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Live forever in Sardinia

From issue 76 • Words/images by Clive Pursehouse

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Last year’s 100th Giro d’Italia set off in Sardinia, an ancient island 300 kilometers across the Tyrrhenian Sea from Italy’s mainland. Though definitively Italian, Sardinians are Sardinian first. Like many of Italy’s southern provinces, the economy and local job prospects here tend to lag behind the northern powerhouses of Milan, Turin and Venice. In spite of missing out on that northern prosperity, Sardinians may have figured out the secret of the truly prosperous: a long life. Sardinia is one of the world’s five “blue zones,” where life expectancy is much higher than average. And the small Sardinian mountain village of Seulo, about 70 kilometers north of Cagliari, is the world’s bluest of zones—scientifically the place on earth where people tend to live the longest.


On my visit here last year, I first pedaled along the dusty city streets of Cagliari, where my ride gave way to views of the Mediterranean while dodging carloads of Sardinians looking to hit the beaches on a ridiculously hot July day. A gravel road that appeared to head toward a coastal spur became gravel travel and, eventually, I’d probably really push my luck if I kept going. I doubled back and looked for options that would keep me close to the water. Being “lost” is sort of my normal operating procedure. One promising dirt road led me to, from what little Italian I could decipher, a firing range for the 151º Reggimento fanteria meccanizzata Sassari—the mechanized 151st infantry—so I doubled back.

Eventually, I found my way to a cycle path that ran parallel to Via Saline, reversing the route through the salt flats that stage 3 of last year’s Giro used to come into town. The reservoirs where flamingos now wade were once part of an elaborate sea-salt-mining operation that was the lifeblood of Cagliari’s economy. While that Giro stage ended here in Sardinia’s capital, the soul of the island is inland and to the north.

In Siddi, perhaps too small to even be referred to as a town, one of Sardinia’s modern treasures works his magic. Roberto Petza came here to the region called Marmilla and established his restaurant S’Apposentu. Petza’s contemporary take on traditional Sardinian fare, as well as his well-deserved Michelin star, ensure plenty of folks make the hour drive from Cagliari. S’Apposentu brings an haute-cuisine take on the magic of this island’s no-nonsense approach to sustenance and shows that the modern trappings of a chef’s talent are only limited by the imagination. Petza served up a potato foam with pancetta, onions, truffle and egg, and the visual presentation made it hard to believe that these ingredients are the same you might encounter in any country home here on the island. That though is what brought Petza back home to Sardinia.

From Marmilla, we drove farther inland and north toward the eastern coast and crossed into a mountainous zone on our way toward the town of Jerzu. Craggy limestone peaks jutted into the horizon along the outer reaches of the Gennargentu range, which includes Sardinia’s tallest peaks. Steep dirt roads took me past vineyards of cannonau grapes to a small cinder-block house tucked in against a ridgeline.

The vineyards surrounding us were particularly old, and the vines on these steep hillsides reliably produce wines with character, ample minerality and fresh red fruit notes. The roads that brought us here were dusty and narrow, and the sun beat down unrelentingly. There are much easier ways to make a living, as the winemaking on these rugged rocky hillsides is best described as heroic. It’s a commitment to a family tradition, a way of life and culture, and a significant part of Sardinian identity.

Throughout the island, Bronze Age ruins, known as nuraghe, some of them incredibly well preserved, tell a story of the Nuragic civilization when a tribe of “Sea Peoples” mentioned in Ancient Egyptian texts ruled this island and traveled extensively throughout the Mediterranean. Within those ruins the evidence of wine grapes and grape seeds date this holdover of Sardinian culture to about the 12th century. And while the world rushes to modernity, some things never go out of style.

The steep slopes outside Jerzu are not far from the heart of the Sardinian blue zone, and the island’s long reliance on agriculture has centered on sheep herding. As a result, Sardinia has developed as a matriarchal society. The men traditionally were gone for long periods, as the herds moved throughout the countryside, and the women managed the home, and often the family business and local government. These days, the small houses abutting vineyards have become places where the men gather, drink wine, barbecue and just hang out.

We arrived for lunch and inside that tiny cinder-block house there was a break from the heat and a feast commenced. It’s clear that these were the true roots of Sardinian cuisine—simplicity and hospitality, everything flows from there. We ate every preparation of pig you can imagine—sausages, offal, small suckling pig with crackling skin—with grilled vegetables and whole fresh tomatoes, and there was a tempting basket of peaches that looked like they came off a tree within spitting distance of here.

