Mamoiada Unmasked

Mamoiada Unmasked
In the heart of Sardinia, the Mamoiadani have been making wine for centuries, but it is only in the last few years that the mask has come off, revealing a wine region with extraordinary potential.
Fruity, sun-loving Grenache has been planted with success in many regions outside of France. One of them is Italy, where it goes by the name of Cannonau. The grape is so much at home in Sardinia that DOC production is permitted just about anywhere on the island. A lot of soft and approachable Cannonau di Sardegna makes its way overseas, but if you want something special you need to visit Italy’s newest premium wine region. You might not have heard about the Cannonau being made in Mamoiada, a mountain village 200 kilometres north of Cagliari, because most producers declassify, labelling their products as Barbagia IGTs while they wait for the creation of their own DOC.
The specificity of place, they say, trumps the denomination. In truth, Mamoiada is more widely celebrated for its festival of masks than its wine. In mid-January men in elaborately carved black masks take to the village streets. Wearing sheep skins and weighed down by 30 kilograms of cow bells, the Mamuthones stamp the ground around a huge bonfire in celebration of the coming of spring. The festival also represents an opportunity to check the quality of the latest harvest, as each producer supplies 20 or 30 litres, and wine flows freely. The significance of the festival is also evident in the names printed on bottles. Ballu Tundu, Sartiu, Mamuthone, Issohadore and Martis Sero are some of the references to dances or masked characters that serve as the names of cuvées. Though the Mamoiadani have been making wine for centuries, it is only in the last few years that the mask has come off, revealing a wine region with extraordinary potential. There are an estimated 200 growers in the village, a staggering number considering the population is only 2,500. In 2015 around 30 growers joined together to create the Mamoja Association to promote commercial activity while holding each other to higher standards than those required by the Cannonau di Sardegna DOC. Their twin focuses are Cannonau and Granazza. The latter is a beguiling, potent white grape native to the area. The association members put Mamoja stickers on their bottlenecks as a guarantee that the wine has been made at low yields, with manual harvesting and the use of indigenous yeasts. All of the grapes must come from Mamoiada’s hillside vineyards, which range from 650 to 900 metres above sea level. The crumbly granitic soils support vines that are often more than 100 years old, and the grapes have a distinct mineral freshness that you won’t find in the ones grown on limestone 10 minutes outside the village, where the elevation drops to 200 meters. Mamoiada’s vines get plenty of sunshine and, while summer temperatures can soar, leading to high maturity and alcohol levels, the cool evenings preserve acidity.
The village’s red wines are powerful, spicy and structured but also nuanced and, when the grapes come from the oldest vines, ethereal. On many bottles the word ‘ghirada’ is used to denote a single-vineyard wine. One Mamoiada producer offers a very nice Cannonau from the Fittiloghe vineyard and during a visit to the cellar at Cantina Francesco Cadinu I got to taste another, which had been aged eight months in chestnut barrels, then a year in bottles. While there were aromatic similarities between the two, the delicacy and complexity of Francesco Cadinu’s Fittiloghe stood out. ‘It is the same vineyard,’ smiled Giulia Cadinu, the winemaker’s daughter, ‘but their vines are 20 years old. Ours are 120.’ Although the village has a very long winemaking history, commercial production only began 20 years ago and that’s why you probably haven’t heard of Mamoiada. Most of the wineries I visited just started selling wine in bottles four or five years ago. Up until the year 2000, all of the growers made wine for their own consumption, trading some for goods and services and selling a small amount in 5- to 20-litre containers. Then Giuseppe Sedilesu caused a stir by bottling and selling his wines. ‘The first bottle was 10 euros,’ recalled Pietro Fadda of Cantina Mussennore. ‘A lot of older people said, ‘What? Are you mad?’ In the past they used to sell the wine for 2.50 per litre.’ In the absence of a tradition of bottle-ageing, most producers don’t know for sure how their wines will evolve. ‘Our fathers used to think of Cannonau wine as the wine of the year,’ reflected Pietro. ‘They didn’t wait to drink it. When the grapes arrived from the harvest, if there was still wine in the tank from the previous year it was a tragedy. After one year, they would throw it away. It was considered too old.’ During my visit to Mamoiada I stayed in an Airbnb with vines growing on a treacherously steep slope just outside my window. On the first morning, just after coffee, the owner arrived with a litre of fresh, pure and potent Cannonau made from those backyard vines. According to Salvatore Sedilesu, Giuseppe’s son, all of the growers feel a responsibility to make the best wine possible to give to their guests. ‘There was always a competition in the village to see who is making the best wine. You could never say a negative word about another person’s wine. It would be better to say something about the daughter. This respect for wine created motivation in the children so that if they decide to bottle, the wine must be the best.’
