What is Garnacha?
by Sara d’Amato and Michael Godel
Sara d’Amato and Michael Godel
Garnacha – never heard of it? Well, you’ve very likely tasted it whether you realized it or not. Otherwise known as grenache, this grape is planted liberally in the south of France, making up a major component in the blends of Côtes du Rhône and even the revered Châteauneuf-du-Pape appellation. But it was the lure of Spanish garnacha that whisked me and fellow WineAligner Michael Godel off to the northeastern city of Zaragoza to absorb as much as we could about this amiable variety. Along with Vines Magazine Editor Christopher Waters, we set off on a whirlwind tour offered by the Wines of Garnacha, a not-for-profit organization for the promotion of Garnacha wines.
One week, all garnacha and nothing else. Palate fatigue was a real possibility but luckily, garnacha comes in many forms, including the most familiar red, a notably underused and underrated variety of white garnacha, as well as several appealing and popular rosé styles. As I tend to have a strong appreciation for the grenache-dominant wines of southern France along with a fondness of the delicious and super affordable reds, whites and rosés of northern Spain, I was particularly delighted for the opportunity for an in-depth exploration of the birthplace of this variety. Michael Godel, the consummate adventurer, now quite well known for his poetic articulation and vocab savvy exposés, was equally keen to appreciate what makes these wines tick.
Garnacha is a grape variety easy to love. It is abundantly fruity and often has a sweet smelling, inviting nose of strawberry jam or cotton candy. It is high in alcohol and soft in tannins and acids due to its larger berry size and thinner skin. Garnacha often produces a ready-to-drink style of wine best consumed young and fresh. Although the average lifespan of a typical garnacha is 3-5 years, Michael Godel was determined to find more age-worthy examples which he subsequently highlights. In fact, we found many examples of deeper, darker garnacha than we could have imagined. We discovered that in particular vintages and in lower-yielding regions, darker and denser versions of garnacha were quite common.
Our tour took us through the four Aragon PDOs (appellations) of Campo de Borja, Cariñena, Somontano and Calatayud and one Catalan PDO, Terra Alta that make up the association of Wines of Garnacha. Following the Ebro River, we trekked high planes, hillsides and low valleys in search of the finest examples of garnacha. In the shadow of the mountain of Moncayo and through the current of the Cierzo wind, we discovered great personality in this expressive grape variety. We’ve summarized our adventures, step-by-step through these individual and varied regions of southeastern Spain.
Campo De Borja: The Empire of Garnacha
Through the lens of Michael Godel
Of the five DO’s (Denominación de Origen) that comprise the collective wine growing region that is Aragon, in the province of Zaragoza, none walk with a swagger like Campo de Borja. President Eduardo Ibañez Aranda and Secretary José Ignacio “Nacho” Gracia Lopez rule the Empire of Garnacha, a self-proclaimed stewardship for the grape and for Campo de Borja as the centre of its universe.
The two proud men have reason to state such territorial claim. Campo de Borja will play host to Grenaches du Monde. “The Weekend of Garnachas,” organized by the Roussillon Inter-professional Wine Council of France (CIVR). Grenaches of the World was held in France in its first three years. In 2016, Campo de Borja plays host to the competition.
In Aragon, diverse soils, altitude, slopes and prevailing winds all contribute to grape growing excellence. Campo de Borja’s trump card is a mountain. Other regions such as Cariñena find benefit from Moncayo, but nowhere does its 2,315m in altitude have an effect on vines as it happens in Campo de Borja.
More than 2,000 hectares are 30+ yr-old vines. The climate receives an Atlantic influence and above all else there is the famous wind. El Cierzo blows 234 days a year, the “strong wind” blows after the rain, dries out the vines, eradicates disease and elicits increased probabilities for grape concentration. The saying goes “today is raining, tomorrow it will blow.” El Cierzo, as it has been called for 2,000 years, “has lunch and dinner lasts for a fortnight.” No one knows why. Maybe the Zaragozan Virgin of Pilar knows.
Campo de Borja is described as a “homogeneous physical space capable of producing wines with peculiarities.” Much of its viticulture, in kinship with the other four Aragonese DO’s, perpetuates the viñedo en vaso, “vines in a glass,” or bush vines, calculated at 2000 plants per hectare in density with three metres between rows.
