On February 10, Sardinia struts its stuff as it hosts the fifth annual Grenaches du Monde competition in the town of Alghero. It’s the first time that Cannonau di Sardegna (the Sardinian version of Grenache) has really taken center stage in the international competitions. The most widely planted wine grape in the world, Grenache is grown extensively in Spain, France, Italy, Portugal, Greece, Mexico, Chile, South Africa, California, and Australia. In the 2016 competition, Spanish wineries dominated the gold medals, French and Sardinian winemakers the silver, and all three countries won bronze. No other nation even placed.
Someday DNA research will unravel the tangled, contentious history of the grape. Grenache was long thought to hail from the southern Rhone, where it’s the backbone of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. But preliminary DNA research has convinced scholars that northern Spain, where’s it’s known as Garnacha or Garnatxa, is the real birthplace. That’s the official version codified by Jancis Robinson’s The Wine Grapes.
Sardinians beg to differ. They’ve been vinting Cannonau for close to a thousand years (or 400, or 500, or 600, depending on which expert you ask). The DNA match for Grenache/Garnacha/Garnatxa/Cannonau is exact, although some Sardinian clones of Cannonau share DNA sequences with other ancient grapes that originated in Georgia and Armenia. That both the Spaniards and the Sardinians blend Garnacha/Cannonau with Cariñena/Bovale (another red grape that geneticists identify as Spanish) only adds to the confusion. The secondary grape provides both tannins and acidity for balance and better aging potential.
But when it comes to drinking the wines, it’s clear that each region produces a very different style. The monster Garnatxa reds of Spain’s Priorat and Montsant are only distant cousins of the well-mannered Grenache from the Courbières and Minervois regions just over the border in France. Châteauneuf-du-Pape represents still another style—brash and bold, but without Spain’s bombast. Sardinian Cannonau takes many guises, but it is typically characterized by intense dark berry flavors with nice overtones of anise, leather, tobacco, and violets.
Cannonau comes of age
After nearly a week traveling through Cannonau country in Sardinia this fall and tasting nearly 200 wines, I came away excited and impressed with Sardinia’s contribution to the world of Grenache. I had not tried Cannonau in more than a decade, and the flawed bargain wines I remembered have disappeared. Led by a strong and disciplined D.O.C. group determined to compete in the international market, the winemakers of Cannonau have brought their ancient grape into the 21st century. A wide range of individual styles still persists, but overall, Cannonau now arrives to the table dressed for success. Despite the finesse of the wines, Cannonau remains a relative bargain—assuming you can find it. In the next few posts, I’ll be treating some of the more striking examples and offering a few peeks at life on Sardinia in the uplands above the famous seaside resorts.