Stone Age residents of Sardinia worshipped water. This is not as odd as it might seem. The island of Sardinia is dry for much of the year. If seasonal rains failed to arrive on time, prehistoric Sardinians were in big trouble. Why not stomp out a few dance steps, chant a couple of incantations or perhaps sacrifice an innocent beast? It couldn’t hurt.
Anthropologists know precious little about primordial Sardinian religious practices, but some scholars assert that ancient rites survive even today in festivals that take place around the interior of the island—notably in the town of Mamoiada, where Mamuthones and Issohadores still dance clangorously through the streets.
The Mamuthones dress in fleece from dusky sheep, wear masks of black-stained wood and strap on heavy ranks of bells. Progressing in formation, they take short, hopping steps “as though their feet were chained,” turning to the right and left as they go. Every so often they jump three times. The Issohadores wear red tunics over white shirts and trousers, tie on white masks and black berrìtte (caps) with colorful scarves, and carry lariats with which they herd the Mamuthones and occasionally lasso women spectators.
Other towns in central Sardinia have similar festivals. Attire varies (Search “danza Mamuthones” on the internet to see and hear processions.)
Mists of Time
Blogger Jennifer Avventura writes: “The Mamuthone legacy is shrouded in secrecy. … Some scholars argue that the Mamuthones had already marched in the nineteenth century while others argue that the … parade goes back … to the Nuraghic Age.” (Nuraghi are truncated cone-like structures built between 1900 B.C. and 730 B.C. of “heavy blocks of stone laid in courses, one upon the other, without mortar.”)
The name Mamuthone may be related to Mamoiada, where the Mamuthones parade. Another theory is that the name originated with an ancient water cult and means “men invoking the rain.”
The antediluvian celebrations seem to have been “linked to the ancient myth of the ‘eternal return’” based on the “natural cycle of death and rebirth.”
Mists of Wine
Wine has been part of Sardinian life for a long time, too.
Researchers from the University of Cagliari have shown that grapevines were present in Sardinia as early as 3,000 years ago. Archeobotanists from the university’s Center for Biodiversity discovered more than 15,000 grape seeds at a site on the west coast of the island. Carbon 14 dating confirmed that the seeds came from the Nuraghic period.
Not only did ancient Sardinians have grapes, they produced wine from them. Scientists found a grape press in a Nuraghic hamlet near Cagliari. An analysis showed that the press was used to make wine— probably red wine.
Despite starting early, Sardinian winemakers did not prosper. The island was and is sparsely populated; there wasn’t a large local market for wine. And Sardinian wine couldn’t compete on the distant mainland.
Joseph Bastianich writes that in the modern era Sardinia has been “known for thick, sweet dessert wines that recalled the fortified wines of Spain.” The island sits “in the path of the fierce North African scirocco,” and is “subject to more intense heat and light than any wine region on the mainland.” Grapes grown in such conditions tend to produce a lot of sugar, which can end up in wine as a lot of alcohol.
In recent decades, Sardinian winemakers have been producing lighter, more food-friendly beverages. And these modern Sardinian wines are available in the United States.
We sampled wines from Sella & Mosca (sellaemosca.com/en/hp), a large winery near Alghero in northwest Sardinia.
In order to appreciate the wines in culinary context, we studied Viktorija Todorovska’s The Sardinian Cookbook and Efisio Farris’ Sweet Myrtle & Bitter Honey.
Sella & Mosca Cannonau di Sardegna Riserva 2014 ($17) is a vibrant ruby color. Its rustic fragrances of black fruit, moist soil and crushed green leaves evoke images of forests or of mountain haunts where shepherds watch over flocks. Black cherry and plum elements meld with pepper and herbs to create a dark but not Stygian flavor. Modest tannin and tangy acidity make this a fine wine to pair with dinner or to sip thoughtfully afterward.
Sella & Mosca Marchese di Villamarina 2010 ($65) is 100-percent estate-grown Cabernet Sauvignon, aged 18 months in small French-oak casks, followed by an additional 12 months in oak barrels. Its rich purple color and intense but not overbearing bouquet of dark berries and herbs usher in an uplifting, ethereal fruitiness in which elegant flavors of blackberries and currants dance above a plane of vanilla, balsamic vinegar, mint, tea, parsley, herbs and pepper. This is a really delightful wine.
Sella & Mosca La Cala Vermentino 2016 ($13) is the familiar “pale straw” color. Bright fragrances of citrus, pineapple and herbs introduce lilting citrus flavors in which its generous minerality is punctuated by hints of grapefruit rind. Try this with seafood.
Sources say that the allotted span of human life is “threescore years and ten”—seven decades. But in Sardinia, life expectancy is fully 82 years. In fact, the Sardinian population comprises the world’s highest percentage of centenarians, equally divided between men and women. Zelinda Pagliero lives in the town of Esterzili, population 600. Three of her neighbors are 100 or older.
Zelinda, who turned 102 in October 2017, confirms that the secret of her longevity is drinking “with every meal a nice glass of red wine, Cannonau.” Zelinda once ran a tobacco shop. She told an interviewer: “I’ve never smoked, but a little wine is good for you. … We have very good grapes here.”
Sardinian grapes are good—and probably good for you. Silvia Donati, writing for Italy Magazine, observes that Cannonau “seems to have the highest levels of polyphenols of any wine, antioxidants linked to heart health, protecting from cardiovascular disease. It is also rich in anthocyanins (commonly found in berries), naturally occurring compounds responsible for the red/purple color of redwine grapes, with antioxidant effects as well.”
There you have it: Cannonau could be the Elixir of Life! Imagine how long Zelinda Pagliero may live if she begins drinking two nice glasses of Cannonau with every meal. Salute!
Robert Calvert drinks and writes in Louisville. Questions or comments? Email Robert: RBCalvert@att.net.