Great fluctuations happen in this D.O., located 30 miles west of Zaragoza, where the earliest maturing, lowest section habituates the Ribera del Ebro at 239m and yet other vines are planted up to 1000m. At low altitudes (200-300m) there are finer, lighter soils. In between the vineyards of Ainzon, Borja and Fuendejalon are situated between 450 and 550 metres above sea level, occupied by the terraces of La Huecha river, a tributary of the Ebro with soils composed of stones and ferrous-clay. The D.O’s top plantations are in the upper reach, Moncayo foothills area of Alta de Ainzon and Fuendejalon, as well as the municipalities of Tabuena, El Buste and Vera. At these higher climes (up to 900-1000m) there is more limestone and iron, so darker soils with obvious increase of mineral.
Yields are quite low (30-35 hL/L), very vintage dependent and in some areas, in certain years it can be as low as 20-25. Yields are the key to understanding the value of wines from Campo de Borja, that and the iron-rich soil minerality.
Vines here see long cycles, with late maturing fruit of soft tannins and high glycerol concentration. Garnacha is a pro at climate and poor soil adaptation. It can be picked well into November and despite the lower tannins, treated properly it possesses the flexibility to develop complexity with short-term aging.
Every Grenache growing region of the world (The Rhone, Australia, South Africa) have their own special aromatic identity, whether it by garrigue, earthy reduction or soil-driven funk. A mountain herb called tomillo (thyme) grows everywhere around Moncayo. In Aragon there is an expression “when it is foggy in the morning there will be walking in the evening” and when it rains there is an all-encompassing scent in the air. That perfume is what gives these wines their special something. The amalgamation of mineral, earth and herb.
Top picks include:
Santo Cristo Seleccion Garnacha 2013, DO Campo de Borja, Spain
Bodegas Pagos del Moncayo 2012, DO Campo de Borja, Spain
Bodegas Aragonesas Garnacha Centenaria Coto de Hayas 2014, DO Campo de Borja, Spain
Through the lens of Sara d’Amato
It would stand to reason that the region of Cariñena in Aragon would be dominated by the grape variety of the region’s namesake, otherwise known as carignan. However, due to the popularity and demand for garnacha, the variety now dominates the land under vine. So, what is Cariñena garnacha all about? There exist a multitude of producers and a vast array of styles in this region that are widely exported. If you live in Ontario, you will benefit from a profusion of great value garnacha. Garnacha in Cariñena is produced in abundance and, like many of the PDO’s in Aragon, dominated by co-ops.
Cariñena is one of the oldest wine appellations in Europe with its DO status granted in 1932. Sitting on the vast plains of the Ebro valley of up to 800 meters in altitude, the region experiences an extreme continental climate. The wines were favourites of royalty and poets, most notably of Ferdinand I and Voltaire.
Rock in a glass – a symbolic representation of terroir in the wines of Cariñena
Châteauneuf-du-Pape often comes to mind when visiting these regions of Aragon whose top variety is the heat seeking garnacha. A premium-growing region for the variety, the southern Rhone’s climate is similar and so are the rocky, round pebbly soils that reflect sunlight and provide the ideal drainage for this rather drought resistant variety. The Cierzo, the named wind of the area that races through the Ebro Valley, influences these regions in a similar fashion as the Mistral in the Rhône Valley. The wind helps bring down the temperature, most notably in the evening, contributing to slower ripening in this otherwise hot, dry and temperamental climate. That hint of freshness that exists in these Cariñena garnachas is refreshingly importance to the balance of these fruity, high alcohol reds.
There is a lovely story that was related to us about this region involving the visit of King Phillip II in the late 16th century. Upon his arrival at the town of Carinena, the residents filled the magnificent fountain of the town square with wine instead of water. To this day, the tradition is repeated at the annual festival of wine in September to commemorate the occasion.
Top picks include:
Anayón 2012 Garnacha, Cariñena, Spain
Paniza 2014 Garnacha Rosé, Cariñena, Spain
Care 2012 Finca Bancales Vinas Viejas Garnacha, Cariñena, Spain
Through the lens of Michael Godel
The centuries have seen to winemaking in Somontano though it was not until April 30th, 1984 that the protected designation of origin was granted by the Spanish Ministry of Agriculture. What has transpired, transformed and transmogrified in 31 short years is astonishing.
The proof lies in a day of Somontano pudding. First a 130 km drive north out of Zaragoza, to the place they call “at the foot of the mountains” and a visit to the D.O office in the regional capital of Barbastro. A perfectly pressed early morning café and an overture of origen by local el presidente Mariano Beroz Bandrés sets the denominational stage. Second, a hike along with viticulturist José Antonio through the highest bush vines vineyard belonging to Secastilla of Viñas del Vero.
