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  • The renaissance of Garnacha Blanca in Spain
  • The renaissance of Garnacha Blanca in Spain
  • The renaissance of Garnacha Blanca in Spain
1 and 2. Garnacha Blanca. 3. Harvest in Terra Alta (Tarragona). hotos courtesy of CRDO Terra Alta and EVENA.

Grapes

The renaissance of Garnacha Blanca in Spain

Amaya Cervera | September 24th, 2019

“The most important thing I have learnt about Garnacha Blanca is that it is very different from its red version. Even if the work in the vineyard is similar, the variety behaves differently when it comes to winemaking,” says researcher Maite Rodríguez after studying this grape variety for four years. Her recently published dissertation has proved highly helpful and opens up a wider choice of plant material to grape growers -at present, there are only two clones available in the market, both of them French.

Fall and rise 

Could the renaissance of red Garnacha drive its white relative? With 2,589 hectares planted in France plus 2,956 in Spain, Garnacha Blanca has seen better days. The largest concentration of this variety worldwide is found in Spain. There are 1,450 hectares under vine just in Terra Alta, Catalonia’s southernmost appellation. A staunch advocate of vertical tastings to show the grape’s ability to age, Joan Ángel Lliberia from Edètaria says Garnacha Blanca is the greatest white variety in the Mediterranean. 

Despite its limited presence beyond Terra Alta, it drives the small yet exciting white wine niche in Priorat and Montsant. It is increasingly common to find it in Rioja both as a single-varietal or in blends of high-quality whites. In Navarra, Garnacha Blanca has gone from 2.5 hectares in 2005 to 123 at present, so it is no longer a minor variety. And it is also drawing the attention of top producers in Aragón and in regions beyond its traditional growing areas. 

This revival marks a turning point in the loss of surface under vine experienced in previous decades provoked by the decline of sweet and “rancio” wines made with this variety, the vineyard conversion in Spain which favoured what were seen as “improving” or just fashionable grape varieties and, specifically in Terra Alta, the gradual disappearance of skin-contact wines, locally called “brisados”, and the arrival of Macabeo following the introduction of wine technology.

According to Contribución al Conocimiento del Inventario Vitícola Nacional (a previous study to Spain’s official vine register) by Luis Hidalgo and Manuel R. Candela in 1971, Garnacha Blanca covered 35% of vine land in Teruel (Aragón) and 15% in Tarragona, but it was hardly present in Rioja and Navarra.

In 1990 there were 11,451 hectares in Catalonia, 4,200 in Aragón, 83 in La Rioja and six in Navarra. 20 years later, it is limited to 1,772 hectares in Catalonia, 311 in Aragón, 11 in La Rioja and 16 in Navarra. The low figures in the two latter regions prompted the recovery of plant material from old vineyards in order to “preserve the variety’s genetic diversity,” Maite Rodríguez explains in her dissertation. In fact most of her research was based on these plants rescued from oblivion.

The mutant grape

In 2011 the viticulture research centres of La Rioja (ICVV), Navarra (EVENA), Aragón (CITA) and Cataluña (INCAVI) set up a joint project to study Garnacha Blanca from the Ebro valley, with over 90% of Spain’s total plantings. This includes testing the performance of many of these biotypes in areas outside their original locations. The ultimate goal is to preserve the grape’s intravarietal diversity and to certify genuine clonal material from the Ebro valley for its multiplication.

According to José Félix Cibriáin, who is responsible for the project in Navarra, the first clones could reach the market in 2022 although EVENA, in its condition of nursery breeder, has been supplying certified material to local producers and nurseries for some time now. Cibriáin points out that the work carried out by Maite Rodríguez “has proved the existence of genetically different Garnachas Blancas.”

Garnacha Blanca is a mutation of Garnacha Tinta (red). Rodríguez’s dissertation has proved that the change of colour was caused by a loss of information in the genes that generate anthocyanins (the pigments that give colour to red grapes), the same process that has already been described for Pinot Blanc and Tempranillo Blanco. The researcher has also identified two different mutations associated with different geographical areas. The first appears in plant material originating in Navarra, in one of the French clones and in a sample from Tarragona; the second in Garnacha Blanca from Rioja and in two clones selected by Bodegas Torres which are not in the market. 

