Lauren tells her very first impression on her recent trip to Sardinia, mentioning the best food and wine she experienced. It is a must-read article, especially if you are planning a trip to Italy.
As my flight touched down at Newark, the aggravation set in immediately, all restorative benefits derived from visiting a sunny Mediterranean isle wiped out like a pile of poker chips lost on a bad hand. During the long wait for baggage around the grim, dirty carousel, I missed the first train into the city. Waiting on the crowded concrete platform for the next one, I felt swallowed by the brutal humidity of July; the shirt I’d worn over fourteen hours in United’s livestock cargo had fused with my skin. Outside of Penn Station, the cab line swelled. Drivers honked excessively, narrowly avoiding sideswiping one another while racing into first place at a red light. My blood pressure upwardly tick, tick, ticked. Finally, the first reflexive curse word spilled from my mouth in seven days. F*ck! Welcome home, I thought.
As I slipped my apartment key into the lock, I noticed a brown envelope on the ground at my doorstep. The superintendent must have dropped it there. From the shape and weight, it felt like a book. Overwhelmed by the stale sweat of a temporarily abandoned domicile, I tossed the package aside and didn’t return to it until a few days later. When I did, I discovered a copy of The Blue Zones Solution sent to me by a colleague who knew I’d been bouncing around Sardinia.
It took another month before I flipped the book open. Inside, New York Times bestselling author Dan Buettner described the habits and circumstances of unusually long-lived people. Centenarians, they call them. People who live past one hundred years. Okinawa, an area of Costa Rica, some place in China, even California, and coincidentally, Sardinia, all have a high percentage of them.
The book outlined several themes running across all five regions that bore high numbers of healthy elders. Having a strong family support network as well as local community. Staying active, especially outdoors. Less meat, more vegetables. Another commonality – the one that caught my attention — was living free of chronic stress and its resulting inflammation. Apparently, this shaves off years of one’s life. Living in NYC, I exercised emotional restraint daily against an incessant onslaught of irritations – crowds, costs, noise, tight spaces. My environment had me in a constant tussle with stress. So, was I living or just barely surviving, lowering my life expectancy with each car alarm that wailed outside my window?
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In early July, I flew to Sardinia to visit wineries and vineyards. The Italian island, the second largest in the Mediterranean Sea after Sicily, remains an autonomous region, bearing little resemblance to mainstream mainland culture, including grapes grown and wines produced. At the time, I didn’t appreciate how, months later, the experience would influence my outlook on life.
Initially, I joined the winemaking team from Sella & Mosca, a historic winery based outside of Alghero in the northwest, for a driving tour of the island’s important regions. The itinerary focused on hitting vineyards growing quality Carignano, Cannonau (also known as Grenache), and Vermentino, during which I would meet grape growers and winemakers.
Originating from the old port city of Cagliari in the south, we drove west towards the appellation of Carignano del Sulcis DOC. This remote slice of the island’s southwest, an area once inhabited by Phoenicians, is hot, dry, and sandy. The region is called Sulcis, and the dominant grape is the same as Carignan/e found in Spain, France, and California; hence the name of the DOC. Due to the climate and soils, many vines are old, ungrafted and bush-trained, not terribly unlike the resilient folks who’ve tended them for nearly as long. The resulting wines, at their finest, offer full-bodied intensity, a deep purple hue, and aromatics of sweet spice, tobacco, and dark fruit, typically with high alcohol. They also carry a fragrant note of the island’s macchia. The word encompasses the aromatic evergreen shrub and herbal scrub carpeting the land and perfuming the air. Surprisingly, from a forgotten corner of a largely overlooked island, Sulcis claims an icon wine. The “Terre Brune” produced by Santadi Winery has hit impressive price points, currently hovering around $65. A sign the area is forgotten no more.