Next, a round table presentation, tasting and discussion at cellar door slash naturally lit, modernist Bodega Pirineos. Finally, remedying and restorative lunch at state of the art, colossal tanks and all, wine bottle art gallery installation, architecturally brilliant Vinos Enate.
The DO Somontano region is located at a height of between 350 and 1,000 metres above sea level and from Secastilla’s vineyard the six castles visible on peaks and throughout the Secastilla valley spread across the blue demure of a brilliant mid-autumn day. The view from Enate is nothing special, that is unless you are the kind of person that is moved by the awesome splendour of foothills and peaks fronting the drama of the Pyrenees.
In the hills of Somontano low-fertility, brown limestone soil and its soft, permeable underbelly encourages roots to penetrate the earth, to extract just the right amount of limestone. The surrounding mountains protect the vines from the extreme cold and the rain.
Somontano is planted to 4200 hectares (of a total 205,000, 95,000 of it agricultural). There are 20,000 inhabitants, 43 villages, 424 growers, 31 wineries, 15 varietals, 200 wines and 15,000,000 bottles produced annually. Of that total, 70 per cent sold are domestically. The wide range of grape varieties cultivated are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Tempranillo, Syrah, Parraleta, Moristel, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, Macabeo (Alcañón), Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Red and White Garnacha. Six of these last varietal wines are involved in the Wines of Garnacha program. Mariano Beroz Bandrés talks about the collective approach for their wines. “Market niche, medium-high price, fresh, fruity, touch of oak, for young and innovative consumers.”
Viñas del Vero La Miranda Secastilla Garnacha Blanca 2013, DO Somontano, Spain
Pirineos Garnacha 2013, DO Somontano, Spain
Vinas del Vero Secastilla Garnacha 2010, DO Somontano, Spain
Through the lens of Sara d’Amato
Calatayud is a region of extremes and contrasts. From low to high elevations, from rugged flatlands to impressive rocky slopes. “extreme viticulture “ is the region’s slogan and it is no stretch. It is also somewhat impecunious and certainly lacking the international recognition it deserves. But the stewards of this land who run the PDO are astute and un-resigned to its slow abandonment due to lack of profitability in recent times. The best lands of Calatayud are high in elevation with fractured slate, quartz and limestone soils. The steep, high elevation slopes are treacherous to climb and to farm but offer some tremendous views. Many of these sites house vines that are over 100 years old. The growers, for all of their hard labour, receive only 1 Euro per kilo, each old vine producing scarcely 1 kilo each. The vines are planted in bush style, are hardy and seem to refuse to falter even if deserted by their custodians. We were afforded the opportunity to taste the fruit of these aged, neglected vines which were thrillingly concentrated.
100 year old vines in Calatayud
Our guide, Javier lázaro Guajardo, Secretary of the Calatayud PDO, afforded us views of low, mid and high elevation sites within Calatayud. It is hard to describe the absolutely captivating nature of this man whose soulful, wild but wise eyes betrayed the struggle of those who undertake the unforgiving but admirable task of the cultivation of these impressive lands. It is bewildering to think that these wines fetch prices in the neighborhood of only $12. Changing the market perception of a land that is so little known and understood on the international market is an obstacle that is worth surmounting.
Much of the fruit now comes from low to mid elevation sites, hot but with mountainous surroundings that provide some protection for the harsh winds and intensity of sunny exposures. Calatayud is largely a co-operative based PDO for the obvious reason that it takes the investment of a group to be profitable. These dedicated co-ops work hard to showcase the natural expression of garnacha in these poor, stressed soils and sites perfectly suited to the variety. A most notable example is the co-operative of Cruz de Piedra, many of whose 650 hectares of vines are located in high elevations of up to 1,000 meters. The growers are in the process of converting to organic viticulture and are fervently devoted to producing high quality expressions of this unique terroir. The idiosyncratic wines of Calatayud, worth seeking out, have greater intensity and ageability due to the darker, thicker skins yielded by the terroir.
