Cariñena: A Wine Region to Watch
That’s the slogan for DOP Cariñena, an area with a long viticultural history dating to Roman times. In fact, the name Cariñena derives from the original Roman city, Carae, founded in 50 BC. It lies within the autonomous community of Aragón, in northeastern Spain, a landscape that includes the Ebro River Valley and borders the Pyrénées Mountains to the north and the grand central plain (meseta) to the south. Catalunya lies to the east. And it’s interesting to note that, in Spain, Cariñena refers to the name of the town, the grape variety (aka Carignan in France) and the legal appellation.
The climate can best be described as extreme, with very hot summers and harsh, cold winters: hardly the ideal conditions in which to grow grapes for high-quality wines. But Cariñena has a few things working in its favor:
- The mountainous terrain allows for vineyard plantings at elevations as high as 2,000 feet, where the searing heat of summer is moderated by cooler air currents.
- The Cierzo Wind sweeps in from the north, keeping the vines cool and dry, and fungal diseases at bay.
- Temperatures vary greatly between day and night, what wine growers call a diurnal shift; it helps grapes maintain acidity even if they’re grown in warm climates.
- Soils are an ancient mix of limestone, sand, clay, and stones, with the composition varying from one parcel to the next. Grape varieties can be matched to the conditions that suit them.
- Cariñena boasts more old vine plantings of Garnacha and Cariñena than any other region of Spain. On average, the vines are 30-40 years old; some have been around for more than 100 years.
The Tale of Garnacha: Old Vines, New Wines
“Grenache is for me, the wild, wild woman of wine, the sex on wheels and devil take the hindmost, the don’t say I didn’t warn you.” – Oz Clarke
I rather like Oz’s description of Grenache, the wine grape of many personalities. Having spent a bit of time in Spain, I myself have fallen prey to her charms: sometimes in the magenta-hued guise of a flirty Rosado, as I dined on fresh-grilled sardines; other times cloaked in the dense blackberry velvet of Priorat, where she embodied elegant perfection with seared lamb chops. I can remember a winter meal with dear friends, when we shared stories by the fire, over cassoulet and a glass or three of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Whichever Grenache avatar you prefer, the truth is simple: this grape gets under your skin.
Where Did It Come From?
Until recently, researchers believed that Grenache originated in Spain (where it is known as Garnacha), along the eastern coast of the Mediterranean. There is still much evidence to support this theory, including the fact that all three color variations of the grape have been documented here. And ampelographers (scientists who research grape pedigrees and genetic relationships) have found significant evidence of clonal diversity among current plantings of Spanish Garnacha. However, historians in Italy have proffered a different explanation. They posit that Grenache actually comes from Sardegna, the island off the west coast of Italy. Cannonau di Sardegna, as it is known there, makes earthy varietal wines often boasting alcohol levels of 15% or higher.
Which version holds sway? It’s a tough question. Throughout history there has been much crossover between Spain and Sardegna, both culturally and commercially. By 800 BC Sardinians had put down roots in southern Iberia, giving rise to the possibility that it was they who brought the grape to Spain. On the flip side, Sardegna eventually became a Spanish colony in 1479, and remained one for almost 250 years. Maybe the Spaniards brought Garnacha seedlings with them when they conquered the island. Who knows? And who really cares? I’m just glad I get to enjoy a glass of it now and again.
A #Winestudio Garnacha Experience
Note: I received these wines as media samples; all opinions and tasting notes expressed herein are my own.
Back in September, members of the international on-line wine education program were the lucky recipients of six wines from Cariñena, each meant to highlight a particular feature of Garnacha grown in the region. And the cherry on the cake was a four-week seminar by Lyn Farmer, James Beard award-winning wine and food writer and WSET wine educator. Lyn took us on a virtual tour each week, explaining the climate, topography, and winemaking history of Cariñena. Oh, and we got to taste the wines!
Here’s a line-up of what we sampled and my notes on each, organized by producer:
Bodegas Grandes Vinos
Grandes Vinos bills itself as the Legacy of Cariñena, an appropriate moniker considering it has vineyard plots in all 14 growing zones. Under the Grandes Vinos umbrella are five wineries, all of which work with the Grandes Vinos technical team to craft wines reflecting their unique origins. It’s a great model, one that delivers a multitude of options for the consumer: grape varieties are matched to the most suitable parcels depending on soil types and elevation. The result is a diverse menu of wines available at all price points.
2017 El Circo Acróbata (13.5% abv; $9.99 retail)
This 100% Garnacha wine is a pale purple color, flashing violet toward the edges. The aromas are more intense – think bright strawberry and cherry fruit – underscored with notes of ripe blackberry. Some floral aromas and a definite savory component – meaty. On the palate it was medium in body and alcohol, with soft tannins and medium acidity. Flavors were ripe red fruit with a bitter chocolate note on the finish.
