In October of 2015 WineAlign colleague Sara d’Amato and I travelled together with Christopher Waters of Vines Magazine. The trip’s mission was to discover Spain’s Wines of Garnacha in their natural habitat, the five distinct and allied Denominación de Origen in the regions of Aragón and Catalonia.
Our host in Zaragoza was The Spanish Institute for Foreign Trade (Instituto Español de Comercio Exterior, ICEX), the Wines of Garnacha campaign and the office of Garnacha Origen. The trip was orchestrated with expertise by Aragón Exterior Managing Director Ignacio (Nacho) Martinez de Albornoz and Head of Wines from Spain (ICEX) Alfonso Janeiro. Our chaperones Sofía González Martínez, Ivo André Alho Cabral, Roser Mestre and Ignacio left no Aragonese stone unturned during a week-long investigation, immersion and intercommunication with the vineyards, winemakers, mayors, restaurateurs, residents and cultures of Aragón and Catalonia.
As a rule, the provincial link between traditional varietal and felicitous region gathers together ancient history and existentialist wine culture in the most acute of ways. The racking path from endemic to modernist is trod for the purpose of explaining why this place is an essential source for affordable wines of exceptional quality. This is the crux of what the Aragón and Catalonian vignerons are after. For decades they have been farming century-aged bush-vines, harvesting fruit that sells for one euro per kilo (plant) and seeing their wine demand a paltry $12-15 CAN (often the equivalent of $9.99 US). The lack of congruent nature of the equation and let’s be serious, the undignified injustice of the flow through is something that needs to be addressed. The challenge is one of necessity and immediacy.
The five DO’s of Aragón and Catalonia are heavily populated by cooperatives and very few wine-producing countries or regions (save perhaps for Chablis or Barbaresco) achieve so many positives from that kind of wine-producing philosophy and execution. This weight of such a collaborative culture is not lost on anyone.
The argument as to why the wines of Garnacha origin will not command justifiably higher prices defaults to geography and history. This northeastern quadrant of Spain (including Catalonia) has seen a lion’s share of war, famine, poverty and neglect. The people have suffered and persevered, albeit in a state of relative isolation. Terra incognita within a stone’s throw of (less than two hours to either Madrid or Barcelona) civilization. It is ironic that the wines are perhaps too comfortable, likewise fruit juicy and easy to consume. Global perception would imagine the wines of Campo de Borja, Cariñena, Somontano, Terra Alta and Calatayud as inaccessible, austere and rustic. Nothing could be further from the truth.
I would contend that the problem is that the wines are not tough enough. Garnacha is supported by all the fight corner help it needs but it’s just too darned soft. The lack of rain, abundance of wind, embarrassment of altitude and slope riches allow for levels of diversity and complexity other wine regions would kill for. Very few pockets of wine growing acreage have any trouble ripening grapes. Day and night temperature fluctuations are constant and in some areas, extreme. Disease is nearly non-existent thanks to the prevailing winds that blow nearly two out of every three days year-round. Soils are chalk full of rocks, stones and vine-affirming mineral. Plants must work hard to penetrate the poor soils. Climate, geography and geology are not the problem.
Why complain about wines that are perfectly ripe? Isn’t that what every farmer wants from his children, for them to complete their phenolic journey and grow up fast? I would argue no, that the grapes need to be picked when the graphing of ripeness and acidity are protracted at the crossroads of their perfect vertices. I would also argue that pressing needs to be done at colder temperatures and for the younger grapes, in certain situations, with some carbonic maceration.
As far as the old vines are concerned, the primary concern is shelf life. Most of the Garnacha produced in this part of Spain carries with it a potential for aging of no more than five years. Many producers keep that maximum goal in mind. A week of tasting through red and white Garnacha reinforced the point but there were a handful of wines that begged to differ. Laying down Garnacha is possible. The winemakers must be willing to take some risks.
