A declining industry sees an improvement in quality
Bargain hunters, take note. The latest statistics from Italy highlight just how lopsided the development of its viticulture has been in the deep south. For decades, the twin engines of Italy's gargantuan production, Sicily and Sardinia, could not have developed along more divergent paths.
Sicily's progressive winemakers embraced international varietals and made the most of EU funding to create saleable wines at key price points. Sardinia, on the other hand, did nothing at all.
The decline of viticulture in Sardinia is dramatic, even against a pessimistic background across the EU, with the island's production falling 90 per cent from its peak in the 1970s. It now stands at less than 10 per cent of Sicily's.
The good news for consumers is that small yields can mean better wine. The key to understanding Sardinia's potential lies in discovering its principal grape varieties, which are of exceptionally high quality. The most widely planted varieties are as follows.
The most important white grape variety in terms of quality, it accounts for 40 per cent of quality wine production. Vermentino was first introduced in the 18th century and is outstanding.
Typical wines show a saline minerality on the nose, mid-palate weight with ripe citrus (lemon, orange) and stone fruit (quince, passion fruit), and an oily viscosity. Its high acidity and affinity for hot climates warrant extended cellaring, unusual for Mediterranean whites.
Vermentino di Sardegna DOC is the island's most productive appellation but the best examples are from Sardinia's first and only DOCG: Vermentino di Gallura. (DOCG is a more restrictive quality assurance regime.)
One of the finest comes from Dino Addis of the Cantina di Gallura whose range of astonishingly good value whites includes the Tre Bicchiere-winning Genesi.
The finest producer of vermentino, however, is Capichera. Its "VT" catapulted both the wine producer and the DOCG onto the world stage but the value for money this close to Porto Cervo is nothing like that which the co-ops can offer.
The oldest variety was established by the Phoenicians and has called Sardinia home ever since. It's the second most widely planted variety and gives high yields.
At best, it produces lemon zest whites destined for quay-side quaffing under the DOC of Nuragus di Cagliari.
Or, more accurately, Vernaccia di Oristano. The small production hardly warrants a mention but it's arguable that this grape and its unique production method were the antecedents of modern-day sherry. Aged under a yeast-like growth called flor in old oak and chestnut casks, Vernaccia di Oristano is a dead ringer for decent fino sherry and was first referenced in the 14th century. Attilio Contini's "Antico Gregori" keeps the tradition alive.
Although the latest agricultural census suggests that fewer than 10 hectares of this particular clone of malvasia (the same one that makes Malmsey Madeira) are left in Sardinia it was, a century ago, drunk in every court in Europe.
Crafted from ancient vines grown on a vertiginous amphitheatre surrounding the harbour of Bosa, it is living testimony to Sardinia's potential. The finest exponent is Giovanni Battista Columbu's Malvasia di Bosa DOC, a Herculean wine aged for two years in chestnut casks.
Giovanni died last year, aged 92. No one knows what will happen to this DOC now it has lost its leading advocate.
Known in the rest of the world as grenache, the origin of one of the world's most widely planted grape varieties is hotly contested by both Spain and Sardinia.
Either way, cannonau is the most widely planted variety on the island. As elsewhere, Sardinian cannonau tends to give high alcohol but relatively low colour and acidity, which makes for user-friendly reds with herbal notes (sage) and sweet fruit (blueberry and strawberry jam) that rarely age.
The most striking exception to this rule is that made by Alessandro Dettori. Unoaked and weighing in at more than 17 per cent natural alcohol, this is grenache that can rival anything.
This much-maligned variety produces as compelling wine here as in the more fashionable regions of Rioja, Priorat and the Languedoc. Sardinia is the last Italian outpost of carignano.
Allof it is planted near the capital, Cagliari, but just a quarter is registered as DOC Carignano del Sulcis. Old vines are the key to making the most of this variety. The Cantina di Santadi's "Terre Brune" cuvée received three national awards in 2012, an unexpected achievement from an unknown red made by a local co-op.
Michael Palij is a master of wine