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The Opposite of 'International'
By Mary Ewing-Mulligan
Jan 1, 2013
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Santadi, Carignano del Sulcis Riserva (Sardinia, Italy) “Rocca Rubia” 2009 (Empson USA, about $27):  Call me crazy, but I have always liked the Carignan grape.  Many Southern France producers have reduced, or eliminated, the rustic Carignan element in their wines in favor of “ameliorating varieties” intended to produce a more refined result, but I continue to believe that Carignan can make good wine -- a tannic wine, sure, but a wine that has the ability to be substantial without being overripe.

Carignan is a red Spanish variety that’s also grown across the wine regions of southern France.  Less well known is the Italian stronghold of Carignan, the island of Sardinia.  In a recent tasting of red wines from the Santadi winery in Sardinia, three Carignans excited me.  To find three Carignan-based wines from a single winery is unusual probably anywhere in the world.

Sardinia boasts many obscure native grape varieties as well as varieties such as Grenache (called Cannonau) and Carignan that are more famous in Spain and France than in Italy.  The island’s 20 DOC wines include red wines made from grapes such as Monica, Giró, and Bovale -- and, inevitably, a couple of wines made from Sangiovese and Cabernet.  Only the DOC wine Carignano del Sulcis features Carignan.  This production zone is mainly in the southwestern part of the island, an area know for its beaches as well as its mineral mines.

What struck me in tasting Santadi’s three Carignano del Sulcis wines were their fairly pronounced and complex aromatics and their freshness of flavors coupled unusually with robust structure.  All three wines had aromas and flavors of red fruits, black pepper spice, char, chocolate, coffee and herbal notes such as mint and eucalyptus.  Their fruity flavors had a refreshing, distinctly juicy character.  But tannins gripped the tongue, more or less so in each wine, and created an edgy contrast with the fresh flavors and juicy red fruitiness.

Santadi’s basic Carignano del Sulcis is called “Grotta Rosa,” 2010 vintage (about $14).  It is unoaked, dry, flavorful and medium-bodied -- the kind of red that could make a terrific everyday wine for sophisticated wine drinkers, and a crossover winner for those who normally drink more mainstream wines.

The winery’s middle-tier Carignano del Sulcis -- for my money the pick of a worthy three -- is Santadi 2009 Carignano del Sulcis Riserva, “Rocca Rubia.”  Like the Grotta Rossa, it is entirely Carignan, but the grapes for this wine come from ungrafted bush vines, and the wine ages for ten to twelve months in new and second-use French oak barrels.  The wine is rather big and structured with intriguing spicy, very minerally, and fresh berry flavors.  It’s somewhat chewy in texture and a bit wild in personality.  I find that, of the three wines, it has the best balance between tannic structure and fruitiness.  It will improve over the next couple of years, but it’s great now, especially if aerated.

Santadi’s 2007 Carignano del Sulcis Superiore, “Terre Brune” (about $60) also comes from the fruit of ungrafted bush vines, but it has slightly more skin contact during fermentation than the Rocca Rubia, and it ages longer -- 16 to 18 months —--in French oak barrels that are all new. (The Superiore-level DOC requires bush vines.)  It has the guts and concentration that typify Carignan but it also has real depth as well as supple, silky texture within its tannic frame.  This wine takes the Carignan grape to the realm of sophistication.  Already five years old, it can clearly age another ten years.

The Grotta Rossa is the most versatile of these wines with food.  The two richer wines, Rocca Rubia and Terre Brune, will be most enjoyable with hard cheeses and rare beef or lamb, but any hearty winter dish will suit their style.

Rocca Rubia:  90 Points