Tenuta Matteu – Sardinia pt. 2

Tenuta Matteu

The evening of the same morning in which I bade adieu to my family at Olbia airport, I drove the up the steep road to Tenuta Matteu. The purpose was to present my monthly Wine Tour to the customers back home.

(Incidentally, part one of James’s letters from Italy can be found here.)

“The best camerawork and editing I’ve ever seen.” – Steven Spielberg,

Were there ever a more picturesque vineyard setting? Rows of Vermentino vines, heavy in leaf and fruit, lead the eye to the bay 300 metres below. Small boats cross to and from La Maddalena. That is the island archipelago where Garibaldi spent his final years.

I had already seen photographs, before our family visit earlier in the week. However, they do not tell the whole story. The top vineyard occupies a natural saddle of land, which slopes away to either side. On the shoreward side, the rich colours of the sea nourish the eye.

But turning landward reveals a whole new drama. A great vista of distant mountain tops crashes across the horizon. Ridges, crests and peaks clamber over each other. In the summer haze of the evening, each fades ahead of the next.

The main track traverses the saddle. It leads from the old farmhouse, and the vines glide away to either side. Towering foursquare above the whole scene is the most dominant peak of all. So the ensemble effect – mountains there, the sea there, the vines in the middle, just so, and in the centre of it all, this vast massif – one feels to have inadvertently walked onto a film set.

Tenuta Matteu – Soliánu Vermentino di Gallura DOCG

Sardinia part 2 - Cinzia at gate of Tenuta Matteu.

There’s a bit of jargon coming up – so before we go any further, let’s go through it.

  • Tenuta in this context is the Italian word for an estate. The word tenuta is the past participle of tenere – to have (in one’s hand) or to keep. Hence, a ‘holding’.
  • Soliànu is a Sardinian word which translates to Italian as soleggiata. In English that means sunny, or, more pointedly – though still lacking the evocation – sun-kissed. You can buy Soliànu here.
  • Vermentino is a semi-aromatic white grape grown mainly in Liguria (where it is also called Pigato), the Tuscan coast and Sardinia. It is also known in Provence as Rolle and in Piemonte as Favorita. Vermentino is considered one of Italy’s ‘noble’ white grapes.
  • Gallura – the historical name for Sardinia’s northerly region, introduced in part 1 of this trundle around the island.
  • Ledda and Matteu are the names of estates. Ledda owns Matteu.
  • DOCGDenominazione d’Origine Controllata e Garantita. The top tier of Italy’s appellation system.

Cuculo regulars might recognise the name in connection with Tenuta Ledda. Andrea Ledda owns Tenuta Matteu. Matteu is planted completely to Vermentino, while the entirety of that production in turn makes all of “Soliànu”. In simple terms, Matteu (vineyard) is Soliànu (wine), and vice versa.

Soliànu is a sumptuous Vermentino di Gallura DOCG Riserva. You can buy it here.

Our guide at Tenuta Matteu was Andrea Pericu, manager of the various estates owned by Ledda. With his gently passionate manner, Andrea showed us the important features of the Tenuta.

Tenuta Matteu – in Andrea’s words

In considering Sardinian Vermentino, one thinks of three key influences. That is to say, proximity to the sea, the granite rock, and the maquis underbrush. This is the only vineyard in all of Sardinia which has all three of those together. It also benefits from being at 300m in altitude, and there’s a constant breeze coming over the pass.

Because the vineyard has a mix of aspects, altitudes and inclinations, picking needs several passes. A team of 40 pick the ripe parcels first thing in the morning, and the juice is vinified. The following morning, they go out again and choose the parcel which is ripe that day. And so on. It’s a skilled and time-consuming process, and it’s the way we achieve the perfect balance in the wine.

There is no oak used in Soliànu, only stainless steel.

Andrea Pericu, Tenuta Ledda

Matteu & Ledda – the wines

Then, in the shade away from the hot afternoon sun, we sat on the terrace of the tasting room. With Andrea we tasted through most of the wines currently in production across all three Ledda vineyards.

In terms of the Soliànu (from that very vineyard), we tried several vintages. Note that the only vintage available is the latest, 2020. Also, that just now, this is the only Ledda wine available in the UK. I have a pending order for some of the others – you can learn more in the next instalment.

The 2016 was the first vintage from the vineyard. Medium lemon with green flecks. Evolving fruit, floral, mineral and balsamic aromas. A wonderful balance between acidity and sugars; alcohol in evidence; richly textured – oily, even, like a great Burgundy – yet refreshing.

The 2017 Andrea describes as their perfect expression of Vermentino. I thought hazelnut on the nose but my companions both raised an eyebrow. Fantasic balance again – there was a delicacy and herbal lift lacking in the vintages to either side. A pity it has all gone.

The 2020 was excellent. A little young in the bottle (all these wines are made to age), and lacking the perfect poise that set 2017 apart. But still, such presence in the glass. The herb notes – maquis, dried grass, eucalyptus – balance the citrus and tropical fruits beautifully. This is the current vintage available to buy at Cuculo.

The pricing is as follows:

  • 75cl bottle £25.45
  • 6 bottles £140 (£23.33 per bottle)
  • 12 bottles £270 (£22.50 per bottle)

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About Vermentino

Vermentino is a semi-aromatic grape variety. Among other qualities, that means it is fairly high in sugars. These can build very quickly in the fruit near harvest, so it can easily become a sweet wine.

