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Posted: Sunday, 20 January 2019 13:40

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Renaissance of Garnacha de Aragón as Grenache in the World

Jan 20: There are few grape varieties that have done well at low altitudes and as high as 1700 meters, but Garnacha (Grenache) is a grape variety that emanated from Aragon and has travelled to other parts of Spain and then to France, Australia, USA and has even attempted a presence in India through Sula and Reveilo, but the renaissance of Grenache as a major international noble variety is on the cards, according to Spanish Master of Wine Pedro Ballesteros Torres who is extremely passionate and knowledgeable about this Spanish variety and shares with our evolved connoisseurs in this 800th issue of delWine

The nature of the noblest grape varieties can be assimilated to human characters. Some varieties are egocentric: they adore speaking of themselves. Cabernet-sauvignon and viogniershow first their genetic expression and then their origin.

Other varieties are ethnocentric: they are brilliant at home but becomeboringwhen planted abroad. Nebbiolo is the raw material for some of the best wines in the world, but outside itsItaly’s Northwestern corner it struggles to give something distinctive.

Garnacha is a benchmark for a different personality profile: the conditional altruistic. Garnacha is altruistic because it is a vehicle for conveying the image of its landscape. It is a chameleon grape variety, which adapts its expression to the climates in which its vines grow and shows sensitivity to soil differences.It is also a great team worker, tending to enhance blends. However, its altruism is conditional because it will be generous only upon certain premises.

Conditions for excellence

First condition for Garnacha's excellence is adequate climate. Garnacha was born somewhere in Aragón, Spain. The climate there is harsh, quite continental, with cold winters, hot and dry summers and temperate autumns. Being adapted to its cradle’s environment, garnacha vines bud early in springtime and the grapes ripen quite late.They need a lot of heat but, in order to keep balance and finesse, they also need a fresh period just before picking time. Garnacha is also very resistant to drought and quite reluctant to have its feet damped during the growing season. Therefore, great Garnacha wines are not likely to come from Atlantic, subtropical or monsoon climates.

Quality Garnacha is found at a relatively narrow range of latitudes. In Europe, it cannot ripen properly North of the 45° parallel, and it does not give balanced grapes South of 39,5° parallel (unless cultivated at high altitude).

The second condition is viticultural frugality. Garnacha can yield many kilos only at the expense of quality. Modern high-trellis systems, intensive production methods, are not devised for Garnacha. In order to produce balanced grapes, garnacha vines need to be pruned as bushes,close to the ground, in such a way that the leaves protect the bunches from sunburn and retain a bit of freshness inside the canopy. Such pruning methods result in high vineyard costs and low yields, which are not appropriatefor large-scale production. To make things worse, garnacha vines need a long time to occupy their soils, what is a sine qua non condition for the balance that results in the finest garnacha juice. It is unlikely that great garnacha wines come from young vineyards.

Definitely, Garnacha’s is not a great prospect for short-term investors. It needs of people with long-term vision and genuine enthusiasm for quality.

The third condition for Garnacha’s success is, fortunately, something that was a constraintin the past and is now solved, yet it is worth mentioning. Garnacha vines are tough, but their grape juice is extremely delicate. It needs attentive vine growing, state-of-the- art winemaking, including handpicking, refrigeration and temperature control, gentle pressure, controlled oxygenation, careful maceration,… and, most of all, skilled well-trained professionals.

Until the 1990s, those conditions were not met in most of the more remarkable garnacha regions. In a very human attitude, the blame for the shortcomings was put on the grape rather than on the makers. In the 1980s, the motto in Spain was that garnacha was not good because it tended to oxidize; it was recommended to replace it with French varieties.This is not the case any longer. A good number of highly qualified professionals with international experience understand well garnacha's needs and opportunities.

Thanks to its past expansion the variety offers now an enjoyable and interesting tasting experience, to envision many terroirs through the prisms of their Garnacha based expression. It is as if Garnacha was encrypting a message from the landscapes and people that produce its wines, to be decrypted by the taster.

Indeed, few features are common to all Garnacha wines. The most relevant common trait is probably the discreet nature of its tannins, suavely textured rather than harsh (with some exceptions due to over extraction, clumsy oak ageing or poor stem management). The fruit expression is varied, but red berry fruits are most frequently a key aroma component. The rest depends upon origin.

Grenache (Garnacha) in the world

Garnacha is indeed a top quality variety, and has been considered as such for most of its long history. It has travelled around the world as a reliable plant to produce good wine in a variety of climates. From its cradle in Aragón, garnacha travelled in all directions.

Let us start with the cradle of garnacha. Most vines at Cariñena, Calatayud, Campo de Borja and other areas in Aragón are very old, often centenary. They are sparsely planted in bushes, perfectly adapted to their dry harsh environment, exploring their soils in depth. Thanks to that, they survive the region’s very high summer temperatures and extreme drought. The wines conveytheir landscape’s message: they are intensely fruity because the vines concentrate their energy in ripening those phenols; they keep low pH because of the bush vine's age and low yield. They are warmly alcoholic: they received a lot of light! Their ageing capacity gives testimony of their balance.

