I’ve a bottle of this wine on my desk in front of me. Vintage, wine name and producer’s name are picked out on the black label in red lettering, and the DOC designation of origin in silver. The only other mark on the label is an image: an unsmiling, almost despairing mask, its lines lifted from the paper darkness in silver, too. A huge nose, fierce eye-sockets, the mouth grimly set. It’s the most unsettling image I’ve ever seen on a bottle of wine. This bleak, horror-struck face fixes me as I drink the dark, unbridled wine the bottle contains.
The wine comes from a village called Mamoiada
, in the mountainous heart of Sardinia, and it’s made from Cannonau – a synonym of the Grenache or Garnacha grape. Sardinia was ruled by the Aragonese for almost 400 years (1324–1713; a form of Catalan is still spoken in the northwestern port city of Alghero). Perhaps the Garnacha arrived with the Aragonese ships. On ancient Sardinia, though, they believe that the genetic traffic went in the other direction, and that Cannonau is indigenous to their island. This slow, scholarly tug-of-war remains unresolved.
What’s certain is that the variety is happy here, and flourishes. This inexpensive wine is dark, earthy, rooty-juicy, firmly tannic, exuberantly allusive. It has two elder siblings: the 2010 Giuseppe Sedilesu Riserva Cannonau (produced from older vines in the best years only) and the 2010 Ballu Tundu Riserva Cannonau (produced from a small parcel of 100-year-old vines and aged in large barrels). Both are strong, sweet, primeval, impolite, detaining. The eerie mask looks out from all three, but especially from the Riserva, the most mouth-scouring of the trio. Why? What’s ‘Mamuthone’?
If you ever go to Sardinia, go in mid-January; try to be in Mamoiada on the 17th. There will be tree-stump fires in the street; look out for processions of masked figures. The first figures you’ll see will wear the familiar white masks of Italian carnival, elegant and expressionless. They wear black boots, white trousers and red tunics with bell-studded straps; they toss light ropes at girls and others in the crowds as they leap, dance and shimmy their way forward. These recognizably human gallants are called issohadores, and they lead the mamuthones who follow: dark, heavy, sinister figures, terrifying to children, clad in ragged black sheepskin, glaring out from their awful black pear-wood masks, each one carved into a different disposition of despair, all held in place by dark brown shawls over black berets. On their backs, each beast-man carries perhaps 30 or 40 cowbells of various sizes, bunched like a giant metal wasp’s nest. They stamp and buck rhythmically, in unison, and the bells clang as they do so. The effect is like an army of perfectly drilled cattle, marching on the village. Other villages in Barbagia (the mountain zone of inner Sardinia) have similar rituals but different figures and masks. All express, somehow or other, the bond between men and animals; and a sense of elemental forces, not necessarily benign, at work.
Catholicism has attempted to claim this festival and ritual (it takes place on Saint Anthony the Abbot’s day), but its roots seem obviously older and pagan: a propitiatory ritual for a pastoral economy. Sardinia still needs its shepherds: the island has four million sheep – half of Italy’s national flock. The granite-sand soils of the Sedilesu hillside vineyards, all of them biodynamically cultivated, are still ploughed by oxen. Ox bells and sheep bells season the hours here.
The despair of the Mamuthone mask on the label may be unjustified. We are, here, in one of the world’s ‘Blue Zones’
(areas of the world where people live measurably longer lives than elsewhere); indeed this concept sprang out of research into male centenarians in Nuoro province, where Mamoiada lies. There are 21 centenarians per 10,000 here, compared to (for example) a US average of just four per 10,000. Genes? Eleven years of research suggest that genetic factors are not the principal driver of Sardinian mountain longevity. Instead, researchers credit a mixture of diet (little meat; lots of vegetables, beans and bread); constant moderate physical exercise (a shepherd’s life is ideal, but everyone walks the village, and men hoe their vines by hand); social engagement, especially close family links – and Cannonau, which in contrast to much Grenache elsewhere has high polyphenol levels here. I drove with Francesco Sedilesu through the village. In one narrow street we slowed to a standstill as an elderly woman on a Zimmer frame made her way up the hill, with a young woman walking behind her, holding her elder’s black dress to stop it dragging on the ground. It was Francesco’s mother Grazia – and his daughter held her train. Three generations met in the village street, in the light of March.
Until 2000, the family simply produced bulk wine from their vines, and sold it in the other mountain villages. Then they began to wonder if the scents and flavours they had known since their childhood could be appreciated more widely. Francesco is the winemaker, but he says he brings little to the wine ‘compared to the rich life-force already present in it’. And that’s what you taste: blood, fire, the way that plants rise up from stones, the juicy sweetness that explodes from their fruit at summer’s end, the bitter mask of tannins, and the comfort that wine can bring to those who live hard lives unflinchingly, and survive.