Garnacha: Looking Toward the Future

In Aragón, old vines produce wines reflecting new finesse.
Photo by Ron Edwards / Alamy

Known as Garnacha in Spain and ­Grenache in southern France, this versatile grape, once called the “Red of Aragón,” is making a comeback in its birthplace.

For years, the grape suffered in its home region. Garnacha was farmed like a commodity, planted widely with little attention paid to yields or quality. The resulting wines were known to oxidize quickly. And the grape’s sensitivity to variations in climate and terrain—hallmarks of the Aragón region—gave growers little incentive to keep their vines during a ­1980s European Union-sponsored program that paid subsidies for uprooting them.

It didn’t help that on the other side of the ­Pyrenees Mountains, French winemakers had long ago adopted and elevated the Spanish variety, most ­notably in ­Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Vacqueyras and Gigondas.

Now, winemakers across the four denominaciónes de origen (DOs) in the heart of Aragón, an autonomous community, are reclaiming their Garnacha heritage and producing wines with a strong sense of place.

Old head-trained vines once dismissed for their low yields (each ancient vine produces just two pounds of grapes) are now celebrated for their rich, concentrated expressions. Growing conditions at ­elevations that range from 1,000–2,950 feet are now better understood, while careful harvesting, experimentation with various fermentation vessels and improved barrel selections ­have led to better wines.

Visually speaking, the landscapes—mountains, plateaus and patchworks of rusty red clay, almond groves and wheat fields that resemble a Fauvist painting—are as rich as some of Aragón’s wines. Around gnarled vines, a variety of soils with chunks of slate or round stones cover the surfaces, which compels stressed roots to drive deeper.The end results are the best Garnacha wines ­consumers have ever tasted.

“Garnachas have become very well known to our clientele and have a firm hold in the market,” says Nancy Selzer, managing partner at Tarry Lodge and Michelin-starred Casa Mono/Bar Jamón in New York City. “I think they have had a remarkable rise in the public consciousness due to the many affordable and well-made options available.”

She says the grape’s varied expressions make it a good pairing for a range of dishes, from jamón ibérico and charcuterie to spiced lamb and pepper-infused plates.

The DOs of Calatayud, Campo de Borja, Cariñena and Somontano are just as varied. Though they share the grape and its history, the wines reveal surprising diversity.

Puente de la Reina
Puente de la Reina

Calatayud

High altitudes (2,600 to nearly 3,000 feet), extreme weather conditions and a multiplicity of soils—up to 20 different ­terroirs for some bodegas—contribute to the freshness of the wines from this region.

“We think [our Garnacha] is competitive because we have the perfect natural conditions,” says Yolanda Diaz, managing director of Bodegas San Alejandro, one of the region’s cooperatives. The group produces Evodia, a custom cuvée made with importer Eric Solomon, and Las Rocas Viñas Viejas, made from vines that are 80–100 years old.

The winery has invested heavily in technology like weather data and GPS mapping to select the best grapes based on color, structure, ­minerality and ageability. Such details allow the winery to experiment and offer a wide range of styles while ­keeping up with consumer preferences. Above all, Diaz says, the cooperative aims to emphasize its terroirs: “We don’t make a wine just to sell to a ­specific market.”

Campo de Borja

The all-red, self-named “Empire of Garnacha,” Campo de Borja was a pioneer in modernizing the variety, and wineries large and small continue in that spirit.

“We defended Garnacha when others didn’t,” says enologist Javier Vela, who makes the easy-drinking Garnacha Centenaria and the more concentrated, barrel-aged Fagus under the Coto de Hayas label. Both wines come from vines that are more than 70 years old and grow in iron-rich soils of red clay and chunky slate, which endows the wines with weight and minerality.

At Pagos del Moncayo, enologist Gonzalo Marchant crafts his Prados wines in an artisanal manner, treading the grapes himself by foot and using off-the-grid technology (solar panels and simply opening the windows) for heating and cooling the winery.