Verdict: This wine was a delight! It would make a great apéritif for your guests while you put the final touches on the dinner table. However, it would also be a great, late-night treat for the chef. Once the guests have departed and the kitchen’s been tidied, pour a glass of this for yourself and feel the holiday love.
2016 Monasterio de las Viñas Old Vines Garnacha (14.5% abv; $17.99 retail)
Tasted side-by-side with the Acróbata, you can see what Garnacha tastes like at either end of the intensity spectrum. This wine, also 100% Garnacha, comes from 40+ year-old vines and was aged for four months in French oak. It’s the gussied-up version of Garnacha, wearing a little vanilla and spice to enhance the fruit. And it can hold its own alongside a grilled leg of lamb or other hearty meat dish. I would serve this with whatever roast beast graced my holiday table, stashing away a few bottles for myself. You’re getting a lot of wine for the price, so stock up.
Bodegas Paniza, a cooperative of 400 growers, takes advantage of the multiple microclimates that define this part of Cariñena: there are parcels of limestone, sand, and clay planted to the varieties that thrive there. Many are old-vine plantings, including the flagship vineyard (average age 50 years) and the oldest plot which was planted in 1906. This wine is made from grapes farmed on the highest elevations in the region, on the hillsides of the Sistema Ibérico Mountains.
2014 Artigazo Edición Limitada (14.5% abv; $25 retail)
This blend (40% Garnacha; 30% Syrah; 30% Cabernet Sauvignon) comes from 40-year-old vines, all of which are farmed and harvested manually. The addition of international varieties Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon lends nuance to the red-fruit Garnacha profile, with the Syrah adding more meat and pepper, the Cabernet pumping up the aromatics and tannin. It all works!
Its age is showing a bit, too: the color is markedly less red, tending toward garnet, with an orange-amber rim. The nose is a beautiful combo of fruit, earth, and spice (and meat!) and the palate intrigues with a complex interplay of gritty tannins and cherry-vanilla softness. Can I just say that I loved this wine? But words are just words; I had a moment of pure joy with this Artigaza – like I’d just discovered a mythical treasure. On the hunt to find more.
2012 Viñas Viejas de Paniza (14% abv; $20 retail)
Pure Garnacha made from fruit of 100-year-old vines on slate soils sitting around 3,000 feet above sea level. The wine was aged for six months in a selection of French and American oak barrels, after which it was filtered and bottled.
This wine was medium ruby in color, fading to pink at the edge – a surprise given its age. I expected to see more of a garnet robe. Hmmm. Aromas are shy at first, beginning with notes of ripe red fruit and a smoky meaty component. Over time, notes of toast, vanilla, and coffee emerged. Worth the wait. The palate delivered tart red fruit, fine tannins, bright acidity, and a fresh herbal note that I found quite pleasant. It finished on a long note of mocha and spiced red berries. Punching way above its weight at just $20.
Bodegas San Valero
Bodegas San Valero is another cooperative (700 growers) allowing smaller establishments to craft high-quality wines without incurring the capital expenses of a full-scale winery. San Valero’s offerings focus on grape varieties native to Cariñena, especially Garnacha (25% of plantings) most of which comes from vines 30-100 years old.
2017 Particular Garnacha Joven (13.5% abv; $10 retail)
100% Garnacha, this wine shows the true beauty of young, unadulterated Garnacha: bright cherry and strawberry aromas, with a little dust on top. There’s no oak aging, so you’re getting primary fruit all the way, making this a delicious go-to for a barbecue or on burger night. I think I will pair this with a white chicken chili over the holidays when we have a quiet night to ourselves.
2015 Particular Garnacha Old Vines (14% abv; $15 retail)
What a difference two years – and 14 months in oak barrels – make! Whereas the previous wine was a simple, lovely expression of Garnacha, this one has a little more heft to it, thanks to those barrels. In the glass it is almost purple, giving off aromas of dried red fruit, and a savory, meaty note. A taste reveals medium tannins, red berries, and bittersweet chocolate. There is also a pleasant leafy note. And it is smooth – smoooooth! You can dress up your holiday menu with this wine and not break the bank. At this price, roast up your favorite meat and invite all the neighbors. (Don’t forget to stash a few bottles away for yourself!)
I hope you’ve enjoyed this mini-trip to northeastern Spain, and I’d love to hear about your own Garnacha adventures! Did you prefer the young, unoaked wines or the more robust versions? What did you pair them with? Whichever style floats your boat, I bet we can all agree that Garnacha from Cariñena provides excellent value for the price. And it definitely ups the ante on holiday fun!
Cheers, and Happy Holidays!