The white queen of the Ebro valley

Until the new clones reach the market, figures keep improving. In 2018 there were 217 hectares of Garnacha Blanca in Rioja. Not bad but still lagging behind Verdejo (327Ha) and Tempranillo Blanco, the most successful mutation in the appellation with 751Ha under vine. Plantings in Aragón have remained steady in recent years.

Obviously, there are different wine profiles according to soils, climate, elevation and the different approaches taken by producers.

The vineyards of Artazu, the northern area chosen by Artadi to develop a specific project of Garnacha in Navarra, “are almost too cold for this variety”, says Carlos López de Lacalle. Harvest usually takes place in late October extending occasionally into November. Garnacha Blanca is ideally picked at 13% vol. to ensure high acidity and citrus notes.

At the other end of the Ebro valley, Lliberia from Edètaria (Terra Alta) explains that the grape’s main virtue is its ability to “reach 13% to 14% vol. while maintaining very good acidity provided that yields are limited”. He avoids picking below 13,5% vol. to prevent bitterness. “Below 13% vol., the variety’s distinctive profile is lost. Just as acidity works as a backbone for Riesling, alcohol is Garnacha Blanca’s equivalent,” Lliberia adds.

In Rioja, Garnacha Blanca’s pioneer Abel Mendoza is so respectful with vintage variations that some of his wines have developed “unusual and even capricious profiles occasionally resembling central European wines,” he notes.

In Aragón, Fernando Mora MW (Frontonio) says that Garnacha Blanca is so adapted to the local climate that it performs well at different elevations and it definitely outperforms Macabeo at lower altitude given its high resistance to drought.

Like Carlos López de Lacalle, Mora sees many similarities with red Garnacha. “They are the same grape, with the same cycle and ripen at the same time,” Mora explains. “The main difference is whether you grow it to produce red or white wines. White wines require vineyard management techniques aimed at preserving acidity and this implies protecting bunches from the sun and picking earlier,” he adds. López de Lacalle notes similar trends in terms of its high alcohol and acidity. He also points to a certain rusticity which translates in full-bodied wines providing yields are kept low. 

Given the current trend towards lighter, less-extracted reds, it is certainly paradoxical that structure is increasingly welcomed in whites (think orange wines). Beyond the variety’s own skin-contact version in Terra Alta (the “brisados”), Garnacha Blanca seems to be in the right place at the right time. 

The wines

Without meaning to be too exhaustive, here is a list of some fine Garnacha Blanca wines made along the Ebro river. Regions are listed from west to east.

RIOJA. Abel Mendoza has been discreetly making a Garnacha Blanca wine since the 1990s. One of its most scarce whites, it never exceeds 1,000 bottles. In fact, he started producing just one barrel. He picked vine by vine to find the the Garnacha Blanca grapes that were mixed in the vineyards planted by his grandfather. Over time he has been able to collect cuttings with highly diverse plant material and has planted them in different types of soils -from red sands to clay-limestone- to assess their performance. 

Telmo Rodríguez also planted Garnacha Blanca in some of the highest vineyards of the family property in Labastida. This variety is part of the somewhat secret blend of his Remelluri Blanco. Former Cvne winemaker Basilio Izquierdo relied on Garnacha Blanca (it accounts for 70%) for his B de Basilio blend when he first released the wine in the 2007 vintage. From his point of view, it outperformed Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and even Viura in a series of experimental whites produced at Cvne in 2000. 

Since then, many well-known Rioja white blends have seen an increased presence of Garnacha Blanca. Some examples include Valenciso (30%), Sierra Cantabria Organza (35%), Benjamín Romeo’s Predicador (30%) and Qué Bonito Cacareaba (50%), Vivanco’s 4 Varietales Blanco de Guarda (40%) or the 2015 Trotamundos(85%), a wine that changes every year and is made by Rioja’n' Roll member Olivier Rivière.

There are also single-varietal wines. Some of the first in the region were Cifras by Exeo, a project focused exclusively on Garnacha in Labastida (Rioja Alavesa), and Inédito from Bodegas Lacus in Rioja Oriental. They have now been joined by La Maldita Garnacha, a new informal Garnacha range by Vivanco, and most recently by Izadi and Barón de Ley, a producer that is expanding its wide range of single-varietal Rioja wines.