After a few hours traipsing through dusty vineyards, we took a break from the interior and followed the salt-tinged breeze towards the coast. After all, besides robust wines and senior citizens, the island’s other claim to fame is the 2000 km ring of dreamy beaches encircling it. We took a dip in placid, turquoise waters. Floating on my back, I glanced at the sky. Puffs of clouds glided lazily across a backdrop of deep azure. I turned my head and gazed back towards the crescent of golden sand dotted with enough neon umbrellas to call it a crowd, especially on a Monday afternoon. The people, the water, the sky – it all looked oversaturated. Like the color slide in Lightroom had been bumped up to 100. What was this place? Who lives here, I thought. Back on shore, Franco Farimbella, the Chief Agronomist for Sella & Mosca must have observed my pensive delight. “When you wine taste in Sardinia, you bring your bathing suit” he said, “there are always beaches close by.” He laughed but I don’t think he was joking.
More than Carignano, Cannonau has become Sardinia’s symbolic red grape. As aforementioned, it’s the same as Grenache, but it takes on a delightfully strange new profile when grown on the island, even different areas of the island. In fact, I am frequently surprised by the grape’s chameleon-like tendencies. In general, Cannonau manifests as medium-bodied, juicy, and softly tannic with vibrant aromatics. Ripe red fruits of strawberry, raspberry, and cherry, with macchia and floral notes of violet occasionally woven in, characterize the Sardinian version. Sella & Mosca makes a textbook – and well-priced – example from their vineyards in Alghero.
Driving northeast, but still in the south, we headed into the heartland of century-old Cannonau vineyards near Jerzu. We slowly traversed the Ogliastra mountains through an ever-changing landscape. Splashes of pink and white Oleander blooms lined twisted roads that plunged vertiginously into valleys of limestone cliffs capped in green macchia. A feast for the eyes, driving here is neither for the faint-hearted nor impatient.
Hours later, we climbed out of the car and hiked down a gravel road for a view of one of the oldest vineyards in the region, followed by a tasting of the vino fermented from its grapes. The wine, made traditionally by a family leading a simple but hardworking life, conveyed rusticity with an intense, nay piercing fruit purity. An accurate portrait of the place and people who made it, I presumed.
The afternoon culminated with a pig roast and more Cannonau, the efforts of five local producers laid out for self-service on picnic tables. The winemakers had arrived early to sample the fruits of each other’s labor. As in, several hours early. Already tipsy, this gathering clearly was the only item on their agenda for the day. No emails, calls, texts, deadlines, meetings, documents, Instagram or Facebook posts to manage. Just friends, food, and wine beneath an expansive tree on a beautiful Tuesday.
We laughed and drank away the sunlight, snacking on goat cheese and crispy pork while piling ribbons of lardo on to the island’s typical, crunchy, cracker-like flat bread called pane carasau. We didn’t understand one another’s words — broken phrases of Spanish, English, and Italian — but we understood each other. Through the filter of dusk, our driver, better known as the jovial yet wise Giovanni “Geee-o-vaaaannee” Pinna, also the winemaker for Sella & Mosca, announced we’d have to depart. We had lingered hours beyond schedule. We would not make it to the next wine region of Gallura, the island’s only DOCG and one focused on the white grape of Vermentino. The drive was too far in the waning light. So, we’d have to take coffees instead. Of course.
Before our final vineyard tour in Alghero near Berchideddu, we zigged and zagged across interior mountains, stopping in Mamoiada. Although I hadn’t seen The Blue Zones book until after the trip, I’d certainly read articles purporting that Cannonau had two to three times the levels of “artery-scrubbing” flavonoids than other wines; flavonoids are known to reduce cancers and heart disease, and Sardinians are known to drink a little wine daily. As we were in Mamoiada, a favored area for the grape, we inquired about, and easily found, a centenarian working nearby in a sundries shop.
Her daughter interpreted our questions. The mother had a century of experience inscribed on her face, yet her firm posture and spirited demeanor came across as three or four decades younger. She walked straight and confident without a cane or outward signs of feebleness. Yes, she still worked in the shop. Every day when open. Her husband had died nearly sixty years prior, but she had her daughters and they remained her strength. No, she didn’t drink too much wine. Whispering, her daughter added that yes, in fact, she drank wine, but the women of her generation didn’t much admit to it.
