Two days with Vernaccia di Oristano: air, water and stone
In Sardinia man still lives in close contact with nature, history, legend, myth and rituals that are lost in the mists of time. Every excavation here is a discovery, every stone belongs to the peoples who have lived on the island: the numerous Nuragic remains bear witness to this, even before the Phoenicians, perhaps even earlier, as has been demonstrated by recent finds of very ancient vine seeds.
In her “Viaggio in Sardegna. Undici percorsi nell’isola che non si vede” (Einaudi, Turin 2008, 198 pp.), the writer Michela Murgia describes how, as well as air and water, there is another main element on the island: stone. “Whether it is basalt, granite, sandstone, trachyte or tuff, the mental association between Sardinia and stone is only second to the one between Sardinia and the sea.”
Air, water and stone are the three essential elements for producing an intense, golden and tangy liquid: Vernaccia di Oristano. It was the first Sardinian DOC in 1971, a lively wine and the offspring of the ancient stones (like those of the Giants unearthed under the Vernaccia vineyards) sculpted by the sea, of which it keeps all the richness of taste, with long developing times and exposure to the air. Vernaccia di Oristano, in fact, is wrapped in several veils: the first one is a veil of mystery. The origins of this grape variety are still unknown. Another one is the veil that covers the wine during ageing in oak and chestnut barrels, left not quite full and exposed to atmospheric changes. These extreme conditions favour the intervention of flor (fiore in Spanish), a film of yeasts that forms at an alcohol level of 14 to 17 degrees and makes Vernaccia di Oristano a rare and valuable wine. Inside every glass there is the history of the Phoenician columns at Tharros, the salty smell of the sea that wets the Sinis peninsula and the ponds of Cabras; lastly, the strong notes of Mediterranean bush in blossom: aromas that only those who have been to Sardinia can recognise.
The journey among those who still produce Vernaccia di Oristano
After falling in love with the Vernaccia di Oristano by the Josto Puddu winery, Eleonora Martinelli, sommelier at the Vini Rossetti wine shop in Ponte Tresa, in the Canton of Ticino, set off in search of this dry, complex, sapid, incredibly long-lived and unpredictable white. The Josto Puddu winery no longer exists, and the other wineries in the area are also an endangered species, because they cannot and, due to the classic Sardinian pride, will not distort the hard character of this wine.
On the flood lands of the Tirso plain, the river that crosses this western part of Sardinia, fewer than 400 hectares of vineyards remain; because Vernaccia doesn’t follow modernity, the rules of the market or taste: “it is a wine of the past,” says Eleonora Martinelli.
The resilient vinegrowers
Produced mostly in bulk and for private consumption, Vernaccia di Oristano is strongly defended today by some resilient wineries. The historic Attilio Contini winery grows two native varieties (Vernaccia di Oristano and Nieddera, a red grape) and every day it fights to defend Vernaccia di Oristano, trying to come to terms with modernity, proposing it in a blend with Vermentino, or making a sparkling wine, although Vernaccia made according to tradition and aged in not quite full casks for 10-20 years has a completely different historic and human taste. Antico Gregori is the flagship wine: a cuvée of the best vintages of Vernaccia aged for decades, even half a century or more. The winery offers tours of the vineyards, cellar and barrel room, ensuring that you will never forget the smell of those places.
Founded in 1953, the Vernaccia Cooperative Winery combines the vinegrowing and winemaking tradition of several small producers and the precious nectar can be purchased at the internal wine shop. Lastly, the Orro Winery is the demonstration of how a young man, Davide Orro, believed in the immense potential of this grape variety. The winery is in Tramatza, where, as well as cultivating Vernaccia di Oristano and Nieddera, the Orro family have transformed their winery into an educational farm and organise itineraries in order to pass on local knowledge.
Where to eat
The islanders are always on the defence from enemy attacks worming their way inside and developing a meat-based culinary tradition. In Oristano and Cabras, on the other hand, eating fish is not a tourist attraction. In the pond at Cabras, one of the finest bottarga (salted, cured fish roe) in the world is produced.
– Sa Peschiera ‘e Mar ‘e Pontis, in Cabras: more than zero food miles, here you eat directly in the fishmongers. The menu is the catch of the day.
– Zia Belledda (0783-290801), in Cabras: tradition and home cooking at very reasonable prices.
– Blao Ristorante, in Oristano: a quaint place in the city centre where elegance and refinement combine without losing the homemade tradition.
Where to sleep
Sa Reposada, B&B in Cabras
Torremana, B&B in Cabras
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