Bentu Luna is where the old ways are new again.
Bentu Luna is a new wine project located in the centre of Sardinia, based at Neoneli, in the Province of Oristano. It’s led by the Moratti family from Castello Cigognola in Lombardy and managed by CEO Gian Matteo Baldi, who grew up and worked in Sardinia. They have featured on these pages before, with their outstanding Metodo Classico sparkling wines, which you can read about here. Meanwhile, Bentu Luna has now released their first wines from the 2019 vintage. There’s one coastal white, with four reds from central Sardinia, all based on old vines. These wines are spectacular, created by a new and sustainable business model that offers a brighter future for central Sardinia, a place scarred by depopulation yet rich in biodiversity, culture and heritage.
Central Sardinia is wild, remote, scenic and unspoiled. In this high and rugged area, altitude and constant winds (bentu) freshen hot sunny summers. There’s extensive maquis, complete with Cork Oaks. The farming landscape on these granite hills and mountains is ancient, a mosaic of vines, fruits, olives, pasture and arable farming. Farms are usually isolated smallholdings run by generations of families, unchanged for centuries. It’s a time capsule of history, culture and biodiversity.
For visitors, this unique and romantic place is still off the beaten track. But its inhabitants face a harsher reality. The agricultural work is challenging and often with little payback. As in many other rural places, younger generations emigrate for a better and easier life, if only as far as the bigger towns or the coast made prosperous by tourism. A high level of such depopulation means that the area is sparsely populated.
The winemaking tradition
The tiny vineyards hereabouts were still economic in our grandfathers’ time when wine was made primarily for family consumption. Vines are trained as free-standing bushes, ideal for the dry sandy conditions but requiring much manual toil and unsuitable for mechanisation. And these vineyards often contain a hotchpotch of grape varieties planted together to reduce the likelihood of crop failure – called field-blends. These vines themselves are now ancient, so yields are meagre and their market price low.
Even a co-operative can’t guarantee a living income from such holdings. Hence many old vineyards now stand quasi-abandoned and risk extinction. They are still family-owned but without anyone to work them. If they go, an entire culture goes with them. Yet, there is a tremendous value and potential locked away. How can this be realised?
The Bentu Luna project – and a unique wine business model
The Bentu Luna project realised that the key is to give families a better economic return. After discussions with the farmers and inhabitants of Neoneli, Bentu Luna partnered with nine families by renting their vineyards. As a result, those families receive a more significant income while retaining ownership of the land with the ability to pass it on to subsequent generations.
Bentu Luna’s small team of experts partner with local workers in the participating vineyards to produce high-quality grapes. In addition, Bentu Luna provides winegrowing know-how, infrastructure and distribution. It’s a new, humanistic, approach; creating a sustainable and equitable business with financial benefits for all.
The vineyards are naturally organic; they’ve never even seen a tractor, let alone modern chemicals. This situation remains, as the vineyard work continues by hand, with oxen for ploughing. Unusually, all the vines for the red wines are old, ranging from 35 to 115 years of age. Indeed, of the current 20 hectares of vineyard, 70% of the vines average 40 years, while the remaining 30% are a minimum of 60 years old.
A new low-impact winery houses modern winemaking. Unusually, there is no stainless steel. Instead, a range of cement tanks, amphorae and older wooden barrels are preferred, which is more historic. Pressing is by human feet.
The red wines are all made similarly, with each parcel treated separately. After hand-picking and destemming, there is no crush – whole grape bunches and berries ferment spontaneously in small 2,000-litre cement tanks with the wild yeasts found on the grape skins. Maturation is in used large oak barrels for eight months, with lees stirring. There’s a low-sulphur regime too. The aim is to make authentic wines that are balanced, clean, and pure. You’ll find no Brett, VA, oxidation, reduction or wood flavours here.
A focus on sustainability also means low energy usage, wastewater recycling and green packaging. The corks are from local Cork Oaks. Lightweight glass bottles weigh only 400g, and the boxes are recycled cardboard.
