In the wild southwest of the island of Sardinia lies the region of Sulcis. A barely inhabited zone of blue skies and olive trees- nature in every crease taking over abandoned mines, remnants of the lead and zinc industries that have long left the region; ‘ghost towns’ listed online as desolate filming locations. Sulcis is rural Italy in the extreme.
Dramatic, unspoiled coastlines and craggy terrain of sparse vegetation are sprinkled with tiny villages of less than 1,000 people. In the midst of this windswept, sun-kissed desertscape lies the commune of Giba, a sleepy village of white-washed walls and red roofs. Seemingly unremarkable at first glance, Giba is home to a cantina with a vibrancy ready to put Sulcis on the map.
We are here to meet Vincenzo Aru of Cantina Giba, one of the only wineries in this part of Sardinia. As we roll up the dusty path to the cantina, we hear the clink of glassware and smell the sizzle of pork cutting the air. A full table greets us- the real Sulcis welcome!
“Here in Sulcis, it’s wine first and questions later!” We laugh as we are handed rich ruby glasses of Carignano. In five minutes we feel at home here, such is the humble and genuine hospitality of the residents of Giba. By the end of our meal we have been invited to visit a dozen different people and their mothers, brothers and cousins!
Cantina Giba’s wines are very close to the ocean- welcoming, and yet complex, with sea-bright salinity. Vincenzo tops us up as we devour plates of salumi, fresh fennel salads, and pane povero- sourdough bread with tomatoes.
“You know there are more sheep here than people!” we are told as we pile our plates high with pecorino cheese. It is a full sensory experience of lamb, swordfish and tuna, cooked with wild herbs and garden-grown garlic. The food is all local, and tastes heavenly with the wine- everything just works perfectly!
With our appetites and thirst satisifed, we feel we have been initiated into the Giba way of life by the warmth of these people. We follow Vincenzo towards the cantina, with a thousand questions….
Sulcis is one of the poorest regions of Italy, with record emigration. As mentioned, there are many more sheep than people. Conditions for grape-growing, and living, are difficult but utterly unique. Vincenzo grew up here, spending long sunny summers with dirty knees climbing olive trees and chasing leaf-toed geckos. For someone with natural curiosity, the world outside inevitably called and Vincenzo moved to Belgium in his 20s to work as an importer and distributor of Italian wines.
During his 15 years abroad, Sulcis was never far from Vincenzo’s mind, but it was something deeper than nostalgia. “I came to the realisation that my passion for wines, and for my land, could never be satisfied only by sales.”
Yearning to explore and express the unique characteristics of the Sulcis region, Vincenzo returned to his house and his land with serious winemaking in mind. He and his uncle produced the first vintage of 15,000 bottles, which has doubled every couple of years to make almost 100,000 today. He works with fellow winemaker Andres Garcia Blas, a Spaniard who moved to the region many years ago.
Cantina Giba’s mission is ambitious and arduous. There are only 5 producers making wine in the tiny Carignano DOC, and 3 of them are cooperatives. Vincenzo is not simply expanding his own winery and its reputation, but also working to elevate the whole region and explore its quality potential. Such a sizeable undertaking with little initial payoff requires big dreams and steely grit.
“I want to make a good wine… a great wine,” Vincenzo shrugs and smiles, “Little by little…”
Carignano is an ancient grape that has been native to this area for over 2,000 years. It is found in other areas of Italy and in France, but is a somewhat unsung hero- producing fantastic varietal wines for those who can tame the vigorous vine. Late budding and ripening, high yielding, and susceptible to powdery mildew and grapevine moths, Carignano seems tricky and unwieldy yet the vine flourishes in Sulcis’ particular climate.
The coast and slopes are blasted by the mistral winds from Spain for 250 days of the year rendering popular trellising methods unthinkable. The vines are trained low to the ground for protection, and spaced far apart, curbing Carignano’s high yield. Tightly wound shoots grow close to the trunk of the vine, allowing the foliage to shade the fruit from the relentless sun.
The grapes must be hand-harvested, which partly explains why there aren’t more producers making Carignano in Sulcis: it is difficult, time-consuming, and labour-intensive. This lends itself to Vincenzo’s ‘small production’ philosophy - no machines, no chemicals, and minimal sulphites.
“We believe in Carignano!” he exclaims, “Unadulterated, and in its full varietal expression.”
Carignano produces wines that are naturally high in acid, tannin and astringency. This can be intimidating, and it is too often blended with other grapes that counter these properties, but detract from its varietal subtleties. Vincenzo is uninterested in blends, or international grapes. He has worked hard to perfect Cantina Giba’s production and produces diverse expressions to explore Carignano fully.
The Giba Rosso Carignano DOC is bright red, full-bodied and juicy, with focused flavours of cherries and berries. A hint of white pepper on the nose, and light tannins from limited extraction enhance the representation of Carignano’s fruit.
The 6Mura Carignano showcases the talent of the winemakers in dealing with Carignano’s wilier properties. A long, natural fermentation is followed by 12 months in French oak casks, softening the astringency and imbuing the wine with soft baking spices, chocolate, juniper and licorice. The plummy, cherry palate is balanced perfectly with brilliant acidity.
This is the story of a wine that came from nothing and is now travelling the world- a 15 year journey of one man, one tiny DOC. It seems that Vincenzo has won a challenge to himself, and his achievements in such a short amount of time are admirable. His recognition of the potential of Sulcis, and his fresh perspective, allows him to offer something really unique. Carginano DOC will not be overlooked for long!