After reading the chapter on Sardinia in The Blue Zones back in New York, I immediately recognized the lessons gleaned from the author’s investigation as accurate depictions of scenes from my trip. Put family first. Celebrate elders. Take a walk. Laugh with friends. And drink a glass or two of red wine daily.
While writing the book, Buettner interviewed a 103-year-old who had been a shepherd all his life. He walked six miles a day, drank goat’s milk for breakfast, and loved to work. He spent every day in the pastures, always making the daily journey on foot. After losing an arm wrestling match to him, the author wrote that he asked Giovanni if he’d ever been stressed in his life, but that the man looked flummoxed by the question. “Sometimes, but my wife was in charge of the house and I was in charge of the field. What’s there to worry about in the field?” Then he added “Mostly I’ve always tried to remember that when you get good things in life, enjoy them, because they won’t be there forever.”
Taking these lessons to heart, I’ve been working on techniques to minimize the stress of living in a tiny apartment in a crowded Manhattan neighborhood. I’ve learned to pause and be grateful for the good things in my life. I am trying meditation, walks, yoga, and to turn exercise into a lifestyle not a chore carried out on a treadmill. I am eating more legumes, fewer hamburgers. Visualization has a calming effect; I summon memories of Sardinia’s landscapes and people, recalling the scent of the macchia, the warmth of the sun and salt of the sea, and the ruby hue of the Cannonau. While I am not ready to move — although I am partial to the idea of living where beautiful beaches are a short jaunt from vineyards — I can have a little taste of the island in my glass now and then. And assuming you, too, can’t move to this wild island in the Mediterranean Sea, here are seven wines available in the U.S. to help get you one step closer to longevity.
Sella & Mosca, Cannonau Riserva, $16
Cannonau is the wine to drink for longevity, so “they” say, due to its high levels of antioxidants. At this price, you can afford a glass a day (always in moderation!) of this juicy, bright, red berry and violet-scented red.
Vigne Surrau, Sincaru, Cannonau di Sardegna DOC, 2013, $20
In addition to its well-known Vermentino, Vigne Surrau makes an excellent Cannonau. Packed with cherries, dried herbs, licorice and spice, the wine has an intense flavor, chewy tannins, and balanced acidity that checks the high-ish alcohol.
Santadi Winery, Terre Brune, Carignano del Sulcis DOC Superiore, 2011, $65
The icon wine of Sulcis, Terre Brune is expensive but delivers a lot of complexity for the price. Offers aromatics and flavors of plums and blueberries, accented with sweet spice, juniper, and tobacco, with developed, ripe tannins on the long finish.
Mesa Cantina, Buio Buio, Isola Dei Nuraghi IGT, 2011, $25
Another flavorful red, this Carignano comes at a much more accessible price. Ruby red in hue, with richness and intensity of fruit showing red berries, flowers, brown spice, and Mediterranean brush, with round, firm tannins.
Sella & Mosca, La Cala Vermentino, 2015, $13
A refreshing, tangy white that’s a perfect introduction to the island’s Vermentino. With aromas and flavors of salted citrus, with hints of white flowers and stone fruit, the wine has broad appeal making it great for parties.
Jankara, Vermentino di Gallura DOCG Superiore, 2014, $20
The Vermentino vineyards of the island’s only DOCG are located on granite cliffs near the sea. Whether you believe soil imparts minerality, the wine has a clear stoniness, accentuated by a saltiness typical of Sardinian whites. Fresh and lightly fruity showing grapefruit, apple, and white flowers on the crisp palate.
Sella & Mosca, Marchese di Villmarina Cabernet Sauvignon, Alghero DOC, 2010, $65
If you’re a diehard Cabernet fan or simply like to try expressions from different regions, this version holds its own against greats of the world. Varietal character is expressed in classic blackcurrant and blackberry notes, with accents of vanilla and spice box from oak aging.
The article has been also translated into Italian by Alberto Mario Delogu and published on Anthony Muroni’s blog. The Italian version is available at this page.