Sardinia è da sogno. Sardinia is a dream. Few places, if any, can match the stunning beauty of Sardinia. Part of the beauty lies in the contrast of the land. On one hand, it is a harsh terrain, with granite mountains and rock formations where shepherds tend to their flocks and bandits in the days of old hid from the law. On the other, there are pristine white beaches with turquoise water that could easily be confused for the Caribbean. The famed Costa Smerelda, or Emerald Coast is the envy of much of Europe. Both the coast and the interior of the island are equally important to Sardinian culture and way of life.
Sardinia is the second biggest island in the Mediterranean, just behind Sicily, its big sister to the south. Its strategic position in the Mediterranean Sea has meant the island has been ruled and conquered by many bigger, more powerful nations from Carthage to Rome to Genoa to Aragon to the House of Savoy, who eventually unified Sardinia and the Italian peninsula in 1861, with the last King of Sardinia, Vittorio Emmanuelle II, becoming the first King unified Italy.
Long before these events, a mysterious people lived on the island and built stone, tower-like structures known as Nuraghi that were first constructed around 1500 BC. As these people left no written records, historians and archeologists have the difficult but fascinating task of interpreting and analyzing these structures. We were lucky enough to visit one with our guide Ivana, who is as fierce a Sardinian patriot as one can meet. She, like most of the people on the island, is extremely proud of its history, telling us that Nuragic civilization began long before such social advancement took place in Italy. Ivanna was very proud of the fact that the unification of Italy and the Risorgimento began in Sardinia.
Like many of the people we met in Croatia and Montenegro, Ivana spoke of historical events, particularly those involving Sardinians defending their land from foreign invasion as if they happened yesterday. When relating to us the story of when Napoleon Bonaparte, as a mere lieutenant in 1793, had his attack on La Maddalena island repulsed, Ivana gesticulated and referred to the Sardinian army as “we” as though she were describing a soccer match. Later, when we took a horseback ride (horses are an immensely important part of Sardinian culture) by the impressive Capo D’Orso rock structures that overlook La Maddalena Island and Caprero, our host told us of the exploits of the British Admiral Lord Nelson who anchored at La Maddalena nine times between 1803 and 1805. He spoke of the gift that Nelson made to the town of the finest silver candlestick holders with such familiarity, one could be forgiven for thinking he had been present.
Other Sardinians share the same love for their nation, and though Sardinians who want independence from Italy are far and away in the minority, we did meet a few, including Claudio, a die hard supporter of Cagliari, the football club from the capital of Sardinia of the same name. Though he had a lot of nasty things to say about Italian politicians, Claudio did believe that Cagliari should remain in Italy’s Serie A football league even if independence was achieved, however unlikely. Like many major issues, the placement of Sardinian football teams is a major, unplanned problem that supporters of independence would prefer to figure out only after independence were achieved (an almost impossible circumstance).
The pride Sardinians have in their history and their football club is also echoed in their wine and food. When the late, great Anthony Bourdain visited the island for his show No Reservations, he commented that when a land area is conquered by different groups of people, it may not be beneficial to those living there at the time, but it might be an overall a good thing for the cuisine of a region. Though this comment was definitely made tongue-in-cheek by Bourdain, he does have a point. Many seafood dishes have their origins in Spain, while the Italian fingerprints are all over the different pastas prepared.
Upon eating on the island, the first thing a visitor notices is the famous bread of Sardinia sitting on the table: Pane Carasau. This crunchy flatbread dates back to the Nuragic people and has been eaten on the island for over 3000 years, and no meal anywhere in Sardinia is complete without it.
The second most famous and important food from Sardinia is the perfect accompaniment to Pane Carasau: cheese. The most famous cheese in Sardinia is not traditional cow’s cheese, but sheep’s cheese that dates back to the days when itinerant shepherds and their flocks roamed the Sardinian mountainsides in summer before coming down closer to the coast in winter. Sheep’s cheese in Italian is known as Pecorino, after pecora, the Italian word for sheep.
We were lucky enough to visit a young shepherd named Pietro, who, at the age of just 26, has adapted this ancient pursuit of cheese-making to the 21st century. Working with his father, Pietro keeps over 100 sheep along with some pigs and goats. The sheep, however, are his pride and joy. Though some of them are slaughtered and used for meat, especially around Christmas, he keeps the majority of his animals for the production of Pecorino Sardo, the name for Sardinian pecorino. Pecorino Sardo is protected by the Denominazione di Origine, meaning that product must come from the specific region and follow specific guidelines in production, much like the Italian wine classification of DOC and DOCG. Sheep’s milk and sheep’s yogurt are also important part of the Sardinian diet that Pietro produces.
