Contini: “A great flame follows a tiny spark”

I have always been fascinated by Sardegna.  Before I knew better, I assumed it was simply a playground for the rich and famous- where J Lo and Puffy parked their yachts during the summer.  “The Emerald Cost” sounds so glamorous, doesn’t it?  Once I started learning more about Italy and Italian wine, I began to realize how much more interesting this remote island actually is!

Sardegna has a rich and secretive past, filled with thousands of years of conquests, ransacking and raids.  This beautiful gem of an island has always been seen as the perfect place for ships to dock, filled with treasures, spices and valuable goods- making it the perfect target for countries to fight over through the centuries.

Sardegna is removed from the “boot” of Italy physically, and even culturally.  Native Sardegnians still speak a language today called “Sardo” of which there are still many specific dialects.  It is easy to see why, even though very much a part of Italy,  the traditions of Sardegna might have less in common with those of Piemonte or Toscana- and that the wines would be different, too.

Sardegna’s White Donkey or “Asinara Bianca“- another curiosity of the island.

One of my most magical wine memories was my first taste of Sardegna’s Vernaccia di Oristano.   I was visiting San Francisco’s famous southern-Italian restaurant A16 awhile back and Shelley Lindgren offered us some of this Contini Vernaccia di Oristano from 1985.  I had no idea what it was- the only Vernaccia I knew was  the white wine from San Gimignano in Tuscany (which bears no resemblance, nor any connection to, Sardegna’s Vernaccia di Oristano).  In the glass this wine is amber and quite pretty with bright reflections and a slightly heavy weight that lolls around the bowl of the glass.  I remember my first sniff- pure curiosity- what is this?! Toasted nuts, almond flowers- perky salinity- totally weird and intriguing.  On the palate it was equally nutty with a minerality and acidity you would expect from a fine dry sherry, but a languid, lush texture that would stand up to most foods, especially salty young pecorino or some salt-cured olives.

This wine was an epiphany for me at the time- it was foreign and other-worldly and secretive.  I had no idea where it had come from or how it was made- but it lit a fire for me to find out. (By the way, thanks Shelley!)

Bella Sardegna.

Contini is a master of Vernaccia d’Oristano.  Antonio and Paolo Contini have pefected the delicate art of producing this wine over many years and generations.  The Vernaccia grape is naturally high in sugar, which makes for a highly alcoholic wine to start.  The wine is placed in chestnut casks, which are not entirely filled so as to leave space in the barrels.  Eventually a native yeast called flor forms on the surface of the wine inside the casks, developing into a milky white film.  The flor consumes all sugars in the wines, and when there is no more sugar left, it begins to consume both oxygen and alcohol.  This process, combined with the natural evaporation of water, balances the wine in the cask and keeps it from tuning into vinegar.  The result is an amber wine reminiscent of Sherry, with powerful ageing capabilities and highly nuanced, etheral perfumes.

Barrels of Vernaccia in the Contini cellar.

There are only about 6,000 bottles of Vernaccia d’Oristano produced in all of Sardegna every year.  However you can still find a few on the market in the US.  I ordered a few from Italian Wine Merchants, and I have found them at K&L and the Wine House as well.  If you are curious about what centuries of winemaking traditions and an ancient indigenous grape can achieve- These wines are worth searching out.  Hopefully you’ll have your own wine epiphany- or at least a brief revelation.