Gentle red from a rocky Italian isle

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 July, 1996, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 July, 1996, 12:00am

Consider Sardinia. It is the second-biggest island in the Mediterranean (after Sicily) and is renowned for little except brigands. About 85 per cent of the land is inhospitable craggy mountains or hills that make agriculture difficult. So why has it been inhabited by human beings for 7,000 years? Then I had a glass of soft, gentle red made from cannonau grapes on the chalky soil of the Sella and Mosca estate at Alghero, on the island's northwest tip. I began to appreciate there is more to Sardinia than sardines. Imported to Hong Kong by Valdivia at $98 a bottle, this is a worthy buy. There is nothing fancy about this honest red.

It is simply a nice wine at a reasonable price. Sardinians should be able to make decent wine. They have a near-perfect climate, with ample winter rain, long hot summers and a sea breeze to cool down torrid conditions. And they have had practice; Phoenicians were stamping grapes there 2,800 years ago. Just about every grape grown around the Mediterranean can be found in local vineyards.

Carthaginians planted some, as did Greek settlers, Roman invaders, Spanish conquerers and the Byzantine garrisons. Less gracious temporary rulers - and the Vandals, Vikings and Moors all ruled the island - were more interested in conspicuous consumption. The cannonau grape gives a dark, ruby wine, the colour softening with age.

Now on release is the '91 vintage reserve. This is a splendid companion to any red meat, but is sufficiently soft to go nicely with Cantonese roast pork or duck. The flavour is mouth-filling plum, with a hint of oak. Sardinia has an enormous output, mostly from many thousands of small farms. Sella and Mosca is one of the island's giants, with more than 500 hectares of grapes producing five million bottles a year.

It exports traditionally to Britain and North America; it is new in Hong Kong. Sella and Mosca is a modern plant with a considerable history. In 1899, the two founders arrived on the island from their native Piedmonte. Sella was an engineer, Mosca a lawyer. They bought infertile swamp land, planted American rootstock and prepared to grow bumper crops of grapes.

Most of Europe's vines had been wiped out by the dreaded phylloxera disease but in those high valleys of Sardinia, untouched remnants of ancient grapes survived.

Hence the wonderful palate of present vines. The roll-call of grapes grown today in Sardinia is phenomenal. Bouschet, bovale grande, cagniulari, Black Greek, nieddera and pascale di cagliari are just a few. But there is nothing old fashioned about this wine, except the taste and value. The company tries to tempt modern tastes.

The aim is to produce lighter, aromatic vintages that take the fruit to the palate. They still rely on traditional fruit, however, to give a stamp of authenticity. The vermentino ($98) comes from a grape probably introduced to Sardinia at the start of Spain's three-century rule.

Sella and Mosca use dried cannonau grapes to make a sweet dessert wine. The fruit is spread out under the relentless sun to dry on cane mats. When it reaches a stage rather like a raisin, the grapes are crushed. The result is Anghelu Ruju (Red Angel), named after a prehistoric grave found near the vineyard. It is a powerful, fortified wine that can rival a fine port.