Think of this. A producer presents two bottles of Garnacha Tinto, one from younger vines and one from 50-plus year-old bush vines. The first sees only stainless steel fermentation or perhaps three to six months in older oak barrels. The second sees an extended élevage though only a frugal amount (less than 20 per cent) of new wood. They both come in at a maximum 14 per cent alcohol, carry residual sugar numbers of less than 3 g/L and yet both maintain a vibrant acidity number of at least 5-6 g/L. In some cases concrete egg fermenters and/or large foudres are part of the processes. Their pedigree is brimming with history, tradition and physiographic earth sciences. Their agriculture is essentially organic (though they require no formal certification), the fruit is picked early to preserve optimum natural acidity and their fermentations are as wild as the day yeast came to be on this earth.
The young wine if fresh, clean, crisp, pure and full of vitality. It will drink well from now and up to five years. The more serious Reserva-style bottle will have the potential to evolve and develop, though it carries with it that impossible feeling of having already aged right from the start. It will drink beautifully for up got 20 to 25 years. The wines retail in Canada for $18.95 and $34.95, respectively. Which one would you buy? Seeing as how they compliment each other so well, why not both?
Campo De Borja
The Empire of Garnacha
Of the five DO’s (Denominación de Origen) that comprise the collective wine growing regions located in Aragon and Catalonia, none walk with a swagger like Campo de Borja. President Eduardo Ibañez Aranda and Secretary José Ignacio “Nacho” Gracia Lopez rule the Empire of Garnacha, a self-proclaimed stewardship for the grape and for Campo de Borja as the centre of its universe.
The two proud men have reason to state such territorial claim. Campo de Borja will play host to Grenaches du Monde. “The Weekend of Garnachas,” organized by the Roussillon Inter-professional Wine Council of France (CIVR). Grenaches of the World was held in France in its first three years. In 2016, Campo de Borja plays host to the competition.
The oldest vineyards in Campo de Borja date back to 1145. A visit to the 12th century Cistercian Monasterio de Veruela, home to the offices occupied by the Denominación de Origen, wine shop and wine museum (Museo del Vino), answers the historical query. Marble columns in three-dimensionally sculpted relief show grape leaf craftsmanship dating back to the middle ages.
Veruela was the home of one of the most important Romantic Spanish poets: Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer, who lived in the abbey during 1863. He is the author of the following verses, maybe among the most famous pieces in the History of Spanish literature:
Qué es poesía?, dices mientras clavas en mi pupila tu pupila azul. Que es poesía? Y tú me lo preguntas? Poesía… eres tú.
What is poetry?, you say. As you fix my eyes with yours of blue. What is poetry!… You ask me that? Poetry… It is you!
Rima XXI, Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer
In Aragón, diverse soils, altitude, slopes and prevailing winds all contribute to grape growing excellence. Campo de Borja’s trump card is a mountain. Other regions such as Cariñena find benefit from Moncayo, but nowhere does its 2,315m in altitude have an effect on vines as it happens in Campo de Borja.
“Cierzo que almuerza y cent, dura tuna quincena”
More than 2,000 hectares are 30+ yr-old vines. The climate receives an Atlantic influence and above all else there is the famous wind. El Cierzo blows 234 days a year, the “strong wind” blows after the rain, dries out the vines, eradicates disease and elicits increased probabilities for grape concentration. The saying goes “today is raining, tomorrow it will blow.” El Cierzo, as it has been called for 2,000 years, “has lunch and dinner lasts for a fortnight.” No one knows why. Maybe the Zaragozan Virgin of Pilar knows.
Campo de Borja is described as a “homogeneous physical space capable of producing wines with peculiarities.” Much of its viticulture, in kinship with the other four Aragonese DO’s, perpetuates the viñedo en vaso, “vines in a glass,” or bush vines, calculated at 2000 plants per hectare in density with three metres between rows.
Great fluctuations happen in this D.O., located 30 miles west of Zaragoza, where the earliest maturing, lowest section habituates the Ribera del Ebro at 239m and yet other vines are planted up to 1000m. At low altitudes (200-300m) there are finer, lighter soils. In between the vineyards of Ainzon, Borja and Fuendejalon are situated between 450 and 550 metres above sea level, occupied by the terraces of La Huecha river, a tributary of the Ebro with soils composed of stones and ferrous-clay. The D.O’s top plantations are in the upper reach, Moncayo foothills area of Alta de Ainzon and Fuendejalon, as well as the municipalities of Tabuena, El Buste and Vera. At these higher climes (up to 900-1000m) there is more limestone and iron, so darker soils with obvious increase of mineral.
