Posted on | March 25, 2015
Written by | Kristen Wolfe Bieler
The Under-The-Radar Cariñena Region Offers Old Vines, Character & Value
Chances are, if you have heard “Cariñena” it was in the context of a wine grape. Which it is. But Cariñena is also one of Spain’s oldest regions and one of Europe’s oldest appellations, awarded Denominacion de Origen status in 1932 (the second D.O. region in Spain). Yet today it remains relatively obscure in the U.S. market, even among wine professionals, as very few wines from Cariñena are imported. Many seasoned sommeliers have never even tasted one.
This will likely be changing in the not-so-distant future. A lot has changed in the region since Romans planted vines here. Cariñena had a multi-century-long reputation for excellence, but while the region survived the Phylloxera plague that destroyed most European vineyards in the 1860’s (thanks to those absurdly rocky soils—see photo), it couldn’t escape the devastating effects of the Spanish Civil War and WWII. Quality today is on an accelerated upswing, thanks to a handful of cooperatives who dominate production here and who uniformly defy the co-op stereotype of poor quality mass production.
Last month we sat down with three of New York City’s top sommeliers—Jessica Brown (The Breslin), Thomas Pastuszak (The Nomad) and Marika Vida (The Ritz-Carlton) to taste through a selection of wines from the Cariñena region and record our impressions. What we discovered pleasantly surprised us all.
“Overall, I think these wines offer a very approachable, accessible style for the larger U.S. market—especially those seeking fuller, lush wines at a great value,” Brown believes. This was a sentiment shared by all the panelists, especially considering that for a very low price, one can obtain a wine with real personality. “In most of these wines, I found terrific minerality, freshness, salinity and an appealing savory character—particularly in the younger wines—and a very judicious use of oak,” Pastuszak observed. “It’s unique to see that much character and sense of place come through in wines this inexpensive.”
A useful selling technique is “value by reference,” he continued: “If you enjoy Châteauneuf, here is a place you can get that same character and old-vine intensity for half the price. A glass of Cariñena may cost $12 on a by-the-glass list, whereas you could pay two or three times as much if you go to the Rhone.” Vida agreed: “You can’t even get AOC Cotes du Rhone for $15 a glass most places!”
Finding old-vine expressions at these price points is another critical point of distinction for Cariñena, emphasized Florida-based Master Sommelier, Virginia Philip, who was not at our tasting but visited the region last June: “To find a wine coming from 50- or 90-year-old vines for under $30 is practically unheard of.”
The region produces some lovely whites from Macabeo and Chardonnay, but this is undeniably red wine country, which is exclusively what our panel tasted. Confusingly, though named after the Cariñena grape, the region is dominated by Garnacha which represents 55% of total vineyard acreage. Years of viticultural trial and error revealed that Garnacha more easily achieves ripeness in the landscape’s sloping hills. The Cariñena grape remains important for blends, however, and has proven to thrive in many lower-elevation sites. Interestingly, our panel’s favorite wine was the one mono-varietal Cariñena we tasted (Bodegas San Valero Particular Cariñena 2012).
“Cariñena is a grape no region has really tried to own, and I think there is huge potential for this region to make it their signature,” said Pastuszak. “The quality of this San Valero Cariñena is really exciting, and I would be very curious to taste more.”
The Range of Styles
“The gamut of styles is really impressive,” said Philip. “One hears so much about Priorat, but the dimension of wines from Cariñena makes it a truly compelling place. Depending on the age of the vines and the blend, these wines range from light and aromatic to dark, intense reds that demand food.”
Cariñena’s 29 wineries craft everything from Joven reds, Crianzas and Gran Reservas—some in large quantities, some in boutique amounts. We tasted a range of styles, and the group overall preferred the younger examples. “I think the wines are most expressive and exciting in their younger, fresher versions, where there is terrific minerality and the terroir really comes through,” Pastuszak summarized.
The Discovery Factor
Sommeliers wade through a sea of wine daily, and most search for wines that are truly distinct and authentic; our panelists agreed that the wines of Cariñena fit the bill. “I would promote these as ‘something new by-the-glass,’ you can really go that direction with these wines,” said Vida. “The fact that Garnacha is a known entity definitely helps, and I would describe many of these wines to my customers as falling between Pinot Noir and Nebbiolo in style.” Brown agreed, adding that Cariñena is still a discovery region, which can set a wine list apart: “These wines have great appeal for a sommelier who wants to offer something truly unique by the glass that very few others have.”