Cruz de Piedra Albada 2013 Tinto Garnacha Vina Viejas, Calatayud, Spain
Las Rocas Garnacha 2012, Do Calatayud, Spain
Langa Tradicion Centenaria Garnacha 2012, Do Calatayud, Spain
Through the lens of Michael Godel
Crossed off the bucket list is a visit to the land of Garnatxa Blanca, Catalonian of the heart, in drive and from desire. The journey from Zaragoza to the furthest afield of Aragon’s five D.O’s passes through vast stretches of landscapes in painted desserts and sculpted of mountain congeries. Soon the valleys begin to wind and snake their way between the limitless hills, tracing paths carved out in memory of long ago raging, ancient glacial rivers. The road slices through terraced panal, the spongy soils of Terra Alta, davenports to vines cultivated by the most prolific producers of white Grenache in the world. In Terra Alta, that number occupies 49 percent of the total Spanish production.
Terra Alta can be found in the southwest corner of the northeast corner of Spain. In a nutshell it may be incongruously defined as a large geographical area, “la más meridional de Cataluña,” with a small population of a mere 12,000 inhabitants. The prevailing winds, el Cierzo from the north and the summer Garbinades, “the Arab wind” from the southeast, add humidity, to protect from vine disease and to help finish a grape’s ripening process. Unlike its Aragonese brethren, the grape varieties grown in Terra Alta at times need a little help from their friends. To that end, five years ago an irrigation system was created, useable from May to September, to also help with the ripening process.
It is fascinating to note that when Pablo Picasso was sick he came to Terra Alta for the air. He also came for the wine. He drank what was called vino brisat, skin macerated white wine, somewhere between orange and straw wine. After his health was restored, he returned three years later and apparently developed his cubist style in Terra Alta. Picasso, innovator and oenophile privy to 21st century thought, knowing that white wines produced with a maceration step contain significantly more health restoring and promoting polyphenols than those produced in a more traditional way. Records show that Garnacha has been grown in Terra Alta dating back to 1647.
Terra Alta’s trump soil card is the panal, with its ability to retain moisture with nary rock or stone encumbrance. There are also soils imbued of limestone richness and a lack of organic material. The mediterranean climate combines abundant sunshine with little rainfall. Of the 6,000 total hectares planted, 1,400 is devoted to Garnatxa Blanca and the average annual production is seven million kg of grapes or, 50 hectolitres per hectare.
The DO “Terra Alta” (DOTA) was recognised provisionally in 1972. Together with Alella, Conca de Barberà, Empordà, Penedès, Priorat and Tarragona it is one of the seven historic denominations of origin of Catalonia. The first label noted as D.O. Terra Alta was 1984 and that wine was white. And so, today there are two symbols of guarantee, one for the D.O. as a whole and the other granted for whites. “SOM Terra Alta Garnatxa Blanca – 100×100.” More than simply a guarantee of 100 per cent Garnatxa Blanca composition, these wines must be deemed to score at least 85 out of 100 points in sensorial quality by the Consell Regulador. “Or you don’t get the sticker,” says proprietor of Altavins Viticultors de Batea Joan Arrufí, current president of the D.O. “Everyone is on board because it is necessary to put Terra Alta on the map.” The credo is “Cuerpo Y Alma,” or in Catalan, “Cos I Anima.” Body and soul.
What is so curious about the White Grenache here is that more than any other Garnacha, red or white, produced in the five D.O’s of Aragon, the Blanca of Terra Alta has proven its ability to age. Arrufí tasted a 2001 the day before we arrived, saying “it’s perfect,” having changed from white fruits (banana, apple, apricot) to frutos secos (nuts), honey and almond flowers.
Winemakers presenting in today’s market are mostly young, the children of the older generation, adding freshness, elegance, new blood and a willingness to embrace technology. Unique to Terra Alta, the new generation is taking over the winemaking. Ask one how to prevent oxidation? Hand-pick, before the sun hits mid-sky, ferment at low temps and protect with lees. Good plan.
Celler Batea Vall Major Garnatxa Blanca 2014, DO Terra Alta, Spain
Lafou Celler Garnatxa Blanca 2014, DO Terra Alta, Spain
Altavins “IL” Ilercavònia Garnatxa Blanca 2014, DO Terra Alta, Spain
Although garnacha has the unfortunate reputation of yielding simple, friendly expressions on its own, it is blended to produce some of the most memorable wines on the planet. We uncovered that garnacha, produced even as a single varietal wine, is much more complex and varied that we had ever expected. Thanks to the efforts of our exceptional guides Sofía González Martínez and Ivo Alho, we were introduced to magnanimous people and an astounding culture of food and wine.
The garnachas of northeastern Spain, the cradle of this variety, are worth every penny, and in fact much more – value is an understatement. If this article, in any way, helps to highlight this merit than we have done our due diligence.
Michael Godel and Sara d’Amato
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