In our Twitter profile we describe ourselves as “Grenachists”. It’s almost impossible not to feel excited about this grape variety in view of the huge revival it has experienced in Spain over the last decade.
Last year I wrote an in-depth story on Garnacha for English wine magazine The World of Fine Wine; in the short time (a little over two months) elapsed between filing the piece and publication I was able to taste at least three or four new first-class Garnacha single varietals. The story versed about a big paradox: as 100,000 hectares have been uprooted in Spain since 1990, Garnacha has dropped from first to fourth position in the Spanish red grape ranking; yet there’s never been as many exciting reds deserving a place among Spain’s top wines as there are now.
SWL has already published two stories on Garnacha: the first one goes deep into the different soils where it is grown in Spain and the distinctive character each of them brings to the grape; the second was a selection of red wines under €12 that highlighted the particular ability of some areas in our country to produce outstanding quality at unbeatable prices.
Quite often Garnacha has been described as a modern Cinderella, but I can’t help thinking of it as a sexy lady: fun and perhaps a bit showy but never in an exaggerated way. Its greatest virtue when well-made is its savoury, juicy character; a delicious and easy-to-drink variety that can bring endless pleasure.
Spain is not just one of the biggest sources of Garnacha worldwide; it’s arguably its home country too, since no other place can boast as much clonal diversity.
Taking into account that it used to be Spain’s most widely grown red grape variety, it is not strange to find Garnacha across the country. Except for Galicia (Alicante Bouschet was massively planted there after phylloxera), Bierzo or Andalucía, it is found throughout central Spain, specially Castilla-La Mancha, Extremadura and Levante, although Monastrell undoubtedly rules in the latter. But there are three areas where Garnacha really thrives and which have developed their own style:
The Iberian System. The mountain range that runs parallel to the river Ebro could be described as a journey towards the epicentre of Garnacha. Starting from east to west, Rioja is the first stop. A regular ingredient in the regions’s classic red blends, the grape (5,070 hectares in 2013) has lost a lot of ground against Tempranillo, but single varietal reds have thrived over the last few years. The good news is that they come from all over the appellation, thus reflecting a surprisingly wide range of styles. The highest concentration of Garnacha vineyards is found in the Alto Najerilla Valley to the southeast of the appellation —one of the coolest areas in Rioja. Further east, in Rioja Baja, the altitude of Tudelilla and Mount Yerga acts as a quality factor to balance the area’s powerful Garnachas.
Next stop is Navarra, witness of massive uprootings in the past. Recovery started in the north, on the villages of Artazu in the Valdizarbe subzone (blue flowers and fruit, tension and Atlantic, cool-weather style) and San Martín de Unx in Baja Montaña (fresh wines with distinctive aromatic herbs). The southern end followed along with warmer areas in Ribera Baja, where vineyards naturally fall into Aragón territory. No doubt Garnacha feels at ease under the imposing Moncayo, the highest peak of the Iberian System overlooking vineyards both in Navarra and Aragón.
Aragón. Campo de Borja (fleshy, powerful Garnacha with distinctive mineralty in the area of Tabuenca) and Calatayud (fresher wines due to altitude and mountains) fly the region’s Garnacha flag. Most of their best wines are single varietals offering amazing value. In Cariñena though, Garnacha is rarely seen on its own; and in Somontano, some old Garnacha vines have been recovered in the northern mountainous area. Valdejalón is a rising star thanks to the recovery of old vineyards by Bodegas Frontonio.
Catalonia means Mediterranean style. No doubt Garnacha is a Mediterranean grape, widely grown in Italy (Sardinia is a hotspot) and the south of France. It is naturally found across the Spanish border in Empordà, Catalonia’s northernmost appellation, practically skips Penedès where international varieties and white grapes for Cava dominate its vineyards, and thrives again further south in the province of Tarragona: Priorat, Montsant and Terra Alta —Garnacha Blanca is widely grown here as well. Although it is increasingly common, single varietal Garnacha wines are a bit of a novelty in these areas and are mostly linked to specific soils and terroirs. Soils (schist, clay, sand or limestone) together with altitude play a big role in the style of the wines, most of which offer characteristic aromatic herbs (rosemary, thyme) and bramble fruit notes.
