Pedro Ballesteros, MW Testifies to the Nobility and Bright Future of Garnacha and D.O.P. Cariñena


In preparation for VinExpo, BIE spoke with Master of Wine Pedro Ballesteros – who is leading a Master Class, “Garnacha Unveiled: From Cariñena to the World” – about Garnacha from D.O.P. Cariñena, its past, and future prospects.

Garnacha, also known as Grenache, has enjoyed newfound appreciation on the global wine scene. An old variety originating in Aragón, Spain, the wine once graced the tables of Spanish royalty. A dip in the area’s economy led to a lack of focus on vineyard management and investment in winemaking. The resurgence currently taking place in D.O.P. Cariñena, Aragón’s largest wine region, has brought younger growers back to the region with the promise of a prosperous future. Garnacha’s charms have also been recognized and restored with sommeliers, retailers, and consumers eagerly awaiting each new vintage coming out of Cariñena. One of Garnacha’s greatest advocates, Pedro Ballesteros, MW holds an Agronomical Engineer degree and a Master’s in Viticulture and Oenology. Ballesteros is confident of its bright future, especially given the threat of climate change, though he speaks candidly about the grape’s past.

“Garnacha has seen an evolution, with many ups and downs,” said Ballesteros. “Before phylloxera, Garnacha shared the fields with many other varieties. After phylloxera, it became the region’s most important grape since it matched well with American rootstocks and was a reliable producer.” But, he explained, quality wasn’t a critical factor in 20th-century production. As Spain evolved economically, an “inferiority complex” arose leading experts to advise ripping out old Garnacha vines to replant with international grapes. Further, Garnacha got a reputation for being oxidative, which was due to “poor winemaking practices,” or else it was treated to unsuitable yet fashionable international styles “with heavy-oak aging and overripe grapes.” In summary, the variety’s potential was not being realized.

However, as the wine world took renewed interest in indigenous and heritage varieties, demand for Garnacha surged. “Little by little,” said Ballesteros, “Garnacha recovered its status, as local and foreign growers became aware of the huge quality potential in old Garnacha vineyards.” Many of Cariñena’s old vines have surpassed a century in age. In the winery, producers developed better methods for handling the grape. “Today’s leading winemakers harvest earlier,” said Ballesteros, “allowing grapes to express origin with less intervention in the winery.” Much of this adaptation in technique derives from the cooperatives that lead the production landscape of Cariñena. “I think the role of cooperatives, which gives small grape growers the capacity to prioritize their vineyards without the burden of making wine themselves, is an interesting way to enhance a region’s value,” added Ballesteros. “It is nonsense to expect that thousands of small producers can achieve the same quality and reliability levels, as well as market impact, and a well-organized regional approach.”

Ballesteros expressed excitement about the cooperative-driven innovation happening in Cariñena and its promise of producing distinctive wines. “Cariñena is almost there,” he said. “In a few years, there will be a number of single-vineyard and special selection wines singing their landscape and its long, winding history.” Ballesteros’ enthusiasm for Garnacha stems from its “chameleonic character and its humility.” Few varieties, he said, can adopt so many different and distinctive tasting profiles. “At the top, some wines are simply gorgeous.” Garnacha’s capacity for making beautiful wine isn’t the only reason to bank on its and Cariñena’s future. The variety is well-suited to drought and intense sun exposure, two of the most threatening consequences of climate change. “Garnacha will be called upon to take a prominent role in regions most affected by climate change,” Ballesteros said. California may already be proving his point. Garnacha thrives in the state’s warmer, arid regions. The variety has seen an increase in plantings over the last decade.

The byproduct of the rise of American Grenache is increased curiosity from the American consumer; this motivates restaurant buyers and retailers to seek out new producers at home and abroad. Ballesteros believes this phenomenon brings the variety full-circle back to its birthplace in Cariñena, as international drinkers look to the variety’s historical legacy to understand it. “Cariñena, Garnacha’s cradle and home to some of the most important stocks of old vine Garnacha in the world, will remain a vital part of the variety’s future.”

Published on February 20, 2019