By all accounts, the character of the wine being produced in the village has changed. Red wine quality used to be judged by thickness. If a drop of Cannonau stayed on your fingernail without rolling off, it was thought to be good. All of the rosé, meanwhile, was treacly sweet until five years ago, when some producers began experimenting with dry versions, though they continue to offer some rosé with high residual sugar to satisfy the older residents. Today, local visitors to wineries are often surprised to find that the rustic, sugary wines of the previous generation have become elegant and dry. In the red wines you’ll find floral notes, Mediterranean scrub, precise fruit and plenty of minerality. A chalky sensation reminiscent of a Beaujolais Cru appears in some wines, but more often the granite soil contributes something closer to sea salt or flint. It all depends on the height and exposition of the vineyard, the age of the vines and the winemaker’s approach to extraction. There is always tension in a Mamoiada red and its fresh acidity and fine tannins will make you want another glass. The first winemaker to try his hand at making a varietal white wine from Granazza was the pioneering Giuseppe Sedilesu. He did so back in 2002 when his peers were still adding Granazza to the red wine, and was encouraged by the positive reaction of wine lovers. ‘Granazza was discussed a lot,’ said Janny van Baars-Patteri, the export manager for Giuseppe Sedilesu, ‘and the chefs tried to find food matches. We had a lot of nice articles written about it because it was very different from Vermentino and welcomed by the market. The first three vintages were actually labelled as table wine. It wasn’t a DOC or even an IGT because we didn’t have a name for the grape. It was necessary to find a category to register the wine to allow us to vinify it.’ Granazza’s flavours range from pineapple and stewed apricots to prune and nuts, and though it is richly aromatic, Granazza is nothing like Vermentino, the light-bodied, perfumed grape that reigns supreme in Sardinia. Granazza is full, tannic and mineral, and the Mamoiada producers only use indigenous yeasts. It can be harvested early to preserve freshness and keep the alcohol from climbing into the 16% range, but when the grapes from old vines are picked at full maturity, the wine is opulent, textured and complex. While Granazza challenges preconceptions of what a white wine can or should be, Cannonau offers immediate pleasure. Mamoiada versions are eminently likeable and ready to drink soon after release though they have the power, acidity and tannins to age gracefully. Here are some recommendations. Vignaioli Cadinu Martis Sero 2020 – winemaker Pino Cadinu favours short macerations and ageing in tonneaux. This wine brims with cinnamon, strawberry and raspberry aromas. It has amplitude but also a promising tightness and elegant tannins. Ready now but better in a year or two. Cannonau di Sardegna DOC 15.5%. Cantina Giuseppe Sedilesu Grassia 2017 – a structured, concentrated cuvée dedicated to Giuseppe’s wife. It opens with baking spices and liquorice and closes with more spice and plentiful tannins that offset the slightly sweet aftertaste. Five years from the vintage is a good benchmark for balanced drinking. Cannonau di Sardegna DOC. 16.5%. Cantina Gungui Berteru Riserva 2020 – made from 70-year-old vines, 30% of the grapes are used in full bunches, Luca Gungui conducts a long maceration but still ends up with an ebulliently fruity, linear wine with a light touch that should drink nicely by 2025. Cannonau di Sardegna DOC. 15%. Cantina Francesco Cadinu Perdas Longas 2020 – a blend of two vineyards, this cuvée is aged in chestnut and it entices with aromas of dried herbs and cherry, then blood oranges on the palate. The most ethereal wine made in the village is ready now but will be even better if you can wait a few years. Cannonau di Sardegna DOC 15%. Cantina Mussennore Riserva 2019 – made from 50-year-old vines and aged 24 months in oak, then a year in bottles. For a decadent, big-shouldered riserva, its elegant focus is a pleasant surprise. Best in two or three years when all the components have integrated. Cannonau di Sardegna DOC 15.5%. Cantina Teularju Ghirada Cara'Gonare 2019 – the grapes come from a vineyard at lower altitude with a southwest exposure and they make a round, full wine with a raspberry mint nose. Freshness and power in tandem. It is drinking well now, and should sail on for many years. Barbagia IGT 14.5%.
Andrew James is a professor of English literature at the School of Commerce at Meiji University in Tokyo, Japan. He is currently on sabbatical leave in France at Université Grenoble Alpes in France in order to write a book on Bandol wine. His great interest as a wine researcher is understanding the evolution of wine-speak, and the reflection of culture in wine language.
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