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Cannonau, Wine of the People

Which came first – Garnacha or Cannonau?

While it’s an interesting historical debate, it really doesn’t matter whether Cannonau, the Sardinian version of Grenache, came from Catalan Spain or whether the invading Spaniards took Cannonau back home with them and renamed it Garnacha, as the Sardinians maintain.  Either way, it is doubtful whether any wine region has so whole-heartedly embraced a varietal as Sicilians have this generous red grape.  Cannonau is more than a product of their culture; it is woven into the fabric of Sardinian culture.

Sella & Mosca, Sardinia’s largest and most-influential winery, and Palm Bay, its American importer, recently invited me and four other writers to travel with them through the geographically diverse and culturally rich island. As Sella’s director, Gian Matteo Baldi, repeatedly stressed, the purpose of the long tour was not to familiarize us with the firm’s wine, although we experienced that, but for us to better understand Sardinian wines in the context of its culture.

It is hard to reduce an experience such as this to two encounters, but I think two events emphasized how closely many Sardinian farmers identify with Cannonau, which to them is much more than just another crop. In between visits to a mask museum, a monolithic, prehistoric nuraghe, a Michelin one-star restaurant in an ancient village and the blue waters of the Tyrrhenian coast near Cala Gonone, we had two wine lunches adjacent to vineyards whose owners only grow Cannonau.

The first was in the breathtakingly steep mountains around the town of Jerzu in the Valle de Pardu.  We took to the mountains along rutted, single-lane dirt tracks that interlace the highlands and arrived a few miles later at the vineyards of Giovanna Orrù, among the highest in Italy. Orrù, along with her husband, Antonio Lai, raise Cannonau to sell to the cooperative, which has about 350 members, but she proudly points out that the vineyard is hers alone and came to her through her family.

Farmers in this region typically live in a village but often have a “hut” near their vineyards to store equipment and also to rest, have a meal and even to entertain nearby growers. However, Orrù’s hut could easily be mistaken for a rustic mountain vacation cottage. Inside, she and a few neighbors along with the head of the Jerzu coop were busy preparing lunch.  While the meal of pork and various iterations of traditional vegetable dishes and cheeses was being laid on the table, we had the opportunity to taste several local Cannonau wines, most in unmarked bottles.  All were well-made and very enjoyable, perhaps best described as “comfort wines,” including one Orrù and her husband made from grapes grown outside the hut, that well-matched the foods.

The next day’s lunch was both similar and different. It was in a small valley on the western side of the mountains outside of Mamoiada in the Nuoro region. Here, the topography was rolling, almost flat, with many old Cannonau vineyards, including one planted in my birth year, 1943. A solo modern windmill waved from a nearby hillock.

The hut, while small, was more like a clubhouse than its Jerzu counterpart, and eight or so local male producers were gathered when we arrived to share with us their wine, their food, their stories and their bonhomie. Their voices rose in good-natured banter as they discussed winegrowing, winemaking and life in general. Some of the words were untranslatable, although the context was universal. The lunch was similar to that of Jerzu – pork cuts, cheeses, fresh vegetables and at least one dish that challenged our determination to eat like the locals. Yesterday, it was a cheese made in a lamb stomach’s after it had eaten its last meal.  Today, it was lamb intestines stuffed with more lamb’s intestines and grilled slowly over hot coals.

Later, in town, I went with Baldi as he walked up a steep side street to an unmarked shop where a knife maker turns out artisan, bespoke pocket knives.  Most rural men in Sardinia carry such knives, Baldi says, and he needed to have his own knife adjusted. Similarly, in the rural farm region where I grew up, every man and boy carried a pocket knife to use on the farm, in the woods or at the table for whatever need arose.

After the craftsman, Paolo Pinna, handled Baldi back his knife, he insisted we go next door to where he had a few vats and a few barrels in a single room where he annually produces about a thousand bottles of Cannonau – less than 100 cases.  His wine was rich in flavor and in alcohol (about 17 per cent) and perfectly dry, the ideal way to end a long afternoon.

“You see,” Baldi said as we made our way back to the village center along the narrow streets, “everyone makes their own Cannonau.  It’s part of the culture.”

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