Yields are quite low (30-35 hL/L), very vintage dependent and in some areas, in certain years it can be as low as 20-25. Yields are the key to understanding the value of wines from Campo de Borja, that and the iron-rich soil minerality.
Vines here see long cycles, with late maturing fruit of soft tannins and high glycerol concentration. Garnacha is a pro at climate and poor soil adaptation. It can be picked well into November and despite the lower tannins, treated properly it possesses the flexibility to develop complexity with short-term aging.
Every Grenache growing region of the world (The Rhone, Australia, South Africa) have their own special aromatic identity, whether it by garrigue, earthy reduction or soil-driven funk. A mountain herb called tomillo (thyme) grows everywhere around Moncayo. In Aragon there is an expression “when it is foggy in the morning there will be walking in the evening” and when it rains there is an all-encompassing scent in the air. That perfume is what gives these wines their special something. The amalgamation of mineral, earth and herb.
Christopher Waters, Sara D’amato and I sat down at the offices of the Campo de Borja for a presentation and a tasting of the D.O. wines with President Eduardo Ibañez Aranda, Secretary José Ignacio Gracia Lopez, Aragón Exterior Managing Director Ignacio Martinez de Albornoz and Head of Wines from Spain (ICEX) Alfonso Janeiro.
The wines tasted were Fagus, Coto de Hayas Garnacha Centenaria and Don Ramón Garnacha Imperial, by Bodegas Aragonesas; Ruberte Trésor, by Ruberte; Santo Cristo Garnacha Selección and Aletta, by Bodegas Santo Cristo; and Pdm, by Pagos del Moncayo.
From a cooperative in the town of Ainzon, a 100 per cent Garnacha distributed by Eurovin (in Quebec) from 30-35 year-old bush vines at 500-600m altitude. Smoking of a deep black cherry, with violets and mild anise giving the feigned attitude of a candied sweetness. Though it’s warm and accented with quite the spice, aridity reigns and folds into the voluminous mouthfeel. This is extreme velvet, approachable and really put together, structurally speaking. Will benefit from two years further in bottle. There is plenty of fruit to support such patience balanced by a char and a density on the long finish. Would retail for approximately $14 CAN. Drink 2016-2019. Tasted October 2015
The 2012 vintage of the Ainzon cooperative’s 100 per cent Garnacha is a blend of separately vinified stainless steel tanks. The clean compound works in appendices here and there of liquorice, graphite and pencil lead. The simple, red fruit compounds upon itself in oak-less layers for straightforward, easy pleasure. Would retail for approximately $13.50 CAN. Drink 2015-2017. Tasted November 2014
From vineyards of 15-25 years old in Pozos de Mata and Aliagares at an altitude of 400-500m. A combination of soil types leads to a complexity of dichotomies, drawing from terraced stony, rich organic brown-calcaire and Moncayo mountain more stony, ferrous clay. Low yields (less than two Kg per vine) in this 100 per cent Garnacha seek an ever increasing perfume and aromatics from ripeness, urged on by a skill set of diverse fermentations. The minerals incite and an increase of tannin is found in this darker, deeper, yet persistently straight-up juicy Garnacha. Pressed straight to tank this is simply all juice and nothing but the juice. Still a highly clean and modern expression that sees no wood. Good length again. Would retail for approximately $14 CAN. Drink 2015-2018. Tasted October 2015
Pedro Aibar was oenologist at Viñas del Vero and El Coto and now crafts wines from Grenache and Syrah plantings in the hills of Sierra del Moncayo. Produced with the Export company Axial, this 100 per cent old bush vines Garnacha from the eco-certified vineyard of La Marga saw 10 months in oak. At 14 per cent alcohol and deep as a cimmerian night it inhales and exhales in balanced Garnacha breaths. The barrel gives vanilla, chocolate and a bit of espresso. This is a nearly massive yet somehow laid back and accessible expression of Garnacha, foot-crushed, traditionally natural, with depth in its meaty cure. There were 70,000 bottles produced in the singular Campo de Borja that reaches for another layer, of earth and mediterranean funk. Would retail for approximately $20 CAN. Drink 2015-2020. Tasted October 2015 @
