The winemakers of D.O.P. Cariñena, the birthplace of Garnacha and Cariñena grapes, are as serious about innovation as they are about tradition: their wines today are based on the kind of knowledge that only centuries of trial and error can buy.
Traditionally, Cariñena lent color and structure to Garnacha blends, but these days there’s a new focus on making each into single-varietal wines that showcase the area’s higher altitudes and rocky clay, limestone, and slate soils. There’s also an emphasis on experimentation in both vineyard and cellar. Producers are fermenting and aging varieties and selected parcels separately and using a range of vessels from large-format French oak to cement tanks and clay vessels.
“The challenge is being able to transmit our own style of Garnacha.” says Antonio Serrano, winemaker of the cooperative Bodegas Paniza. As one of Cariñena’s largest producers, it has old vines growing for decades in slate soils at 850 meters above sea level. Their solution is to single out their grapes grown at the highest altitudes, which “makes them ripen slower so their optimal state for picking is somewhat later than the rest of the harvest.” The result is the Paniza Ultima Garnacha 2015, a limited-edition bottling of 25,000, dedicated to the “singularity of a flagship variety: Garnacha from slate soils.”
Sustainability practices are on the rise, too. “Old vine Garnacha adapts very well to [our] extreme conditions of soil and water,” says Marcelo Morales, winemaker of Grandes Vinos, a merger of five older cooperatives that covers about one-third of the appellation’s production. To match those dry conditions, the winery relies on clonal selection and on pheromones-based sexual confusion to reduce problems in the vineyard with European grapevine moths. It is also developing an ultrasound system to monitor the vines’ water needs so that irrigation is used only in emergencies. Not only is water conserved, but “this adaptation produces lower production and concentration and results in a high-quality grape,” says Morales. To let these grapes show their best side, he is experimenting with “alternative ways of aging, such as tinajas de terracota (terracotta jars), which fit them very well.” Clay also works well to tame the Cariñena grape’s potentially rustic, tannins-heavy side.
“Garnacha is a typical variety of our territory, so it is not necessary to adapt to our soil-climate set,” agrees winemaker Javier Domeque of Bodegas San Valero, a cooperative founded by 60 winegrowers in 1944. Today the winery also relies on pheromones and works with entities like the University of Zaragoza on early disease detection and organic vineyard treatments. “Although agronomically [Granacha vines] can be more laborious [than international varieties introduced starting in the 1980s], they are our own, they make up our DNA, which differentiates us from other areas of the world,” Domeque adds. “It is also here that they can express themselves in a more genuine way.”