However, this is not usually what the winemaker wants. Instead, they want to show off the grape’s delightful floral (orange blossom, rose, acacia) and fruit (notably citrus and tropical). Not to mention the steely, more ‘mineral’ notes. Some sugar in the wine is desirable – more than many white wines – but that acidity is key.

So the winemaker works to keep a good level of acidity in the grapes. Altitude helps, as do the cooling sea breezes. The Gallurese granite lends that mineral quality. Picking early in the morning and at ideal ripeness is also important.

Vermentino typically has:

  • 23.7 °Brix of must sugars (i.e. before fermentation)
  • Alcohol around 13.5%
  • Acidity around 5.7 g/l
  • pH around 3.2

Its flavour profile tends to be:

  • Floral;
  • Some citrus;
  • Some pear and apple;
  • Tropical fruit;
  • Off-dry;
  • Fairly aromatic;
  • Medium acidity;
  • Fairly mineral;
  • Balanced between soft and structured;
  • Good length.

Bolgheri DOC

A discussion about the Bolgheri DOC in the context of human activity on these soils is very new history. Evidence on the surrounding hillsides dates to 12th century BC. That the Etruscans were making wine here before the Greeks colonised the Italian mainland makes it one of the first areas in Europe to see the cultivation of the vine.

In 1983, the success of Sassicaia encouraged a number of other producers, among them Michele Satta, to create the Bolgheri DOC. At the outset the DOC protected only white and rosé wines, neither of which were seen as especially noteworthy, with red wines, now known as Super Tuscans, falling under the basic Vino da Tavola appellation. It took until 1994 for red wines to be protected under the disciplinare, which allowed for Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. In 2011 the disciplinare was updated to permit wines from a single varietal of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Cabernet Franc.

Physical characteristics

The Bolgheri DOC occupies a 13km x 7km strip of land in the northern Maremma, between the coast and the inland hills. Most of the vines are on what was uncultivated, malaria-ridden swampland which was only drained in the first half of the 20th century.

Bolgheri Cypresses
Bolgheri itself is a beautiful hamlet which was fortified against coastal raiders in the 10th Century.
A famous 5km cypress-lined avenue runs arrow-straight from the hamlet to the gate of Tenuta san Guido.

The conditions are perfect for the cultivation of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and other French varietals, which traditionally grow in the (cooler and more humid) maritime climate of Bordeaux. The sea moderates the surrounding temperature, reducing vine stress and, as Michele Satta puts it, “a more fluid functioning of the secondary metabolism”. Over the course of the growing season, the amount and intensity of sunlight is ideal for the vines’ photosynthesis. This is in part due to the region’s latitude, but also because the sun reflects off the sea: the gentle slope of the land on which the vineyards are planted provides the perfect angle for the plants to capture it. Rain falls most during the vegetative stages, helping the vine to grow, and more sparsely during the period of maturation, prompting it to dedicate its energies to ripening its fruit rather than growing its canopy.

The soils are diverse (Prof. Attilio Scienza identifies 27 units) and include pebbly, gravelly alluvial soils born on rivers from the Colline Metallifere behind; marine soils of clay, limestone and sand from where the area had previously been covered by the sea; and some volcanic soils. The soils are deep, with water-retaining properties which allow the plants’ roots to access water even in periods of drought. Although the growing area is warmer than the inland hills, it is still 1℃ cooler than the neighbouring coastline, by virtue of sea breezes which are channeled through the Tuscan archipelago. This gives the wines elegance and freshness. Winds consistently aerate the vines, reducing humidity and helping to prevent fungal disease.

The red wines of Bolgheri DOC

The typical blend is of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot. Smaller additions of Petit Verdot, Syrah, Sangiovese and, on occasion, other varietals (Michele Satta, for example, includes 10% Teroldego in his Bolgheri DOC). Increasingly, some winemakers are making single varietal wines of intensity and ageing potential.

The aromas of the reds of Bolgheri DOC are of black fruits, balsamic notes and Mediterranean maquis. Structurally the wines are round and supple, dry with detectable fruit sweetness, and fresh acidity. The tannins are velvety and dense and the finish is long and satisfying.

In the Bolgheri DOC yields are limited to 90 tonnes per hectare with a minimum ageing of one year. Merlot and Cabernets Sauvignon and Franc may be present in any proportion. Syrah and Sangiovese are capped to 50% of the blend; other varieties can represent no more than 30%.

For the Bolgheri DOC Superiore, yields are 80 tonnes per hectare and ageing is a minimum two years, of which one in oak barrels. The composition is the same as for the Bolgheri DOC.

The white and rosé wines of Bolgheri

Although the appellation is now famed for its red wines, traditional production was for whites and rosés: indeed, the initial 1983 disciplinare only allowed for these. The whites tend to be Vermentino-dominated (see Michele Satta’s Costa di Giulia, for example) with Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier as the blending partners. There is very little oak ageing in the Bolgheri DOC: Vermentino is a semi-aromatic varietal and the focus is on ensuring refreshing acidity to balance the richer fruit flavours it presents.

The region’s rosés follow the same methodology.

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