From the late 1950s to the late 1980s, the Silvio Carta winery maintained a tight focus on the production of Vernaccia, a wine of significance and tradition in Sardinia. When Vernaccia began to decline in popularity, Elio Carta and his father Silvio saw that new opportunities were to be found in the art of distillation. Elio discovered that most of the juniper for gin in the world was coming from Tuscany and Umbria, so he imagined that the Sardinian juniper would certainly possess the qualities necessary for distilling. Thus, Elio Carta became the very first gin distiller on the island of Sardinia.
We interviewed Elio Carta, oenologist and master distiller of the Silvio Carta company in Zeddiani, Sardinia.
What are the raw materials you work with (botanicals/flowers/plants), and how do you obtain them?
We work exclusively with wild botanicals, flowers and plants which grow within the province of Oristano, Sardinia. We use myrtle leaves and berries, liquorice roots, rosemary, thyme, mastic, fennel, lemons and lemon peel, orange and mandarin peel, Desoleana sage, elicriso, senecio serpens, and of course, juniper berries (Juniper coccolone—Juniperus oxycedrus—one of five native Sardinian varieties which grows cones that are very large, sweet and grow exclusively on the coast). We collect the materials early in the morning by hand, and we have a garden next to the distillery planted with citrus, sage and liquorice.
When deciding on a recipe, like the Carta Vermouth for example, what types of flavour characteristics are you hoping to achieve in the final product?
I try to find a link back to the territory and seek out the perfumes, flavours, tastes and peculiarities of Sardinia, and then blend them in a way that allows for a gentle expression. Our island is so rich in these beautiful things, and it is our way of expressing gratitude for living in a place that Mother Nature has blessed with abundance. A glass of our vermouth or mirto is like having a glass of Sardinian culture, land and tradition.
What are the botanicals used in the Carta Vermouths?
For our Vermouth Rosso di Sardegna, we use a base of Vernaccia di Oristano Riserva wine, which is a Sardinian traditional oxidative-style wine aged in old chestnut barrels made from trees on the island, infused with elicriso, sage, myrtle, thyme, artemesia and mastic. For the Vermouth 'Servito', the recipe starts with a base of young Vernaccia wine, a similar selection of botanicals, but also the addition of a special Mediterranean plant called senecio serpens.
What is the difference between using dried versus fresh juniper berries for gin?
Fresh juniper berries retain all their aromatic properties and nothing is lost. We begin picking the berries at about 7.00am in a location only about 10km from the distillery, and we are already working them only 30-40 minutes after being harvested. The fact that the juniper grows at the seaside and is swept by the coastal Maestrale wind is also important. The trunks of the trees get “cleaned” by these winds, and also by the sun and by the sea water, imparting a salty minerality to the berries. This makes our gin unique and drinkable on its own, without needing to be mixed into a cocktail.
Do you harvest any of the raw materials yourself?
Yes. Before harvesting any of the plants or fruits, I check them one by one. I examine the land where they grow and scrutinize their aromas, colours, and textures. One I give my approval, my colleagues and I gently harvest the flowers or other materials, being careful not to damage the plants. We use wicker baskets to preserve their softness and peculiarities. These raw materials are always worked immediately, at the peak of freshness.
Of the botanicals you use for the gins and vermouths, which ones grow wild?
All the botanicals we use grow wild in the Mediterranean scrub, with the exception of the Desoleana sage, liquorice roots and citrus trees which grow in our garden. My father, Silvio Carta (89), is in charge of the garden and tends to them every day.
Which liqueurs or spirits are your personal favourites? How do you drink them?
Giniu gin! I will have it on the rocks with a few cubes of ice and a slice of lemon.