It’s an ambitious project, so have Bentu Luna succeeded?
Unda, Vermentino di Sardegna DOC, 2020, 13%
Meaning Wave, Unda is 100% Vermentino. As well as being the only Bentu Luna white wine, the vines are a mere 16 years old, from a small vineyard on the Oristano coast at Riola, at less than five metres above the sea. The situation here is entirely different from the central zone devoted to the reds. There are loose sandy soils and a typical Mediterranean climate, with mild dry winters and scorching summers. The vines are kept cool by the ever-present winds, which deposits sea salts on the grape skins.
The hand-picked grapes are foot-pressed. Fermentation lasts 7-10 days after starting spontaneously with wild yeasts in a mix of 2,000-litre cement tanks and terracotta amphorae. Maturation is for three months, using lees stirring to bring additional body and complexity. There were 6,500 bottles made.
An excellent example of Vermentino, with that typical Sardinian salinity. Yellowish in the glass and with subtle floral and green herb aromatics. It has that vital acidity and mineral sensations with a broad volume in the mouth and a long fade. Paired with Tuna smeared in pesto, it was perfect. Drink with all the usual fishy subjects—an excellent counterpoint to the four reds below.
UK availability: Drinks & Co. £17.55
Mari, Mandrolisai Rosso DOC, 2019, 15.5%
Meaning Sea, Mari is a Mandrolisai DOC wine, a tiny and high-quality DOC of only 19 hectares in size. It covers reds and rosés and is always a blend with a minimum of 35% Bovale Sardo (locally called Bovaleddu) which is the same grape as Graciano from Spain (not Bobal or Monastrell, as some still claim). Cannonau (aka Grenache Noir) and Monica are the other significant components.
Mari is a blend of 35% Bovale Sardo, 35% Cannonau and 30% Monica, from 35 to 70-year-old vines in several vineyards. There are 4,900 bottles.
Mari is inky purple and dense, with long slow legs on the sides of the glass. The nose shows nutmeg, pepper and dark black fruits, with a scent of violets as it opens up. The palate has easy drinkability; blackcurrant, black cherry, sloe and damson fruit interweave, with refreshing acidity and polished tannins. There’s a smooth texture, a hint of cedar and an absence of alcoholic heat—a big wine for sure, but with great poise and persistence.
Matched with Lasagne, the acidity partnered the béchamel and cheese, while the fruit took good care of the meat and fennel ragù. It suggests that a classic Sardinian dish of Malloreddus (a kind of gnocchi with local sausage) would also do the trick.
As the Mandrolisai DOC dates from 1981, there’s no better way to celebrate its 40th Anniversary this year with this first release of Mari!
UK availability: Drinks & Co. £24.03. Terrific value for the quality on offer.
Sobi, Vino Rosso, 2019, 15%
Meaning Sun, Sobi is from vineyards that are outside the Mandrolisai DOC at Neoneli. Hence it’s only a humble table wine. Nevertheless, Sobi has similarities with Mari. It’s made the same way, employs 35 to 70-year-old vines and the blend is similar, albeit in different proportions. However, as well as 25% Bovale Sardo, 35% Cannonau and 5% Monica, 15% of other varieties are grown together as a field-blend; those being Carignano, Barbera, Cagnulari and Pascale. 8,500 bottles were made.
Sobi is more different to Mari than the specification might suggest. A dense crimson-black colour, there’s more subtlety than Mari, trading some of Mari’s upfront fruit for a mineral and savoury complexity and the even more pleasing balance of components that meld into a seamless whole. As a result, this wine fully deserves the Gambero Rosso Tre Bicchieri (three glasses) award. Drinking it with a simple dish of Aubergine Parmigiana allows the complexity and vibrancy of the wine to shine through.
UK availability: Drinks & Co. £29.74. Worth the extra over Mari and still good value.
