Stage 13: Calatayud to Tarazona


Las-Rocas Label


Friday’s’ ride will be harder than it looks in the stage profile map, with three categorized climbs  – a Cat 3 and then a Cat 1 – in quick succession within the first 70 kms, followed by a sprint that finishes at the foot of yet another Cat 3 climb.  In between lie jagged little hills that can only intensify the fatigue and misery plaguing the peloton in this second week of the Vuelta.  But anyone hoping for a podium place in Madrid must soldier on!

And so, too, must we wine lovers press on.  Luckily our work involves pouring, swirling, sipping, and enjoying a charming glass of wine or two rather than hauling ourselves over hill and dale, swerving to avoid errant motorbikes.  (Note to self:  I wonder what Peter Sagan is drinking this week?)

The Vuelta visits a prolific wine production area today, the DO Calatayud, which is part of the region of Aragón in northeastern Spain.  Calatayud’s name derives from the time of Moorish rule, when the governor Ayud, built a fortress (Qualat in Arabic) for himself within the territory.  Local vineyards straddle the Jalón River, a tributary of the Ebro, which runs through the famous region of Rioja, just to the north.  Grapes have been grown here for thousands of years but, since the area was awarded DO status in 1989, production has been largely the province of large cooperatives.

Garnacha dominates the landscape and the sorting tables of Calatayud, comprising more than two-thirds of production, although Tempranillo is lately making a name for itself as well.  The continental climate, with long, hot summers and frost-prone winters, can be challenging, even for growers of an “easy” grape like Garnacha.  But the soil, composed of shattered rock and slate, serves as a protector of the vines, ensuring that enough water is retained during dry spells to nourish the grapes.  And in the cooler seasons of the year, the rocks absorb and retain heat from the sun, allowing them to provide the vines with a blanket of frost protection.

LasRocas_OldVineVineyardGiven the long history of wine culture in this area, it is not surprising that many of the vines are nearly 100 years old, meaning lower yields and, arguably, better grapes.  That matters because the small quantity of grapes that is ultimately harvested will have a higher concentration of color and flavor components, resulting in richer and more complex wines.

Curious yet?  Want to try a glass?  Most of you have probably seen Las Rocas Garnacha on the shelves of your local wine shop, as it is widely available and at a very reasonable price.  Made by a Bodegas San Alejandro (BSA), a cooperative that includes more than 350 growers, the wine is named for the rocky soil in which Garnacha  thrives, and which imparts to it a distinct minerality that is a characteristic of wines from Calatayud.  The tag line for Las Rocas is “Born in the rocks of Aragón.”  Fortunately, you won’t have to go that far to pick up a bottle!

If you’re already quite familiar with Las Rocas, try a comparison with a Garnacha from another region: perhaps from the Southern Rhone in France or even Australia, where, in both cases, it will be labeled as Grenache.  Bonus points if you know that Garnacha is also the genetic twin of the grape known as Cannonau di Sardegna, from the isle of the same name.  See if you can find one of those in the Italian section of your favorite shop, and put it up against the Las Rocas.  Any striking differences?

Whichever wine you choose, enjoy it.  And as you sip, take a moment to think about how the same grape can look, smell and taste markedly different, depending on its home town.  It truly is a wondrous thing!