Grenache is widely planted across Spain, where it grows in the most diverse type of soils.
For any Spanish winelover, Priorat is the very first region that springs to mind when talking about schist. It provides weight on the palate and brings up a distinctive warm and mineral character. The region’s terrain is pretty much homogeneous except on the boundaries with neighbouring Montsant, which surrounds Priorat as if it were a ring. Varietal wines are more the exception than the rule, as Carignan plays and important role to refresh and counterbalance Grenache’s generous alcohol and ripeness levels. Grenache fan Álvaro Palacios has lately been discarding foreign varieties from his top reds L’Ermita and Finca Dofí -they are almost 100% Grenache right now- while moving towards a finer, more aromatic style, and away from the hot and heavy character that’s traditionally been associated with schist-grown Grenache.
Schist is also found in Aragón, although large wineries in the area usually prefer to benefit from the vast array of soils found in the region. Well-known labels from Alto Moncayo mix grapes from Tabuenca’s red schist with others grown on loamy soils in Ainzón’s high areas and stony and unirrigated plots located in Borja. Nevertheless, wines from specific soils are available. In Calatayud, Lajas Finca Peñascal, which comes from high-altitude grey schist plots, reminds me of dark and mineral Priorat, while Norrel Robertson (The Flying Scotsman) manages to make structured yet balanced and highly aromatic wines such as Es lo que hay and El Puño, his top-level bottlings.
In Jarque del Moncayo, winemakers Jorge Navascués from Aragón and Carlos San Pedro from Pujanza (Rioja) have crafted Mancuso, a highly expressive Grenache grown on high-altitude vineyards (850-900 metres) planted on decomposed black schists soils similar to those in Priorat. The wine, which is produced under the Vino de la Tierra Valdejalón indication, reflects a fascinating struggle between the lively balsamic hints and the warm edge provided by schist. In nearby Navarra, the group of friends behind La Calandria Pura Garnacha make an earthy, ripe and distinctive red from an ancient vineyard grown on red schist soils. The wine is called Tierga, just as the town where it comes from.
Schist can also be found in the mountainous area of Gredos, in the villages of Cebreros and El Tiemblo (Ávila). Wines here are released as VT Castilla y León. In 2007 Telmo Rodríguez launched his Pegaso in two different cuvées - he wanted to reflect the differences between Grenache grown on schist and on granitic soils. The latter usually makes for heavier, riper, more generous and warmer reds but other styles are also possible. Dani Landi’s El Reventón, for instance, is a village wine from Cebreros that manages to offer a more ethereal and aromatic profile despite coming from similar soils.
With the exception of the area just discussed in Ávila, Gredos’ soils offer a fairly homogeneous granitic profile, more degraded in the lower areas of the Alberche Valley as we move towards Madrid, much less in the higher areas known as Alto Alberche. If we continue with the Pegaso example, the "Granite" version is more aromatic, less structured and dominated by forest and herbal nuances rather than fruit. The palate is well-delineated and juicy, flavourful and with a marked minerality on the finish. Although Rodríguez doesn’t ferment with whole bunches and stems like Marañones, Comando G, Dani Landi, Alfredo Maestro and others in the area, there’s undoubtedly a common pattern among wines coming from granitic soils.
For Fernando García, winemaker at Bodega Marañones and co-founder of Comando G along with Dani Landi, the granite-degraded environment around San Martín de Valdeiglesias provides distinctive salty notes. Other differences among the main valleys in Gredos (Alto Alberche in Ávila, Alberche in Ávila and Madrid and Tiétar mainly in Toledo except for a small area in Madrid) are mainly due to variations in altitude and climate, as the highest areas in Ávila have a clear continental and mountain influence, while the central area is characteristically dry Mediterranean and humidity is notably higher in the Tiétar Valley.