“We want to stay small and project to the world how you can make things bigger with ­passion and quality,” ­Marchant says. Like other Garnacha proponents in the DO, the winery elected not to pull vines during the EU program. “We are really rooted in our ­culture,” he says.

Cariñena

The largest and oldest DO in the region, Cariñena is also among the most diverse. Vineyards range from ­family-owned plots to quality-­focused plantings favored by cooperatives. Elevations vary, as do the soils, which range in ­color from clay and iron-laced rust to bleached-out white from slate and granite.

Throughout the vineyards, chunks of broken rock and multicolored stones hint at the nuances of flavors found here, from the crisp, mineral-driven rosé made by ­Bodegas Paniza to the rich, dense and powerful wines like Anayón from Grandes Vinos y Viñedos, which expresses dark fruit like ­cassis and spice.

Somontano

Meaning “under the mountains,” Somontano sits at the foothills of the central Pyrenees, where high elevations and extreme temperature fluctuations help the wines retain higher acidity. Located about 35 miles from France, it’s the northeastern-most (and youngest) DO in Aragón.

Jesús Astrain, enologist at Bodega Pirineos, a pioneer in the DO, says, ­“Somontano will look more like a French Grenache, with lower alcohol, freshness and salinity [derived] from the Pyrenees.”

The team at Viñas del Vero, which makes the Secastilla (“lost valley”) and Blecua brands, agrees. The company crafts a Garnacha Blanca (white Grenache), made from a light-skinned relative of the red grape. The wine shares things in common with those from France, but has its own identity.

“This is closer to the French ­model … but it’s a fresher approach,” says Enologist José Ferrer.

The Other Kingdom: Navarra

Set in the autonomous community of Navarre, the Navarra DO lies in the foothills of the Pyrenees north of Aragón and northeast of Rioja. Although Tempranillo is now the leading variety, the region has long been known for red and white Garnacha, primarily produced in Baja Montaña and the Ribera Baja areas.

Garnacha Tinta finds its most famous expression in the fresh and aromatic rosados made using the saignée method. Not much Garnacha Blanca is bottled on its own. It’s commonly used in blends to add aromatics and body.

Garnacha wines

Recommended Wines

Alto Moncayo 2013 Veraton Garnacha (Campo de Borja); $35, 91 points. Like all Alto Moncayo Garnachas, this opens with a big, loud crust of toasty oak and campfire smoke on top of blackberry aromas. The palate offers depth and body, while charred, toasty black-fruit flavors finish peppery and with tolerable heat. Drink through 2021. Jorge Ordoñez Selections. —M.S.

Bodega Otto Bestué 2012 Finca Rableros Tempranillo-Cabernet Sauvignon (Somontano); $12, 88 points. Tomato and spiced plum aromas are lightly earthy and a touch rubbery. This blend feels ripe and juicy, not rough or scratchy. Plum, berry and spice flavors finish with a shot of pomegranate and red currant. Axial Wines USA. Best Buy. —M.S.

Montoya 2011 Cuvée E.M.H. Reserva Garnacha (Cariñena); $10, 86 points. Floral blueberry and black-currant aromas are jammy. Following the nose, this Garnacha feels chunky and low in acidity. Jammy flavors of blueberry and cassis end in a pudgy but friendly way. DC Flynt MW Selections. Best Buy. —M.S.

Tres Ojos 2012 Garnacha (Calatayud); $9, 85 points. This is a touch stalky on the nose, while the mouth is tight and firm. Cherry and plum flavors pick up speed on the palate and taste slightly gamy on the finish. Kysela Père et Fils. Best Buy. —M.S

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Published on June 15, 2016
Topics: Spain
About the Author
Lana Bortolot
Senior Editor

Bortolot has written about community development, historic preservation and arts & culture for the Wall Street Journal and New York Post, on design for Entrepreneur magazine, on food and wine for Saveur and other magazines for the wine and spirits trade. She holds the Level 3 Advanced Wine & Spirits Education Trust certification and is working on the Level 4 Diploma. Having covered most European wine regions and a few in South America, she is always looking for a new wine-stained stamp on her passport. Email: lbortolot@wineenthusiast.net



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