Garnacha Heaven

Red wines from Spain's Cariñena region are both good and cheap
Garnacha Heaven
Roger Morris

Cariñena gave its name to the grape variety called “Carignan” in France, but this region in Aragón in northeast Spain has given its heart to Garnacha, the dark but fruity wine grape whose tannic grip is like a firm, but friendly, handshake. In general, the prices of Garnacha are equally consumer-friendly.

Like many of the traditional winegrowing areas of Spain that until recently produced more quality then quantity, Cariñena is being discovered for the first time by American wine drinkers. Located on the southern side of the broad Ebro River Valley southeast of, and downriver from, well-known Rioja, Cariñena’s vineyards are planted on a mixture of flatlands, gently rising slopes, and rolling hills. Zaragoza, some 45 minutes away, is the largest major city, having direct high-speed rail connections to Madrid.

Altogether there are 44 wineries, about 2,000 grape growers, and some 37,000 acres of vines in Cariñena, which received its official Designation of Origin (D.O) in 1932. Although the grape variety Cariñena is credited as originating in the region, it is more famous as a blending grape — Carignan in the lower Rhône Valley and across southern France — and is not the most important grape in its home town. In fact, is often called by another name, Mazuelo, here and throughout Spain.

“Plantings of Cariñena are staying about the same,” says Ignacio Martinez de Albornoz, a regional director, “and most people are emphasizing Garnacha.” Garnacha, known as Grenache in France and California, is a spicy, fruit, tannic grape that is the most widely planted variety in Spain. Garnacha is in many ways the perfect hot-weather variety, famous in Cariñena and elsewhere for producing delightful wines from old vines planted to grow individually in a “bush” fashion and head pruned. Sometimes the wines are more rustic than elegant — comparable to bistro or tapas fare in the food world — but they are never without charm. In the hands of the right winemaker, however, they can be powerful, yet elegant wines.

On a recent tasting trip to Cariñena, I was impressed especially with some of the young Garnachas that had a spritzy, tangy, spicy taste, but which were nevertheless wines of substance with good dusty tannins. Some examples are the 2010 Bodegas Pablo Menguante Garnacha, the 2009 Bodegas Aylés El Burro Kickass Garnacha (a bargain at about $10), the 2010 Duque de Medina Garnacha, and the 2009 Corona de Aragón Old Vines Garnacha. The 2004 Pablo Gran Viu Garnacha del Terreno shows that local Garnchas can also age gracefully in a Bordeaux-like manner. Other good producers of Garnacha or Garnacha blends (with Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah) include Solar de Urbezo, Bodegas Convinca, and Bodegas Añadas.

There are white wines grown in the region, but most I tasted were not that impressive.

But once you’ve bought a bottle or two of Cariñena Garnacha, what do you eat with it? Iberico ham is always a good — and frequent — choice with Spanish reds, but since it’s summer, try drinking Garnacha with barbecued grilled meats.

And if you want to chill the young Garnachas a tad, go ahead. We won’t tell anyone.