Posted on | December 22, 2014
Written by | Jeffery Lindenmuth
Many American wine lovers already relish the taste of Garnacha —even if they don’t realize it. This widely planted grape has been prized in the Mediterranean for centuries, appearing in both its red and white varieties in the regal wines of France’s Châteauneuf-du-Pâpe (where is goes by the name Grenache), the stylish reds of Spain’s Priorat and in the fashionable dark reds of Sardinia, where it is known as Cannonau. However, because most of these wines include Garnacha as part of a blend, the grape has remained largely anonymous to the many wine drinkers who have enjoyed it.
This is about to change: varietal Garnacha wines are gaining traction in the grape’s Spanish homeland of the EbroRiverValley and are beginning to enter the world stage, where they hold special appeal for an audience thirsting for affordable, and characterful, wines.
Mediterranean by Nature
The places where Garnacha prospers are evolved from a confluence of climate and history. Botanical evidence strongly suggests the grape originated in Spain’s northeastern region of Aragón and spread with the expansion of the empire of the Crown of Aragon through the 14th and 15th centuries to occupy Spain’s Catalonia, the Roussillon of southern France, Sardinia and parts of Greece. The fact that Garnacha is still grown here today is a credit to its unique adaptation to these warmest areas of the Mediterranean, and Garnacha’s ability to produce quality wines, even where other grapes might struggle.
While Garnacha has spread to the New World, most notably to Paso Robles and the CentralCoast in California; and to Australia, where it’s frequently undercover as the “G” in Australia’s red “GSM” blends, the Mediterranean remains home: a full 97% of the world’s Garnacha plantings are in Europe and North Africa. France leads the world in total acres of both red and white Garnacha, followed closely by Spain.
Here, in the EbroRiverValley (homeland of Spanish Garnacha), vines are generally trained in low bushes, giving Garnacha the fortitude to endure relentless winds like the Cierzo and the Summer heat. In fact, poor soils and low rainfalls constrain the yields, favoring healthy ripeness at the same time. And, because Garnacha buds early and ripens late, it demands a long growing seasons, precisely like that found in the hot, dry regions of Spain.
It is fitting that the Spanish birthplace of Garnacha is now poised to introduce this wine to the world in its purest form, as a varietal wine. The five Protected Designations of Origin (PDOs) located in the area where Garnacha originated—Calatayud, Campo de Borja, Cariñena, Somontano and Terra Alta—are focused on representing Garnacha as a varietal wine, including red, rosé and white wine interpretations. As part of the European Union Protected Designations of Origin, these wines carry a guarantee of their provenance and quality, with their regional names protected by law. For their part, each PDO must adhere to strict standards, designed to assure consumers that the wines are from the specified area and crafted to consistent high quality.
The most fundamental standard for Garnacha explorers to recognize is that these Garnacha varietal wines, whether red, white or rosé, are guaranteed to include a minimum of 85% of the Garnacha grape.
New Respect for an Old Variety
Of course, the quality revolution in these Spanish PDOs is not as simple as just increasing the proportion of Garnacha in the bottle. Garnacha was traditionally blended to account for some of the grape’s inherent challenges, including high alcohol, the potential to oxidize, and the propensity to produce thin or unimpressive wines when permitted to overproduce. Only by applying modern science with regard to viticulture and winemaking, and electing to pursue quality over quantity, have these regions succeeded in making world-class varietal wines from Garnacha. “The old farmers were incredibly smart with their methods, and able to keep 100-year-old vines healthy and producing,” explains Ignacio Martínez de Albornoz, Secretary of Garnacha Origen Association. “However, they did not have the technology to produce cold fermentations and maceration, or to choose the best planting sites and integrate quality barrels. By combining modernization with our traditions, these regions are succeeding in the challenge of producing monovarietal Garnacha wines of great character and concentration.”
Varietal Garnacha holds special intrigue for inquisitive wine lovers given the grape’s ability to reflect its origin. “It is the Pinot Noir of the south, because it really captures a lot of the terroir. It is a great deal of fun to sample several of these wines, because you absolutely can tell which PDO each comes from,” says Martínez de Albornoz. Each PDO tells a story of sun and soil, people and practice—one might say they represent five faces of Garnacha.
Looking across the Spanish PDOs dedicated to varietal Garnacha, the rugged and high-altitude Calatayud, established in 1989, is renowned for producing Garnacha grapes with thick black skins that yield rich and sappy reds of good concentration that require no help from other grape varieties. The robust flavors in these Garnacha wines are joined by refreshing acidity, preserved by cool nights that counterbalance the hot days and also result in some of the latest harvest dates in the whole of Europe. With many small parcels of old vines, the tradition of hand-harvesting, characteristic of many fine wines, remains strong in Calatayud, with its soils of red and white clay, quartz, limestone and slate.
