Director of wine and buyer for Spain Pierre Mansour makes the case for Spain's garnacha grape in all its versatile, sweet-fruited glory.
Here I am going to make a case for Spain's amazing garnacha grape, a variety that originated in Aragón (the province between Rioja and Catalunya) that used to dominate the country's plantings but now accounts for just 6% of total plantings in Spain. I'll be focusing on the black version of the grape, known locally as garnacha tinta, because it's here that Spanish creativity in wine is at its most energetic and exciting.
Styles of garnacha: Mediterranean vs Atlantic vs Mountain
One of garnacha's most likeable attributes is that it has real agility in expressing the natural features of where it is grown. Many describe it as the pinot noir of Spain, I presume because some garnacha can be thrillingly perfumed, silky and elegant but also because its style is so tightly linked with where and how it is grown.
Garnacha is the dominant wine grape in Navarra
It's probably the Mediterranean style that most drinkers associate with Spanish garnacha: head to the north-east of the country where Emporda, Montsant and Priorat (the most distinctive and expensive examples) are the benchmarks for dense, dark and powerful reds, often blended with syrah and cariñena. Or head east to Navarra where it is the dominant grape and one that is being picked up by younger generations who are working magic at very old vineyards. Vine age benefits the thin-skinned garnacha because it naturally limits the yield, concentrating the flavour compounds in the grape and resulting in wines with wonderful richness and grainy yet ripe tannins. Just south is Calatayud which makes mineral, intense garnachas that can age brilliantly and are well worth discovering.
Try: Mas Doix Doix 2013, Blau Montsant 2018, Cruz de Piedra Garnacha 2018, El Casetero Garnacha 2018, Vina Zorzal Garnacha Navarra 2019
Contino Rioja is produced in the Rioja Alavesa region
Located next door to Navarra is the Rioja sub-region Rioja Baja, where the warmer Mediterranean climate has lent itself to the flourishing of historic garnacha plantings. The grapes grown here are more often used to add softness and weight to tempranillo blends, but winemakers are starting to experiment with single-variety garnachas too.
Look towards the north west and the cooler spots of Rioja, blanketed by the moderating influence of the Atlantic, and you'll find some truly extraordinary wines being made using garnacha. Production is tiny and bottlings can be rare and expensive, but the quality more than justifies the price. These are beautifully crafted wines, sensuous and exquisite. Producers we follow include Contino, Gomez Cruzado and Tobelos, wonderful Rioja producers whose wines we occasionally list.
Unfortunately, we currently aren't stocking any bottles from this region, but we're always keeping our ears to the ground for new producers and wines from all across Spain, so expect that to change. Later this year in November we will be offering Contino Garnacha 2018 as part of our Spain offer. We also occasionally release some wines from these producers in en primeur promotions. Keep an eye on our timetable of offers in the fine wine pages.
It's in the mountainous regions west of Madrid that you'll find a thriving group of visionary winemakers that are committed to creating garnacha in its purest and most interesting expression.
It's in the mountainous regions west of Madrid that you'll find a thriving group of visionary winemakers that are committed to creating garnacha in its purest and most interesting expression. These growers are rediscovering some of the country's most ancient vineyards planted on hillsides and at altitude. The cooler conditions of these sites mean grapes mature more slowly, extending the ripening period with less concentration of sugars (which keeps alcohol levels in check) and bright, lifting acidity. Wines from the Sierra de Gredos mountain range and Cebreros reflect the most delicate, pinot-esque style of garnacha. These areas, historically made up of co-operatives, are experiencing a surge in quality, with maverick new generations revealing the distinctive, precise, savoury quality of garnacha with immense success.
Try: Vino de Pueblo Garnacha Cebreros 2018
Take a look at our grape guide to garnacha
Read our Ultimate Guide to Spanish Wine