There is a bunch of interesting -and very expensive- Grenache wines coming from the Montsant mountain range, on the edges of that large block of schist that makes up most of Priorat. Terroir al Limit was the first producer to draw attention to Grenache’s great finesse when it grows on soils with no schist. In fact, their top Les Manyes (€180) comes from a high-altitude vineyard with distinctive red clay soils. Regardless of any winemaking techniques that may influence the style (whole bunch fermentation is common), this red is particularly elegant, extremely long and impressive on the finish.
Over the last few years, Cellers Scala Dei (which is part of the Codorníu group) has been separately fermenting and ageing Grenache from various types of soils. As a curiosity, winemaker Ricard Rofes explains that above 550-600 metres of altitude, and provided Garnacha is grown on clay-lime soils, skins and stalks ripen simultaneously. When that happens, destemming is unnecessary. It comes as no surprise therefore that the freshest, best-balanced red of all is Masdeu, grown at the highest plot with clay-lime soils.
Moving on from Priorat to DO Montsant, Espectacle (€102) is probably one of the most fascinating Garnachas we have in Spain right now -full of juiciness, expression, length and clay.
In Aragón clay soils can be found mainly on the highlands. Take the ripe, mouth-coating and velvety Fagus for instance, for which clay-ferrous and reddish plots are specifically selected. Much further away, on the western end of Rioja, French winemaker Olivier Rivière produces Ganko, an intense red grown on 10-15 small plots planted with old Grenache vines (with some Carignan sprinkled around) on red clay soils around the village of Cárdenas (Alto Najerilla Valley).
Vast areas of vine growing areas in Spain lay on clay-lime soils with notable differences depending on their active lime content. This is the predominant pattern in large parts of Rioja, such as the foothills of Mount Yerga. Here, Grenache grapes grown by the Palacios family are destined to their high-end wine Propiedad and also play a major role in La Montesa. This type of soils is also found at the other end of the DO, where Juan Carlos Sancha is determined to recover the ancient Grenache vineyards planted by his grandfather in his hometown of Baños de Río Tobía (Valle del Alto Najerilla).
The Sonsierra area, where vines thrive on the hillsides of the Sierra Cantabria mountains, also benefits from this type of soil. Some wineries such as Sierra Cantabria, owned by the Eguren family, are expanding their portfolio with single-varietal Grenache reds. On the same latitude, but further east in San Martín de Unx (Baja Montaña, Navarra), Elisa and Enrique Úcar craft two extremely pure and well-delineated Grenache reds. The couple behind Domaines Lupier enjoy showing their calcareous soils, which lie on the last foothills of the Ebro basin that extends from Haro to Sangüesa. Also in Navarra, in the Valdizarbe subarea, Grenache specialists Artazu (owned by Artadi, from Rioja) make lovely wines from limestone based soils. The finely scented and elegant Santa Cruz de Artazu comes from clay-sandy textured soils on limestone rock.
Boulders are strongly associated with Grenache. Just think of Châteauneuf-du-Pape soils in the Rhône. In their comprehensive book Wine Grapes, Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz write about how Grenache (Spain’s formerly most planted red variety now relegated to fourth place) is specially well suited to gravely and stony soils.
Jesús Madrazo is pretty excited about the way Grenache thrives on alluvial soils at Contino, the estate located by the Ebro river. He is especially intrigued by the oldest plots, planted in the 1940s and 1950s with extremely low yields. Boulders retain little water and ensure good ripening levels. Fresher reds come from two additional clay-lime plots with underlying boulders and are seamlessly blended with the previous ones in the final mix.
Apart from the banks of the Ebro river, gravely soils associated to Grenache can also be found in Secastilla Valley in Somontano and at mid-altitude areas in Campo de Borja. Soils are an additional and sometimes decisive factor in wine. Proof of this are studies such as the one led by DO Campo de Borja in collaboration with renowned expert Vicente Sotés as a previous step to the creation of regional zonings. Isn’t it reassuring to have such a great diversity of soils to explore Grenache’s real potential?