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Visiting Santa Maria La Palma in Alghero

 

One of the best things about living in the world of wine is that there is always something new and exciting to discover.

And ‘change’ is always in the air!

The wine trade is always about “trends” – wine is fashion, after all. Just think – only a matter of decades ago, sweet German Riesling sold for much more money than the finest Champagne.

The trend now, according to both Wine Intelligence and the Wine Market Council, is that consumers are eager to discover wines from new and exciting regions in the world. Right now, the concept of “island wine” is cool.

You’ve probably already tasted Assyrtiko from Greece … … so now it’s time to make room for the hot new grape of 2016, the white Vermentino grape from the island of Sardinia.

 

Vermentino

Vermentino grows in various parts of Italy and also France, where it is known as Rolle.

Yet Sardinia is actually where Vermentino reaches it’s fullest expression due to the climate and soil.

You can find it in two styles – one is fresh and vibrant, with crisp acidity. And the other is more structured and complex, with time spent on the lees.

It’s red counterpart is Cannonau, which most of us know as Grenache. Yet Cannonau produced in Sardinia is also very special, available as an easy drinking red wine to enjoy with friends and pizza, and also as a wine with maturation in new French oak.

I recently spent three days in the charming village of Alghero in Sardinia, where the successful Santa Maria La Palma cooperative winery is located. Though I’ve visited this gorgeous island for a sun-filled vacation in summer, this is the first time I came in winter to learn more about the island’s famous grapes.

Cantina Santa Maria La Palma, is one of the oldest and largest wineries on the island. It is a cooperative with 300 members, and started in the late 1950’s when the government was giving land to grape growers in order to develop the area.

A winery cooperative is basically an association of grape growers, who are all “members” and bring in their harvest at an appointed time to make the cooperative wine. Like everything else in the world, there are successful cooperatives and those that are struggling.

After visiting more than a dozen, it seems clear that management – the strength of the elected president, along with the winemakers and agronomist, is key. And of course there is the sales and export team – the wine must be sold for the right price in order for the member-growers to earn a living. Finally, the wine must be a “quality” wine at every level, from the lowest mass market supermarket level to the finest low-production wines. My day at Santa Maria La Palma started on an unexpected note, as the very nicely designed showroom was absolutely mobbed with people at 10am in the morning.

This might not be unusual in itself, but the winery and its showroom is located in a rather remote area of Sardinia, so people really had to make a point of paying a visit. Though the plethora of shoppers could have been due to the upcoming holiday season, it seemed clear that the shop was always busy. Clean and neatly arranged, it seemed to offer a wine for everyone – from half bottles of their top red wines, to luxury boxed sets containing sparkling wine, white, and red wine – the perfect holiday gift.

This being Italy, a dizzying number of sparkling wines were on offer, made from the Sardinian traditional grape of Vermentino as well as Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Later, in a visit to the cellar, I would try their new “experimental” wine set to be released next year, a sparkling Vermentino made in the traditional method (aged on its lees for over a year) instead of the Charmat method.

Though the well-dressed consumers in the shop were mostly snapping up the higher end bottles of wine, a few locals were also filling up their previously-owned gallon sized bottles with wine from a filling station, similarly to what you would see in a gas station. The offices of Santa Maria La Palma are so fresh and brand new some offices do not even have signs.

Yet hard working export managers Cristina Neri and Igor Profili are eager to introduce the key players who – along with them – drive the engine of Santa Maria La Palma, winemaker Paolo Coradin and vineyard manager (agronomist) Michaelangelo Ruiu. It was also interesting to experience the difference in temperament between Michaelangelo and Paolo. Both men were serious, determined, and passionate about what they do.

While Michaelangelo was more animated, Paolo was more reflective and measured in his responses. He walked us through the winery with its enormous steel tanks, cement tanks, and expensive new French oak for aging the best wines. Though during the busy periods he has a crew to support him, he alone is responsible for making the four million bottles of wine the cooperative produces each year – a range that includes all types of sparking wine, rose wine, and red wine, both young and ready to drink and those meant to age.

Michaelangelo spends most of his time in the vineyards, making sure that the grower-members are farming with an eye to quality. Young and slim, he also has the rather difficult job of telling old school winemakers (all members of the cooperative) – some twice his age and weight – why it is necessary to take certain steps (for example, green harvest, cutting vines) in order to produce quality wine. It is “quality” and not “quantity” that is the goal here.

Though I’m sure he loves it, Michaelangelo must also pay visits to all 300 grape growers and keep careful notes on how the grapes are doing. When harvest approaches, he must also create a schedule so that all the grape growers do not bring in their grapes at the same time. You might find it interesting to note that Michaelangelo also makes notes in his head about what vineyards he will use for his top blends. There are a dizzying amount of factors that go into this … altitude, terroir, and of course the quality of the grapes themselves.

Like most cooperatives, the grower-members are paid on the basis of the quality of the grapes. As soon as the growers bring their grapes in at the appointed time, a sophisticated machine takes samples and provides an instant analysis of many factors, including acidity, sugar, etc. One of the more interesting moments was when Michaelangelo took me to a field and showed me some of the vines. Though it was winter, we had a discussion about the pruning methods and other viticultural practices, such as nutrition and cover crops.

Though I’ve spent most of the time talking about Vermentino in its variety of forms (it is made sparkling, still, oaked, unoaked, and even in a sweet passito form) the red wine from the traditional Cannonau grape is fantastic. You might know that this is the Grenache grape grown all over the world, but here it takes on a different character than it does in France or Spain. It is made in both an unoaked and oak matured style, and is characterized by an intense deep cherry flavor.

Sardinia is part of Italy, yet it is really its own island … and is the second largest island in the Mediterranean sea. The first thing you notice is the beautiful coast with jagged cliffs, interesting rock formations, and clear blue water. Oh – and yes, here and there are ancient fortifications and monuments from 3rd millennium BC. Because of its strategic location in the middle of the Mediterranean the island was attacked by many invaders over the centuries, with the Phonicians and Romans leaving the strongest mark.

In summer the streets are filled with tourists who come for the sun and fun, but now, in winter (a pleasant sunny 60 degrees) one is free to roam the Alghero village with its shops and restaurants. Food – like everywhere in Italy – is very important here. On the first day we had fresh-from-the-sea fish at a small restaurant called La Boqueria. It is a small restaurant in a busy fish market where you point at the seafood in the window and specify if it should be grilled or fried. The cuisine was delicious – It was so good that I ate a sea snake without knowing what it was!

Another great restaurant was Trattoria Marco Polo, specializing in meat. Then, of course, there is Il Corallo that serves very impressive seafood, in an elegant restaurant set amidst an olive grove. The historic area is quite nice, and if you stay in the five-star Carlos V, you won’t need a car – the beaches are right in front of you, and you can walk to fine restaurants in the historic center in 20 minutes.

The transportation system is quite nice too – I was able to take a local bus to the nearby city of Sassari, where you can find antiquity museums. But most people do prefer the freedom of a car, especially to see the historic monuments, and more secluded beaches. The people of Alghero are very friendly – within the historic village (in terms of shops) most people do speak English. Soon you will be able to find Cantina Santa Maria La Palma in your local market – they produce an astonishing number and style of wines, from their signature “lobster wine” (called Aragosta, with a picture of a lobster on the bottle) to the higher end red wines that see maturation in expensive new French oak, such as Cannonau Riserva.

 

Please drop me a line when you taste it!

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