Susu, Vino Rosso, 2019, 14.5%
Meaning Up (in terms of altitude), Susu is 100% Cannonau from a single vineyard of 40-year-old vines at Neoneli, capable of making only 1,500 bottles. So once again, the designation is as a mere table wine, though surely it qualifies for Cannonau di Sardegna DOC?
Many wine lovers will know that the Cannonau of Sardinia is the Grenache Noir of Spain. So naturally, there are differing opinions as to whether it originated in Sardinia or Spain. Still, one thing is sure, Sardinian Cannonau is always a different expression from Spanish (or French) Grenache Noir and is Sardinia’s signature red.
Susu is a truly remarkable example of Cannonau, unusually supple and elegant, with a dancer’s poise. Perhaps that’s because of altitude as well as old vines. It’s also a lighter mid-crimson colour, featuring ripe red berry and cherry fruit and pepper on the nose. Then there’s the superb balance on the palate, depth of red fruits, polished tannins and moreish acidity before a slow fade. Shared with friends and paired with Beef Wellington*, this was a memorable match. Susu’s tannins melted the rare beef, while the acidity cut through the puff pastry and savoury-edged fruit matched the mushrooms and red wine jus. Bravo!
Be Luna, Vino Rosso, 2019, 15.5%
Meaning Moon, Be Luna is the flagship wine, the most potent and complex wine in the range. The grapes are exclusively from 115-year-old vines in a single-vineyard field blend. It dates from 1905 at Atzara, south of Neoneli.
Be Luna is again a Mandrolisai-like wine, with 40% Bovale Sardo, 35% Cannonau and 25% Monica. These ancient centurions produced tiny yields, capable of making only 1,300 bottles.
While the winemaking follows the pattern established for the other reds, maturation differs because small oak barriques mature the wine for eight months rather than larger oak barrels. As these provide a larger surface area in contact with the wine, it probably helps soften this powerful wine more quickly.
Indeed, despite an hour’s decanting, the conclusion is that this wine shows great potential but isn’t ready for drinking yet. Its many components suggest this is an outstanding wine, but it still needs to integrate fully over the next year or two. Understandably, its release now completes the entire range. I’m no winemaker but can speculate whether a longer “Riserva” maturation time might be beneficial, whether in wood or bottle. But, as most classic red wines are not opened young, it’s still highly recommended.
Regardless, this wine will match powerful food on feast days and holidays. UK availability: coming soon, watch this space.
The future’s bright
On the evidence of the wines, the project is a resounding success. Moreover, the project started with nine families, and this has now become twenty-five! Proof enough that the business model provides economic and social benefits for all.
With more families, volumes will increase. Also, there’s a new possibility of adding Vernaccia di Oristano, a delightfully fresh and flor-influenced young white wine that has almost disappeared. And also likely is the increasing use of Amphorae in winemaking.
The reds have high alcohol levels, not intrusive because of their precision balance and agility. However, climate change threatens more elevated levels yet, so vineyard work will adapt to reduce alcohol levels naturally.
An open bottle will last several days if you can resist finishing it. But how will these wines age and develop in the bottle? The Unda Vermentino will probably have 3 -4 years of life. The reds are harder to predict at this stage, but given their weight and power, plus evidence from other Mandrolisai wines, evolution for a decade or more seems likely. The vibrancy of Mari, Sobi and Susu makes them almost irresistible now. In contrast, Be Luna needs more time.
In the new edition of Gambero Rosso (out in the UK this month), not only does Sobi receive Tre Bicchieri, but Bentu Luna has received the prestigious “Emerging Winery of the Year” award.
As well as making superb authentic wines, Bentu Luna is also a great wine business case study. It proves how adopting an alternative business model can preserve old vines, create economic value, and retain invaluable human culture and heritage.
Let’s drink to that!
09080 Neoneli (OR)
*Special thanks to the Oak Bistro, Cambridge, for the Beef Wellington and many other culinary delights.