Bottles of cannonau wine filled the little space on the table not covered by plates, rustic country dishes, piled high with more nourishment than any group of people should consume in one sitting. Shiners, bottles without labels, were mixed with some of the slickly labeled wines from Sella & Mosca and a few nearby wineries—wines made by many of these people, including our hosts Antonio and Giovanna. The last course was one of those things I’ll remember as long as I live. Calgiú is a local, uh, delicacy that most of the locals take a pass on, and it’s not for the faint of heart. It’s a cheese made from a baby goat’s last meal—its mother’s milk fermented in the kid’s stomach until it becomes cheese. It’s served with the stomach intact, just like mom used to make. It’s as tasty as it sounds.

My last port of call was the Sella & Mosca winery outside of Alghero, which sits along the sea at the far northwestern corner of Sardinia. The same homegrown beauty and potential that brought chef Petza back to Sardinia also drives the folks at Sella & Mosca, and winemaker Giovanni pours through his wines to match Petza’s courses punch for punch. For Sella & Mosca, the height of modernity in terms of winemaking here in Sardinia, working with independent wine growers is about the preservation of tradition and Sardinian culture.

The wine estate began as a vine nursery in 1899, its founders hoping to take advantage of the need for resilient raw material that would help vineyards in recovery from phylloxera. These days, Sella & Mosca is far and away Sardinia’s most established and largest winery and, as such, it is an ambassador for Sardinia to the wider world. Along with this position, it has taken on a responsibility as a booster of this island’s unique culture and way of life. Interestingly, the wine it’s most known for, Cannonau di Sardegna, uses a grape that the locals claim came from this island, but known elsewhere as grenache or garnacha. The wine is one of the oft-cited contributing factors to the Sardinian blue-zone phenomenon, given its high polyphenol content.

Alghero’s 16th century walls date to the Kingdom of Aragon and its position has long made it a strategic port city. Pedaling past the ancient gates into town I quickly left Via Sassari for the coastal road, Lungomare Valencia, which eventually becomes the romantically named SP105. Imagine riding the 101 along the Pacific Coast Highway—only there are no cars, no logging trucks, just you and the blue Mediterranean. An occasional hairpin turned back on the island, and I found myself beaming at my good fortune to be turning the pedals in Sardinia.

A hard left turn, seemingly the only turn for the next 50 or so kilometers, took me away from that wonderful coastal road, and only because I had to get back to Sella & Mosca before lunch. Otherwise, I might still be there pedaling down toward Bosa and points south. The climb that ensued after that left is known affectionately by local cyclists as “the wall.” The climb up Monte Calarighe, 473 meters (about 1,400 feet) in less than 5 kilometers, with gradients that alternate between 6 and 17 percent. It’s tough, but so gorgeous, topping out on a plateau. Looking north, you can see the walls of old-town Alghero. In the distance to the north of the city, Monte Timidone juts into the sea and you can ride, all alone, among the olive and cork trees.

I boogied back to the Sella & Mosca estate, just northeast of Alghero, for lunch and a tasting. Stage 1 of the 100th Giro passed right through here and a makeshift memorial to Michele Scarponi still stood along the roadside. The winery’s estate, I Piani, is sprawling, one of Italy’s largest, complete with a working winery, guest houses and a very impressive cellar, along with 1,200 acres of vines. Inside the cellar walls, winemaker Giovanni produces some of Sardinia’s most dialed-in wines. He works with growers across the island to assure that the wines that Sella & Mosca make are reflecting and preserving the work that began long ago in places like Jerzu, Sulcis and Mamoiada. Because, in Sardinia, longevity is a way of life.

2015 Sella e Mosca La Cala Vermentino

While cannonau is probably the island’s signature grape, vermentino is not far behind. In fact, Vermentino di Gallura is the region’s only DOCG appellation, the highest designation in Italian wine. This wine is a Vermentino di Sardegna DOC but is still loaded with what makes Sardinia’s signature white grape special: aromas of citrus and white flowers, along with slight hints of mineral limestone. The palate is light and alive with flavors of key lime, lemon zest and crushed shells. Perfect with fresh seafood from Sardinia, or closer to home. $12

2013 Sella e Mosca Cannonau di Sardegna Riserva

The elixir of long life? Who knows, but one of the elements of the blue-zone diets that is often mentioned is the high polyphenol content of the cannonau wines these old timers are drinking. Why not hedge your bets and load up on a few bottles? It has aromas of dried violets, lush red berries and hints of earth, and the palate is elegant and refined far beyond expectation for a sub-15-dollar wine. Flavors of red fruit, with notes of clove and red plum and hints of anise. $13

From issue 76. Buy it here.