I had the chance to meet up with a few fellow wine geeks yesterday, to sip and compare notes on some new offerings from Cariñena in northern Spain. Yes, it was a grueling job but we soldiered through with gusto.
Our expert tour guides were Kat Thomas (education director for the Hakkasan restaurant group) and Rick Wilson (aka The Spanish Wine Guy and lead educator for the Wine Scholar Guild’s new Spanish Wine Scholar program.) As they led us through the background on Cariñena – did you know it is a grape variety, official denomination, and a city? – each of us tasted our wine and chimed in with comments and questions.
Not bad for Happy Hour during lockdown!
About Cariñena: It’s 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 and the grape variety (aka Carignan in France.)
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.
A Focus on Quality
In 1696, local winemakers implemented the Statute of the Vine, a commitment to making high-quality wines by identifying the most promising vineyards for cultivation, and by limiting yields. When the phylloxera crisis destroyed most of Europe’s vines, Cariñena was largely unaffected. It became a refuge for vignerons from France, allowing them to continue farming and supporting their families.
King Alfonso XIII rewarded the citizens of Cariñena for their generosity by granting the town an independent charter in 1863. In 1932, Cariñena was named an official Denominacion de Origen (DO), the second in Spain’s history (Rioja was the first.) Many of the tenets embodied in the DO regulations have their roots in the original Statute of the Vine.
About Bodegas San Valero
Bodegas San Valero is a 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.
This co-op is well-known for its Particular line of Garnacha- and Cariñena-based wines, which you can read more about here.
Celebrities by San Valero
At the end of last year, Bodegas San Valero launched a new line called “Celebrities.” These varietal wines (based on a single grape rather than a blend) feature the Cariñena region’s headliners Cariñena and Garnacha, as well as international varieties such as Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot.
Each wine is labeled with a black-and-white photo hinting at the personality of the grape used to make it. For yesterday’s tasting, I sampled the 2019 Garnacha. Or, as the label calls her, Lady Garnacha!
As you can see from the front label, this wine is daring, perhaps a bit of a show-off. Our heroine has her back to us as she dances in front of a storefront, music provided by the old-school boombox on the sidewalk. Whether she’s on her way out for the evening or returning in the wee hours of the morning is unclear. But whichever it is, she’s dressed to kill.
The back label continues the story with this quote from Lady Garnacha herself:
“Those who know me know that I’m special. Sometimes my way of life may seem too daring.”
Don’t you want to have a drink with her? I know I do!
Tasting Notes 2019 Celebrities by San Valero Garnacha (14.5% abv; media sample)
Color: Deep purple-black in the glass. Are you old enough to remember Chanel’s famous nail polish called Vamp? This is the vinous equivalent. And, for you WSET students struggling with the SAT: here’s what a purple wine looks like:
Nose: Blackberry and cherry aromas; a little whiff of smoke, like the charcoal grill after you’ve extinguished the flames.
Palate: Lots of black fruit as on the nose, moderate acidity, barely-there tannins. Medium+ in body which belied the 14.5% alcohol. It wasn’t hot or heavy, wearing its high octane well.
Pairing: No pairing as this was a happy hour sip. But, since I used the Coravin, I will definitely make something tasty when I reopen it. Maybe croquetas: we have some great ones here in Miami. Or perhaps the ham will stand alone with a few chunks of cheese. Stay tuned!
Thanks to the good folks at Cooperativa Vinícola San Valero and Gregory + Vine for inviting me to this virtual tasting. As a lover of Spanish wines and those from Cariñena in particular, this was a real treat!
Cheers all, and stay healthy!