Gredos. The mountainous range bearing the same name has emerged as one of the most promising and inspiring wine regions in Spain. Vineyards spread from Ávila, across San Martín de Valdeiglesias and other villages to the east of Madrid and continue towards Toledo, where is also present in lower areas of the Méntrida appellation. The area is a real jigsaw of administrative regions and appellations but wine lovers should focus on comparing the nuances coming from the granite and schist soils (the latter only found in the villages of Cebreros and El Tiemblo in Ávila). Minerality is always present in the wines from this area making them totally unique and different to Garnacha wines from other regions in Spain.
Garnacha spread rapidly across Spain from Aragón in the mid 19th century thanks to its good resistance to oidium and drought. For a long time, though, winemakers were especially concerned about its light colour and oxidative character, a big handicap towards obtaining high quality red wines. It was thus more suited to making rancios and sweet wines —traditional in Catalonia. But Garnacha has its pros too: its long growth cycle is perfect to confront climate change and a low pH level is a blessing in current times.
Less aggressive vinification methods have changed the way wines are made. Some winemakers, mainly in Gredos and Catalonia, ferment their wines with stems looking for freshness and extra structure. This traditional system can mark the style of the wines considerably, but when carefully applied it can add an extra aromatic, evocative dimension and a long finish.
On the other hand, Garnacha is one of the grapes that best synthesises sugar. Wine lovers concerned with high alcohol levels should be aware that it is intrinsic to the grape. Most wines easily reach 14% vol., regardless of whether they come from hotter Mediterranean areas or high, mountainous plots.
Curiously enough, Garnacha’s renaissance in Spain has brought a renewed interest for the grape beyond traditional regions. Its role in blends has also been highlighted. At a time when trends point to gentle, easy to drink wines, a bit of Garnacha in a blend can deliver gentle, round, juicy palates with soft textures.
Hard on the heels of the revival of red Garnacha, the whole family seems to have woken up. Garnacha is an ancient grape variety with unknown parentage but mutations affecting colour (White Garnacha and Garnacha Roja or Garnacha Gris) and the underside of the leaves (Garnacha Peluda) are well documented. Garnacha Gris is rare in Spain, but it is present in some white wines in Empordà (Mas Estela), Montsant (Siuralta Gris) and even Gredos (Comando G’s El Tamboril). White Garnacha is far more common, particularly in Catalonia and Aragón (mainly in Teruel) and to a lesser extent in Rioja, It thrives in Terra Alta (Tarragona) —whites are packed with trademark white fruit when young evolving towards rich, unctuous palates when aged in barrel. Garnacha Peluda is also quite rare but some producers like Vinyes Domènch in Montsant and Edètaria or Altavins in Terra Alta start to hail its distinctive character.
Rioja. Bodegas Palacios Remondo, Juan Carlos Sancha, Tentenublo, Vivanco, Contino, Sierra Cantabria, Paisajes, Barón de Ley, Bodegas La Emperatriz, Gómez Cruzado, Bodegas Bilbaínas, Basilio Izquierdo, Arizcuren; Bodegas Valdemar.
Navarra. Viñedos y Bodegas Artazu, Domaines Lupier, Viña Zorzal, Emilio Valerio, La Calandria. Pura Garnacha, David Sampedro, Bodega San Martín, Gonzalo Celayeta, La Casa de Lúculo, Baja Montaña Viñedos y Bodegas.
Catalonia. Priorat: Álvaro Palacios, Terroir al Límit, Scala Dei, Cims de Porrera, Mas Martinet, Familia Nin Ortiz; Montsant: Spectacle Vins, Alfredo Arribas-Trossos, Joan d’Anguera, Celler Acústic, Vinyes Domènech, Josep Grau Viticultor; Empordà: Mas Estela, Castillo de Perelada, Espelt;Terra Alta: Bàrbara Forés, Celler Piñol, Edètaria, Lafou, Celler Frisach, Altavins (mainly White Grenache but also Red and "Peluda")
Aragón. Campo de Borja: Bodegas Borsao, Bodegas Alto Moncayo, Bodegas Aragonesas, Coop. Santo Cristo, Cuevas de Arom; Calatayud: El Escocés Volante, Bodegas San Alejandro, Bodegas Ateca; Somontano: Secastilla (Viñas del Vero); Cariñena: Mancuso, Bodegas Paniza; V.T. Valdejalón: Mancuso, Frontonio.