Follow the Sardinian Wine Trail to Discover Local Traditions

Angela Corrias in Tharros Sardinia

Angela Corrias

There are two ways to get under the skin of a place: interact with its natives and unearth its traditions. How to achieve both is pretty straightforward: by trying the local food. And wine, that is. Thankfully, following the Sardinian wine trail and tasting along the way are quite pleasant ways to do that.

Embarking on this wine-led journey goes through myth and tradition that, although it takes place in my very hometown, acquires a new light every time I tackle a different angle of it.

This specific wine journey brought me to the area around Cabras, one of the Sardinian towns I suggest visiting for its richness in history, traditions, and places to visit. I took a tour of the local Contini winery, one of Sardinia’s oldest and most famous, tried their wines, and explore the origins of this important drink on the Italian island.

Follow along as I track the Sardinian wine trail and get inspired to explore it on your own!

Image: Sardinian wine trail in Cabras.

Cantina Contini from Cabras, one of the oldest wineries in Sardinia

If, by some quirk of fate, you happen in Cabras, one of the central-western towns in Sardinia, please knock at the door of Cantina Contini, one of the oldest (if not the oldest) wineries on the island. Here, you will find out that Sardinian wine is not just a drink, but an essential feature of the island’s 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 on to 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.

Image: Wine producing in Sardinia.

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, a Verona-based that organizes every year an international wine competition. Karmis is defined by its 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.

Image: Sardinian wine trails and traditions.

Among the whites, apart from the already mentioned Karmis, they produce Tyrsos, straw-yellow color 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, the reason for the pride of the entire island.

This is a fresh wine to be either taken as an aperitif, 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 percent.

Vernaccia is compared to “gold” as a symbol of wealth, nobility, and 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.

Image: Wine bottles in Cabras in Sardinia.

The origins of this vine are wedged between history and myth. It draws its power from the many elements that give life to 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 the 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 for 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 your experience with historical, traditional, and culinary details of both the wines and their birthplace, revealing their secrets and suggesting pairing 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 percent of its revenue, is Sardinia (yes, natives always prefer local wines), but Contini also exports to other Italian regions (15-20 percent of its trade) and abroad (20-25 percent) to Germany, Switzerland, United States, France, United Kingdom, Belgium, Netherlands, Australia, and Puerto Rico.

Image: Historical fishing boat in Cabras in Sardinia.

History of wine in Sardinia

If you plan a trip to Sardinia and your love for wine is part of what 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, the 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 the 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 or dinner without his glass of wine. With this, I’m not suggesting you increase your daily dose.

Image: Wines of the Contini winery in Cabras in Sardinia.

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, and Romans, wine has quickly become one of the most typical traits of the Mediterranean area.

Like 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 Phoenician 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 which 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.

Image: Contini winery in Cabras in Sardinia.

In the beginning, Phoenicians established with Sardinia’s natives at the time, the Nuragic population, and 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 into 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.

Image: Contini winery in Cabras in Sardinia.

Like the beverage, also food in Sardinia is very much influenced by agricultural and farming traditions, and dishes are mainly composed of 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, rosemary, mint, bay leaf, myrtle, thyme, and sage among the most popular.

Contini’s winery has its headquarters 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 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 the Mother goddess, the oldest deity on the island, and symbols 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 (a 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 a forum, temples, aqueducts, thermal baths, and a small amphitheater.

Phoenician relations with Sardinia are what directly connect 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 the 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 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 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 the natives 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, and new fascinating details, to the extent that at some point I had to stop.

When I decided to write an article on the Sardinian wine trail, history, and related traditions, all I thought except that it was 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 for 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, and 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.

Leave a Comment