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When American Somms Venture Into Cariñena, Discovery Is On The Menu

Posted on  | October 27, 2014   Bookmark and Share
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Wine names can be tricky. To much of the wine world, Cariñena is a Spanish wine grape known by its more familiar French translation, Carignan. But Cariñena is also a place. And like many of Spain’s up-and-coming wine regions, this is Garnacha town. It’s also a splendid collage of rolling stones, bucolic tradition and red wines that recall the value and charm of the  Southern Rhône.

Traveling to this established yet enigmatic wine region with a band of Court of Master Sommeliers alumni is like sipping with forensic rock stars. Perhaps it’s their age (none over 38); this group wants to know everything from how grapes are sourced to what the economic benefits are to local winegrowers.

A Rock Solid History

Like every wine region of the world, Cariñena’s identity is grounded in geography and history.  It was the second Spanish region to acquire an official Denominación de Origen (DO) status, its winegrowing culture dating back to 1415. (Note: Cariñena now uses the EU-friendly “DOP” designation.) Cariñena hangs from the Spanish northeast region of Aragón, the Mediterranean Sea on its east, France capping it from the north. Today more than 1,600 growers work 35,000 acres. Grapevines are planted at altitudes ranging between 1,300 to 2,600 feet, with century-old vines still fighting through stony soil that’s wreathed by the protective Cierzo wind.

But Cariñena is still recovering from the economic chaos of the 1930s Civil War that caused locals to walk away from their vineyards until the ’40s and ’50s when they started returning and forming cooperatives. “Vinegrowing is the main source of income or the only source of income for the people,” says Rocio Muñoz Marin, Bodegas Paniza’s Export Manager. “The village of Paniza has 700 citizens and 400 are members of the winery.”   

In the ’70s, cooperatives gave the locals incentives to take care of the vineyards, so they could focus on the quality instead of the quantity of the grapes. By the ’80s, there were improvements in vineyard management and vinification techniques, and the ’90s and 2000s inspired the advent of modern equipment and cataloguing parcels.

To Cariñena or Not to Cariñena

One natural question gets floated early on, with several somms mulling over why the eponymous region focuses more on producing Garnacha than Cariñena. And the answer shook itself out at the Bodegas Paniza winery. Paniza is set on Cariñena’s highest southern elevation near the Sistema Ibérico mountain range where the ardent wind cools the black grapes that include Garnacha, Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah and vitalizes the whites—Viura (also called Macabeo) and Chardonnay.

At a tasting of Viura and Chardonnay tank samples, these high-altitude white wines appear destined for high minerality and lean fruit profiles. Paniza’s Alto Cinco label, made with 94% Garnacha and 6% Tempranillo, offers red fruit and sweet spice characteristics with medium tannins. It’s a dynamic wine for the suggested retail price of $13. However, the unanimous standout is a 100% Cariñena bottling with its dried herb and black tea nuances enlivened with refreshing acidity. Paniza winemaker Antonio Serrano explains, however, that Cariñena is a difficult variety to grow and that because of polyphenols and acidity it’s a more acquired taste for their target market.

Channeling the Rhône

Founded in 1944, Bodegas San Valero is actually the oldest winery in Cariñena, but it’s also one of the most sophisticated; glass floor separates visitors from the cellar where Cava is fermenting.  
We taste various vintages from the winery’s Particular line. Katie Kelly, Wine Director at Niche Hospitality in Worcester, MA, and I agree their old vine Garnacha is delicious. Twenty percent of the winery’s Garnacha comes from vines ranging from 30 to 100 years old, and you can smell the vine’s antiquity in some of the bottlings. Though the wine ages for up to 14 months in oak, charcoal and black tea aromas emerge from a floral spicy nose. The Particular Old Vine Cariñena is a rich violet color and boasts dried red fruit and cocoa flavors.

The grapes for the Old Vine Garnacha from the Sierra de Viento label go through second manual selection and the juice is eventually aged in new French barriques. It’s bold and spicy with round tannins. The estimated retail price for the San Valero wines are $8 to $10.