NAVARRA. Plant material provided by EVENA and masal selection by wine producers have pushed the expansion of Garnacha Blanca in Navarra. In 2017, Olite’s viticulture research centre set up a project to develop Garnacha Blanca wines together with cooperatives in the villages of Sada, Andosilla, Murchante and San Martín de Unx. San Martín de Unx has actually become a landmark for Garnacha Blanca. Apart from the white Alma de Unx made by the cooperative, its winemaker Gonzalo Celayeta makes his own Garnacha Blanca (El Caserío) and Terrazas Blanco for Unsi Wines. Producer David Sampedro from Elvillar (Rioja Alavesa) buys grapes here for his single-varietal Kha Mé which doesn’t carry the DO seal.

Other wines from Navarra include La Cardelina (Bodegas Alzania), Laia (Bodegas Aroa, Vintae) and Viña Zorzal. A couple of months ago, Chivite launched Las Fincas 2 Garnachas, a white wine made from equal amounts of Garnacha Tinta and Garnacha Blanca which is sold under the VT 3 Riberas designation.

ARAGÓN. With around 250 hectares, the province of Teruel still accounts for most of the Garnacha Blanca grown in Aragón, yet most producers working in this area and labelling their wines as VT Bajo Aragón don’t use it as their flagship grape. 

Further north, in Somontano, Viñas del Vero has invested a great deal of effort to recover the variety in their Secastilla vineyards. Garnacha and other forgotten varieties are grown on old terraces at an elevation of 700 metres on stony soils and the influence of the Pyrenees. La Miranda de Secastilla white, which was initially destined for export, is also available in Spain now. The wine offers terrific value and develops well in bottle.

Another notable Garnacha Blanca from Aragón is Frontonio, which costs over €30 in Spain. Grapes are sourced from a plot that is not particularly high in Valdejalón, yet it offers superb acidity. Frontonio also makes the single-varietal entry-level Botijo Blanco. According to Fernando Mora MW, Garnacha Blanca is a highly versatile grape, perfect to make both “fun, easy-to-drink as well as energetic, rich whites”. In his opinion, it is “a remarkably interesting grape variety.”

Cariñena, an appellation very much aware of market trends, is keeping up with new plantings and has single-varietal examples like Menguante, from Bodegas y Viñedos Pablo. Another white wine for the list is Duna by El Vino del Desierto, made in Los Monegros, a semidesert region in the province of Huesca.

CATALONIA. Terra Alta is the bastion of Garnacha Blanca in Spain. The range of wines is particularly varied (skin-contact, oaked, aged in clay vessels…) and quality is on the rise. See these links to previous articles published in SWL on the wines and the people behind them.

We have also written about whites from Priorat, where Garnacha Blanca accounts for 83 out of the 138Ha of white varieties grown in the region. In Montsant, the figure is a somewhat lower (55 out of 104 hectares), but the category is very dynamic and has attracted top producers like Alfredo Arribas (he makes several whites within his old vines collection called Trossos), Joan Asens (Blanc d’Orto), Celler Mas Roig (Les Sorts), Vinyes Domenech (Rita) or Josep Grau, who has three versions from the entry level L’Efecte Volador to Vespres and Granit, both of which are made from granite soils and are fermented and aged in oak vats.  

Some interesting producers in Empordà, where Garnacha Blanca is called Lledoner Blanc, include Masía Serra (Ctònia), Vinyes dels Aspres (Blanc dels Aspres) or Espelt with a wine made from old vines. Following its shift towards indigenous grapes, Sota El Ángels has released Mirabellas, a blend of Garnacha Blanca and Garnacha Roja (Gris). In Penedès, where we are aware of two single varietal wines produced by Loxarel and Parés Baltà (Indígena), there are currently 50 hectares of Garnacha Blanca under vine. Despite being authorised in Costers del Segre and Conca de Barberà, it plays a minor role in these appellations.

We recently tasted a 100% Garnacha Blanca from Dehesa de Luna in Albacete (Southeast Spain). Given that the variety adapts well to warm areas, we may see more examples in the future coming from places beyond the traditional growing areas in the Ebro valley.

* Maite Rodríguez’s dissertation, which was awarded Excellent Cum Laude distinction, can be downloaded in this link.

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