When Garnacha moved East to Catalonia, it became garnatxa or lladoner, and got the suave influence of the Mediterranean sea. The wines are softer, less powerful but refined in areas such as Montsant, Terra Alta and Ampordà, nicely mineral in Alella. Nevertheless, the spectacular Priorat slopes, built of liquorella soil, counteract the Mediterranean influence, giving great power associated in some cases with amazing depth. Here, garnacha can greatly perform on its own or act as brothers in arms with Carignan, in an impressive exercise of complementing each other: Garnacha provides the flesh, Carignan the bones.

Further East, we arrive to the island of Sardinia, and Garnacha becomes Cannonau. It is the most important variety in the island, mainly in the province of Nuoro. The granite sandy soils provide lovely floral aromas and unique nuttiness, while the Mediterranean climate gives that suave power that has an air of family with their Catalan cousins.

Going North, the exhilarating garnacha from central Aragón becomes more restrained but equally deep in Somontano, a cooler higher altitude region, and distinctively subtle and velvety in Navarra, particularly around San Martin de Unx, whose limestone terraces give a unique raspberry, herb and mineral character.

The proximity of the Atlantic Ocean and its rains prevents Garnacha going further north this route; it needs to go inland, first through the Roussillon, where the rocky soil and steep slopes result in very concentrated Garnacha wines. Roussillon’s Grenache is the land of the sweet rancio from Maury and Banyuls- wines that become eternal through their double exposition to the sun: first as grapes, then as wines. In the Languedoc, Grenache shows its generosity as major component of blends with the spicy syrah, the structured Carignan and the capricious Mourvedre.

Further north, we get in the region that kept Grenache’s glory during the most difficult years, Châteauneuf du Pape. Classically a blend of up to 13 grape varieties, Châteauneuf is indeed a Grenache benchmark, thanks to its pebbly soils, the careful winemaking, its wines' capacity to age and, very importantly, their historical access to high-end markets. Then, Gigondas and Vacqueyras mark, in a formidable way, the Northern limit to find complex Grenache, with wines plenty of juicy and fresh fruit and ripe sweetness.

Moving West of Aragón, we go to Rioja, where two different styles of garnacha are to be found. In Rioja Baja the Aragon climate is softened by an Atlantic influence, which brings freshness but not rain. Wines are firmly built and juicy, sometimes very complex. In Rioja Alta Garnacha becomes remarkably subtle and delicate, with pale colors and floral aromas, showing a much cooler climate. All over Rioja, garnacha plays its most generous role by providing flesh and fruit to classic Tempranillo-based blends. Most top classic Rioja brands benefit of a proportion of Garnacha in their blends.

More to the South, garnacha needs altitude to compensate for low latitude. In Gredos in central Spain there are very old vines at over 1000m altitude. Wines have agenuine mountain character, being suavely structured and perfumed, but very solid, kind of iron fist in a velvet glove.

Garnacha is also the unbeatable variety for top quality rosé wines, including the very subtle expressions in Provence, the fleshy character of Tavel wines and the charmingly fruity profile of Navarra rosés.

Grenache outside Europe

 Australia was for decades a classic Grenache region outside Europe. Unfortunately, in the 1970s it gave way to other varieties. Only now, there is a conscience to recuperate the variety, which is the basis for excellent wines in McLarenVale and Barossa. In California, the Rhone Rangers resuscitated Grenache, to a limited extent, because of the temporary preference for Zinfandel and Syrah. Things are changing now.The potential for fine Garnacha in California is huge. Finally, the Garnacha vines at highest altitude in the world, 1700 meters, are located in Cafayate, Argentina. The wine is a delicacy of floral and spicy aromas, with an almost rosé color.

Climate Change

We live times of climate change. Grape varieties that can render quality with low inputs, such as garnacha, are needed. Thanks to technological advances, the mechanization of labors in bush vines is foreseeable. This will make quality cultivation of Garnacha economically feasible. Consumer taste is seemingly developing towards gentler and more original wines.Those are some of the reasons for my confidence in the renaissance of grenache as a major international noble variety.

Pedro Ballesteros Torres MW

As one might have surmised from the Article, India and particularly Nashik might not be the best soils and the climate is unsuitable for the cultivation of great quality Grenache. ‘Sula is the only producer that has been experimenting for a few years with limited success’, says Yatin Patil, owner of Reveilo Wines and President of All India Wine Producers Association (AIWPA).  He says,’ we also tried but had to rip the vines because we found that the grape was ripening too late and even then a part of the grapes used to be still raw, making wine lean and not very interesting’.

The answer is surely in this Article. Garnacha (Grenache) is only one such example. Every grape has a different DNA and different requirements for getting the best out of it. We hope there is something to be learnt from this Article from a viticulture point of view for every grower. Pedro Ballesteros is presently the first MW from Spain and is very knowledgeable and passionate of Spanish grape varieties and wine regions. It’s a rare privilege to have him pen down a very interesting Article on his native grape variety that is close to his heart and otherwise so popular that an International Grenache Day is celebrated across the world every Third Friday of September to enjoy the wines and celebrate its success, all over the world. Founded by the Grenache Association, it falls on the 3rd Saturday this year- Editor


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