A 21st century shepherd does not sleep with his flock or accompany them to the mountains in summer as his ancestors did, and needs to find other ways to innovate and create income. In the future, he will turn the family house on the property that has a beautiful view from the foothills all the way to the sea into a bed and breakfast. After giving us a tour and introducing us to the goats, pigs, and sheep, Pietro served us three styles of Pecorino Sardo, each aged for a different amount of time, and prosciutto and salami made on the farm, washed down with homemade red wine. As a special treat, our host brought us a sheep’s cheese made in the French, brie-like style that was to die for.
For those interested in cheese and trying Pecorino Sardo without actually making the long trip across the Atlantic, there is hope. While some cheese shops will have the rare Pecorino Sardo, many places like Whole Foods or Graul’s for those in the Baltimore area, have Pecorino Romano, by far the most famous of the various sheep’s cheeses made in Italy (there is also a Pecorino Toscano). Much of the Pecorino Romano that is produced is actually produced in Sardinia by Sardinian sheep. So if you go to your local grocery store or deli and purchase a Pecorino, there is a good chance that what you’re eating is actually from Sardinia.
Not far from the shepherd’s home we were able to visit a few local wineries and taste the best local wines. The highlight of the wine experience was a visit to Capichera winery, the most famous wine from the north of Sardinia and allegedly a favorite of Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom. Capichera’s property is picturesque with vineyards covering the rolling hills before the mountains grow higher. The architecture of the facility is done tastefully in the Sardinian style with terra-cotta roofing that can be seen throughout the costal areas. Capichera’s label takes its inspiration from a Nuragic-period structure that borders one of their vineyards known as the Giant’s Tomb.
Our trip there was magical. Upon arriving at the main building, we were taken by golf cart through the vineyards and shown the different grapes they grow. We continued our drive to their idyllic tasting area built on the edge of the vineyards, with a patio, deck, and private tasting area, all with fantastic views.
Our host, Anna, took us on a tasting tour of five wines, each accompanied by a different plate of meats and cheeses designed to emphasize the best characteristics of the specific wine. Not surprisingly, each plate also came with a generous serving of Pane Carasau.
The tasting began with the També rosé, made mainly with red Carignano grapes that helped produce a more round, full bodied rosé than the light, crisp Provence style. We greatly enjoyed it, reminding me of our very own Vectors South Rosé, especially the 2018 vintage. Sillily, I thought the pecorino and prosciutto served with the rosé was to last the whole tasting, so when Anna asked us if we were finished, I said no, only to be surprised by another plate put down in front of us for the next wine.
The first of three Vermentino we tried was the flagship wine of Capichera, the Capichera. This lemony white wine is the perfect expression of this fantastic grape. Vermentino is grown in Liguria, Corsica, and even Tuscany, but the most complex and interesting undoubtedly hail from Sardinia, especially the north. The only DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantizata), the highest classification of Italian wine, in Sardinia is Vermentino di Gallura. Anna explained to us that Capichera actually does not have the DOCG ticket on any of their wines except the Vign’Angena, but this does not mean that any of their wines are anything but the best, but rather speaks merely politics of the Italian wine world.
The next Vermentino we tried was the VT, which is harvested a little later than the Capichera in September and even in October in certain years. The wine is also vinified in barriques (casks or barrels) and not put on the market for at least two years after its harvested. The VT is much darker, almost golden in color, with a deeper, richer taste and a high aging potential that the Steele-tank aged wines lack.
The final Vermentino and our favorite, was the Santagaíni. This complex, elegant wine is not released for at least fours years after harvest and is only produced in the years where the quality is deemed high enough to produce such a high quality wine. Fermented in steel tanks before being aged in the bottle, this wine is not cheap at 120 euros, but is worth every penny for a lover of Vermentino.
After the fantastic presentation, Anna gave us a bonus taste of Capichera’s two favorite red wines, the Manténghja, made of local grapes, and our preference, the Assajé, made of mainly the Carignano grape, one that I fell in love with during our time in Sardinia.
Carignano is a grape that produces full bodied wines with a strong nose that is of Spanish origin. Bourdain’s line about conquered regions certainly applies to wine as well. The other famous red grape on the island is Cannonau, protected by the DOC as Cannonau di Sardegna, meaning it can be produced any where on the island provided it follows the regulations imposed by the Italian wine authorities. Cannonau is the Sardinian version of the Spanish grape Garnacha. The best Cannonau is also produced in the South near Cagliari, or to the East, but other lovers of this wine swear by the high altitude vineyards near Nuoro.
Of all the wines we tried in Sardinia, Capichera definitely sticks out in our memory thanks to the personalized tour and tasting presentation that went along with the high quality of the wines. Anyone who visits the Costa Smeralda region with even just a passing interest in wine, should make a trip to Capichera.