Bodegas Ruberte Tresor 2013, DO Campo de Borja, Spain (Winery)
Made by Susanna Ruberte from 100 per cent Garnacha off of 10+ year-old vines. The winery was founded in 1948. From lower altitude Campo de Borja (350-400m) stony vineyards and of low-production, here is a very perfumed Garnacha, expressing the violet nature of the grape and also a tonality impressed by a touch of SO2. Just a hint of barrel (one month) inflects vanilla and spices, unrelated to fruit surrounded by near-acrimonious acetone. Spiked by an aridity that climbs inside the cheeks. Greatest asset is concentration and depth. Will price in the range of $13-14 CAN. Drink 2015-2017. Tasted October 2015 @
Garnacha of different plots, “offering unique organoleptic qualities.” So very lithe and pretty, saline but not briny. The fruit is certainly strawberry though low-pitched, the hue a pale complexion from the most fleeting skin contact. A luminescent gemstone pink. Like a slice of strawberry angel short cake. Garnacha grounded by a “pretty pink ribbon” of Moncayo earth, without it would be blown by the Cierzo and “float down to the sea.” Drink 2015-2016. Tasted October 2015 @
Aragonesas farms 55 per cent of the total production of the area, largest in Campo de Borja. This 100 per cent Garnacha is culled from various (450-800m) elevations. Another prime example of so much concentration, marked by a push-pull of bright-volatile, with dark fruits and liquorice. A date with American oak for six months brings vanilla and cocoa powder, chalk and grain, tar, char and a faint vinyl rub. Good solid held finish. This has power, presence and persistence. It successfully handles and owns its volatility. Quite the polish. Would price in Canada at $14-15. Drink 2015-2017. Tasted October 2015
Young wine, old vines. A different sort of 100 per cent Garnacha, this time from arid slate soils close to El Moncayo. The scent of jamon, seemingly impossible, but it’s there. Four months in French oak. Vines are between 80-100 year old with drastically low (10-15 hL/L) yields and from 750m altitude. At 14.5 per cent the brightness pounds the volatility into relative submission but it’s still present, there can be no disputing that. Very smooth and silky, coming on the heels of those always in prevail violet and spice aromas. A smoky dash of Aleppo pepper. French oak, used for the higher end wine, gives a candied wood flavour and roasted flesh of a protein push and some sweet salinity to mineral compenium. Possessive of quite the inner vision meets juicing sensation. Drink 2015-2017. Tasted October 2015
Fagus is “beech tree” from the Latin and Coto de Hayas (small forest) from hillsides of the Cordillera Ibérica range. This ’12 is actually 85 per cent plus 7.5 per cent each from ’11 and ’13, all from 40-50 yr old vines. Yet another Garnacha of yields less than 1kg per vine and a slumber in French oak for 10 months. Fagus sweats the most prominent perfume though its level of volatility lies somewhere in the middle of the Coto de Hayas range. Here the OS is built on a foundation of earthy funk, sprites red citrus and is certainly the sweetest of the group. Like mixed berry play dough. A South African Rhone varietal style comes to mind, in earth meets vinyl. The special elaboration is of selected (toasted) barrels, with a hyperbole of vanilla, in waves, bean scrapes and baking elevation. Liquid chalk oozes on the finish, long and with bitters too. Would retail for between $22 and 25 CAN. Drink 2015-2020. Tasted October 2015
Fagus is “beech tree” from the Latin and Coto de Hayas (small forest) from hillsides of the Cordillera Ibérica range. The 2009 shows the most minor notes of evolution, still in command of fruit and well within the threshold of balance within its generous oak conditioning. A really good example struts forth here, to show what red Grenache can be at midel age for the DO, not too hard and not too soft. Not too cold and not too hot. Just about right. Drink 2015-2020. Tasted October 2015
Good to go!
WineAlign: Michael Godel