers from prehistoric times.
Best of all is the local food with spit roasted meats, hand-made pasta and an addictive bread known as pane carasua made a little like a pizza, then split open into paper-thin leaves and served warm, tasting of olive oil and herbs.