Other wines we enjoyed include Surrau, whose winery we also visited, and who also produces a nice sparkling wine, the Vermentino di Gallura made by Lupus in Fabula, and the Tenute Sella & Mosca Carignano we had at the wonderful little restaurant in the town of San Pantaleo called Nuraxi.
The wines of Sardinia are perfect because thanks to its large size and varied geographic and geological regions, it can make diverse wines and equally good red and white wines. The whites, especially the Vermentino di Gallura and the less famous Malvasia di Bosa compliment the seafood on the coastal regions brilliantly. Our favorite seafood stop was called Belvedere, not to far from the flashy town of Porto Cervo where celebrities come on their yachts. Fish carpaccio and tartare are staples in Sardinia as they are throughout the Mediterranean, and Belvedere had this as well as the local Scorpion fish cooked with vegetables and doused in olive oil, washed down, of course, with Vermentino. After dinner, our servers, who spoke little to no English, served us Mirto, the Sardinian after-dinner liqueur made from the myrtle plant found throughout the island. The drink is strong and some sort of odd combination of Fernet Branca and Jagermeister.
Other dishes that one must try in Sardinia include goat (yes, goat!), which is not nearly as rich as lamb, but very tasty. The restaurant Il Fuoco Sacro at the Petra Segreta Resort and Spa specializes in typical Sardinia fare and their goat is one of the best items on the menu. Other typical local options include the suckling pig and the guinea fowl, both perfect to have with a nice glass of Carignano or Cannonau.
Sardinia, despite the opinions of certain locals, is still a part of Italy, and while the traditional Sardinian food is dangerously delicious, there is no point in trying to resist the staples of Italian food while on the island, especially when they are given a Sardinian twist. Proscuitto e melone, spaghetti alle vongole, insalta caprese, and of course, pizza, were just some of the typical dishes more commonly associated with il continente, as the locals often call mainland Italy, that were highlights. Perhaps the best single dish we had, however, was the Tagliattelle pasta made with truffles in a buttery truffle sauce.
The mirto liqueur is not the only delicacy from Sardinia to come from an indigenous plant. Raw strawberry tree honey, known as Corbezzolo, has been a famed export of the island since the time of the Roman Republic. We were told of this intriguing honey and its health benefits (that exceed those of Manuka honey) and found a bottle at Nuraxi. Made with the help of wild Sardinian honey bees, Nuraxi’s honey is EU certified organic, deep in color, and sweet in taste. Corbezzolo is one of the true treats of the island most treasured by the locals.
The food, the wine, and the history all are special parts of Sardinia, but what has made the island truly famous for tourists are the sandy beaches and brilliantly clear water. Before World War II, the threat of mosquitos and malaria kept many tourists away as Sardinia remained rugged and wild. Yet during the allied occupation, the US took a keen interest in both Sardinia and Corsica and sprayed DDT, ending the dreadful malaria outbreaks that had plagued the costal areas. Then in 1961 the 49th Imam of Nizari Ismailism Karim Aga Khan began development of the area that would be known as the Costa Smeralda. It has since become the place where celebrities go to be seen and tourists go to gape at their super yachts around Porto Cervo. The whole area was developed tastefully, as Khan loved Sardinia deeply and had the construction done in the traditional Sardinian style without sky scrapers, and in fact nothing can be built higher than three stories on the entire island.
The beach scene, as with any area with so much wealth, has beach clubs with more of a party atmosphere near the Cala di Volpe resort. We visited the Shardana beach club, which we reached by taxi boat, and ate at a restaurant called Big Sur where the wine flowed and people enjoyed the views and the music. On the beach, we saw Americans and Italians alike sipping champagne, vermentino, or the local Sardinian beer called Ichnussa (after the original name of the island).
For those looking for a more relaxing day on the beach with a good book, the Golfo d’Aranci by the Gabbiano Azzuro Hotel is the perfect spot. We also visited a beautiful beach in Baia Sardinia with plenty of restaurant options just a short walk up the promenade. Whichever beach you choose, odds are you will be truly mesmerized by the colors of the water and the sand, especially when mainland Italy features mainly rocky beaches.
Sardinia è da sogno. Sardinia is of a dream. I saw this phrase in a magazine at the hotel Petra Segreta and it stuck with me. I don’t think anyone can describe the place any better or with more powerful language. As I think and plan future travels, it is hard to not put Sardinia at the top of the list, with the capital Cagliari, the former Catalan settlement of Alghero, the mountainous village of Nuoro, and the area around Sulcis where the great Carignano wines are produced. Sardinia is a dream and the diversity of its landscape, sprawling history, and fantastic culinary traditions mean that Sardinia can be a dream for anyone.