Campo de Borja
The self-proclaimed “Empire of Garnacha,” Campo de Borja is perhaps the best-known of the Aragón PDOs among U.S. wine lovers given the success of some of the large cooperative wines in the U.S. The region was the first to pursue the concept of modern varietal Garnacha wines, a wise choice given a majority of vines here are Garnacha, with 50% of them between 10 and 50 years old. Astonishingly, the oldest vineyards of the region date back to 1145. Thanks to variations in altitude, three distinct Garnacha expressions exist within this single PDO The lower elevation wines, found primarily on dark limestone soils, are potent and aromatic; the highest altitude wines in the foothills of the Moncayo mountains are more elegant and subtle. Between the two are vineyards of 450 to 550 meters elevation, with this middle ground producing complex, fleshy and intense wines.
Created in 1932, Cariñena is the oldest PDO in the region of Aragon and among the oldest protected growing areas of Europe. Cariñena is also the largest of the PDOs, with 1,600 growers joining to make it one of Spain’s important wine exporting regions. While Cariñena lends its name to the Carignan grape, Garnacha actually accounts for 31% of production, contributing to both rosé and red wines. For the latter, whole grape fermentation and carbonic maceration a hallmark of the wines, resulting young reds in a fresh and fruity style. Among the significant trends in Cariñena is the emergence of smaller estate producers in a region that was traditionally dominated by cooperatives.
PDO Somontano currently has only a small investment in Garnacha, accounting for about 5% of the vineyards. However, the region expects to double plantings over the next few years, reversing a much broader global trend of removing Garnacha vines in favor of international varieties. This vision is in keeping with Somontano’s progressive and modern approach, traits that are evident in both the region’s international-style wines with their hip marketing, many of which are positioned as “luxury” wines. Vineyards located at 350 to 1,000 meters above sea level, in the shadow of the Pyrenees, experience extreme geography and seasonal temperature swings, which producers are able to exploit to craft concentrated Garnacha wines with an eye toward aging.
In PDO Terra Alta, historically both red and white Garnacha have been cultivated. The latter, in fact, has become a specialty; Terra Alta is responsible for around 80% of all the white Garnacha in Spain—representing one-third of the entire world’s production. The optimal conditions in Terra Alta are a result of cool winds from the north and humid breezes coming off the Mediterranean. Whites display profound minerality, beyond ripe fruit; rosés are bright and refreshing; and reds from Terra Alta compare in intensity and weight to those of the other Garnacha-focused PDOs.
Right Grape, Right Time
Producers of Garnacha varietal wines are already finding a warm reception among American wine consumers. “When American wine lovers try Garnacha, they find it well suited to their palate. It is fruity and fresh, and is just enough outside the mainstream wines to offer an original experience,” says Martínez de Albornoz. While each P.D.O. crafting Garnacha promises wines of real pedigree and specific style, in broad terms consumers can expect red Garnacha to offer ripe, aromatic and fruity wines, redolent of red fruit and spices. Given red Garnacha’s thinner skins, these wines are generally fruit forward, lush and soft on the palate, with sweetness, acidity and tannins in good balance.
When crafted as a rosé, red Garnacha makes a perfect hot-weather wine, with its aromas of strawberries, roses and an impression of sweetness. White Garnacha is especially malleable, and can produce wines that range from fresh and mineral to rich and plump.
As an alternative to international red varieties, Garnacha fulfills an important role as a superior wine pairing for many popular foods, according to Martínez de Albornoz. “The wines go very well with a lot of ethnic foods. And they go especially well with barbecue,” he says. Also good for the consumer, along with Garnacha’s lack of widespread recognition comes great value, with Garnacha wines frequently over-delivering on quality across a range of price points.
With Garnacha already gaining buzz among American wine writers, sommeliers and early adopters, varietal Garnacha producers are becoming more proactive in educating the world on this grape, supporting retailer efforts, through an information program launched in the United States and Canada in February 2014.
With so much in its favor, Martínez de Albornoz is convinced that education is the missing ingredient to build wider appreciation for red and white Garnacha, bringing new notoriety to this unsung grape. “People did not always realize they were drinking Garnacha. With the rise of varietal Garnacha wines we aim to ensure they know exactly what they are drinking, because one thing we are sure of already: they will love it!”