Consumers think of wine as product from a recent vintage. For industry professionals, historical knowledge extends further back — to phylloxera or even the monks of Burgundy. But the Romans were early terroir hunters, frequently planting the best sites as legions marched across Europe, and so it was with the region of Cariñena. Established in 50 B.C., its “modern” winemaking history began in the 15th century under King Ferdinand I of Aragon. Through royal proclamation, he declared a passion for the wines of Cariñena above all else, requiring volumes of it to accompany his journeys.
When phylloxera ravaged the vineyards of Europe in the late 19th century, Cariñena remained largely unscathed. Spanish King Alfonso XIII awarded the region a city charter in 1909 as commendation to local growers for supporting its neighbors through recovery from the blight. With noble pedigree long established, Cariñena received its Denominación de Origen (DO) in 1932. Today, Cariñena is the largest of four DOs in greater Aragón. While named for local variety Cariñena (or Carignan), the DO has proven to be both the birthplace and spiritual home to the grape Garnacha or Grenache. The region has also recently adopted the EU nomenclature D.O.P. (Denominación de Origen Protegida)
Cariñena boasts the most plantings of Garnacha in Spain, the grape accounting for around 32 percent of wine produced in the DO. Contributing to that number are an extraordinary wealth of old-vine plantings averaging 50 years of age, many surviving into a century. Practically a national treasure, these vineyards are being protected and restored through intensive effort to produce one of the world’s best value, old-vine wines. Why? Because despite this small region’s rich history, it has flown under the radar until now.
Quality and production dipped early in the 20th century due to the tragedy of the Spanish Civil War. The advent of bottling, investments in technology, and new methods of cultivation put the region on an upswing by the 70s and 80s.
The 90s saw swift development, the growth of cooperatives through amalgamation of small growers, and the evolution of wines styles to appeal to modern tastes. Fruity, light, and balanced by freshness became the dominant profile in a bid to attract foreign markets – and it worked, quadrupling exports since 1995.
As the global market continues to mature, demand for greater authenticity and wines of place increases. Heading the call, small growers are focusing on quality over quantity. They’re making fragrant reds, perfumed with baking spice, crushed red berries, herbs and smoke. Further up the mountains, growers can achieve wines of minerality, concentration, and complexity woven around a spine of altitude-driven acidity. It’s an exciting time for Cariñena — the region over-delivers on fruit-forward wines at every price point.
To raise the international profile of the region, promotional campaigns have been launched, including El Vino de las Piedras (Wines from Stone), The Next Great Grape, and Wine Region to Watch and the upcoming Global Garnacha Summit being held at The CIA at Copia in Napa on April 24, 2018.
Today, approximately 67 percent of Cariñena’s wine is exported. Key markets include Germany, the U.K., and the U.S. Cariñena has managed to double its U.S. distribution over the past year, lifting the American market into third place in volume exports with 3.5 million bottles sold in 2016. Projected sales for 2017 suggest that 54 million bottles of Cariñena wine will be sold worldwide. That’s an impressive number for an old region, come new again.