A Question of Oak

Not surprisingly, the issue of oak and balance rears its debatable head, with the majority of somms sharing the opinion that the region offers purity of fruit but that some of the wines are over-oaked, so they want to taste more unoaked expressions of Garnacha and Cariñena.

“Oak barrels take fresh fruit flavors and make them candied by adding all sorts of flavors,” observes Andrew Rastello, captain at New York City’s Gramercy Tavern, whose arms are murals of numerous wine-related tattoos. “When you have great fruit and a great wine, why add another layer to get to it?” he adds.

Kelly offers a different perspective. “I do not feel the wines are over-oaked,” she argues. “They are in the business of making wine and using their passion to bring them out of a poor economic position. Part of doing this is making something for everyone, and some people love oak. That being said, I feel they are balanced wines that show great concentration and minerality.”

At a visit to Grandes Vinos y Viñedos, somm noses are happily tucked in glasses boasting unoaked Garnacha samples from various altitudes. At 1,148 feet, the fruit shows earthy tea-like characteristics. At 1,800 feet, there are chocolate notes. From 2,100 to 2,600 feet, the fruit is more concentrated but balanced with fresh herb nuances.  

This winery consists of five partners and comprises 10,000 acres of vineyard, so they offer the most diverse tasting experience on the trip. A 100% unfiltered Cariñena from the Anayón label offers red fruit and licorice flavors tamed by crisp acidity. A 100% unfiltered Garnacha offers decadent vanilla and espresso aromas with concentrated dark fruit flavors. Estimated retail prices range from $35 to $40.
From their Monasterio de las Viñas label, the Gran Reserva Red 2005 is a blend of 60% Garnacha, 30% Tempranillo and 10% Cariñena. This wine is made from grapes that come from bush vines. The gorgeous sweet fruit and savory spices deliver Old World luxury for about $19.

Value Verdict

What Cariñena offers is bargain distinction. These are estate-grown wines that offer mainstream affordability with boutique brand appeal. The majority of these wines are not fruit bombs and offer complex nuances atypical of domestic entry level wines. With the exception of one, the visiting somms believe Cariñena offers selections that will work for their establishments.  

“I think that Cariñena wines have a sense of being classic since the region is filled with old vines,” writes Miranda Elliot, beverage director at Chicago’s Les Nomades, a French fine dining restaurant. “I have the opportunity to present the wines to customers who have not heard of them. They can also taste the Cariñena grape from the actual Cariñena region which is a huge selling point for me.”

Kelly explains that Cariñena wines are some of the best value wines she’s seen out of Spain: “We saw a broad spectrum of wines covering all the bases. I definitely think these wines will appeal to the demographic I service [near Boston]. I am working in a city that has strong blue collar roots and a huge college presence, so they are eclectic and price-conscious.”

Jeremy Campbell is a Third Level Advanced Sommelier student with professional posts at Restaurant Kelly Liken in Vail, CO, and M Bar in Portland, OR. He believes the region’s wines work well for $8-$12 glass pours and are nice options for an inexpensive bottle for his wine bar. “One of their big strengths is also a weakness,” notes Campbell. “They compare well with their neighbors. Other DOs in Aragón—Calatayud and Campo de Borja—are better known than Cariñena and make a lot of well-made wine [mostly from Garnacha] in a modern style at very low prices. If that is what the Cariñena DOP is looking to accomplish, then I think they are doing a good job.”

Christopher Tanghe—wine & service director at Aragona in Seattle and the only Master Sommelier on the trip—recalls, “Wines that stood out would definitely include the various Grandes Vinos y Viñedos bottlings. The Corona de Aragon Garnachas and rosé were stunning and crazy inexpensive. The Beso de Vino wines were also very good and I thought were well designed given their intention as an entry level quaffer. The Paniza Gran Reserva was an example where oak was well utilized and the wine had great structure, length and weight, as to be expected from a Cabernet dominant blend.” Summing up the big picture, he adds: “The wines as a whole offer an extreme value for the money as a result of purity of fruit. I think that the geography and climate are well suited for Garnacha in particular—dry, warm and windy—and the purity of fruit is a result of the quality of the fruit.”


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