A Tale of Garnacha, Exploring Aragon

Spanish Regions

Our #WorldWineTravel group traveled to Aragon this month. Our fifth stop on our year long study of Spanish wine regions. We visited Rioja in January, Catalonia in February, Castille y Leon in March, and Galicia in April.

There is so much history in this region that I am going to write more about it than I usually do in a blog post. That’s because Aragon is a very ancient area inhabited since the 6500 BC. We know this because of bones, paintings, and ceramic fragments found in caves. Local tribes inhabited the area until they were conquered by the Romans who made settlements and planted the vine.

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Image Courtesy of @JorgeOrdonezSelections

The Moorish invasion in 711 reached into the Ebro Valley by 714 and by 935, they reached Zaragoza. This led to Zaragoza becoming their capital city from which they ran their extensive Caliphate. Aragon was part of the Kingdom of Navarre, it’s neighbor to the West. By 1118, Zaragoza was back under the control of the Kingdom, the Moors gone from their lands, and Aragon was looking for alliances. It found one with it’s neighbor to the East, Catalonia. During this time, Cistercian monks were able to build a monastery and plant vines for their daily ration of wine, one glass with their one meal. It is thought that they planted Garnacha.

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Aljaferia Palace, Zaragoza

That bond through marriage of members of the Royal families lasted until another marriage of extreme importance for the unification of Spain and its expansion abroad took place, that between Ferdinand and Isabella of Castile, the Catholic Monarchs. Castile had been the enemy of Aragon for many centuries but the bond between these two large regions formed the basis for the Reconquista, the return of Spanish lands to these Christian sovereigns, the expulsion of the Moors, the Jews, and others. It also led to the return of viticulture which had been banned by the Moors. They were also the driving force beyond Christopher Columbus and his voyage to America in 1492, and ruled over parts of Italy as well. While Castile is the larger region, Aragon remained independent of sorts with its own laws during that time.

So much history in a wine blog but Ferdinand and Isabella are such central figures in the history of Spain, Europe and the Americas as well as other lands I thought it important to speak about them and go through a bit of a timeline.

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Ferdinand and Isabella, Courtesy of @Historiarex.com

As Spain’s fourth largest region, Aragon is home to three main provinces: Huesca, Zaragoza, and Teruel. Zaragoza, the region’s capital which lies on the Ebro River has a substantial portion of the region’s inhabitants, around 600,000 people.

In terms of topography, Aragon contains both mountains, rivers, and plains. In the North, it has the highest peak in the Pyrenees called the Pico de Aneto. In the south the Sistema Iberico range divides the Ebro River basin from the Meseta. In the middle of the region, the Ebro River basin provides vast plains, at times quite dry, as well as rolling hills.

The climate here is Continental with considerable diurnal temperature swings in certain areas as well as rainfall. Other forces to combat include a wind called the Cierzo which is a cold one from the northwestern.

The soils in the vinyards tend to have limestone, with clay and often pebbles, stones or rocks on the surface. Some also have slate and granite. The vineyards are on the banks of the Ebro River and in the foothills of both mountain ranges in the region.

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Garnacha Nera

While some still debate it’s origins, it has come to be accepted wisdom that Garnacha comes from Aragon. They have many 100 year old vines and much clonal variety which is said to confirm this as it’s birthplace rather than Sardinia. That said, Garnacha has moved around Europe and flourished in many countries. It is the most widely planted in Calatayud DO, Campo de Borja DO, and Carinena DO. Somontano DO, the Northernmost DO is more focused on international varieties.

Many of the vines in Aragon are bush trained and quite old, some dating back to 1890. Garnacha is a very hardy grape and has been able to survive all these years. Garnacha can become oxidized so generally speaking the improved hygiene levels in Spanish wine-making have led to a renewed focus on the grape as a monovarietal wine rather than just as part of a blend.

Among the DOs, Calatayud is quite focused on Garnacha Tinta and red wines in general. It has special Vinas Viejas and Calatayud Superior indications which call for older vines and lower yields. In the case of Calatayud Superior, the vines must be at least 50 years old with 3500 kg/ha or less in yields. 91% of the wines in this area are made red wines.

Campo de Borja DO is located between the Ebro River and the Sistema Iberico mountains. 82% of the wines it produces are red wines and 55% of the plantings are Garnacha Tinta. This area is home to six cooperatives. They contain some of the oldest vines, dating back to 1890.

Carinena DO is one of Spain’s oldest, founded in 1932. They also produce 89% red wine, and like Campo de Borja are at risk from the cold Cierzo wind. Located in the Ebro River valley, its vineyards lie in the initial slopes of the Sistema Iberico. King Ferdinand was a fan, according to documents as was the French writer, Voltaire. More than 32% of the region is planted to Garnacha and it has some of Spain’s oldest vineyards. Many of the vineyards are older than 80 years old.

Like the other regions, DO Carinena uses the traditional labeling of Crianza, Reserva, and Gran Reserva. They also produce red wines in an oxidative style whcih they call Anejo and which must undergo 24 months in the barrel and reach 15% alcohol.

Somontano DO instead is focus on international grape varieties, largely from France because French winemakers fleeing phylloxera came to the area and settled here, bringing their vines. Spanish varieties only account for a small percentage of the plantings.

There is a Vino de Pago in Carinena DOC called VP Ayles. The history of the area is quite long, dating back to 1165 when then King Alfonso gave this land to the Cistercian monks who I mentioned earlier during the Reconquista. There are also a number of Vinos de la Tierra in Aragon that also grown Garnacha, among other varieties.

Garnacha from DO Carinena

I was quite surprised by how difficult it was to find a wine from the Carinena DO. I looked on all the online websites I tend to use and finally found this one from Castillo de Monseran. This wine was made in Carinena by Jesús Prieto and his team who are winemakers at Bodegas San Valero, a cooperative of 700 growers whose 4000 hectares are used to make these wines.

Tasting Note:

Ruby red in color, this wine was young, fresh and very fruity with a hint of spice and pepper. It had contained alcohol just 12.5%, good acidity and sweet ripe tannins. Well-made and relatively straightforward, this is a great picnic wine or a Monday night pour.

Pairing:

I found it delightful with some cheddar cheese I had on hand. Had I made a meal with it, I might have paired it with a couscous dish with vegetables or with the beet pasta I am trying out with tomato. Having switched to not eating meat, I am finding it harder to pair red wines but not one like this.

Conclusions:

It reminded me of how much I like this modern style of red wines. It was also a great wine for those approaching the Garnacha grape, approachable and very fairly priced but of good quality.

We’ll be chatting about the Wines of Aragon, Spain live on Twitter (Sat 5/22) 11 a.m. ET. Join the conversation via by following and using the #WorldWineTravel hashtag. We’d love to see you.

Check out what my fellow bloggers have to say about the region:

7 comments

  1. I love all the history and details! I did not realize that there was a Vino de Pago in this region. Is this designation becoming more popular in Spain?

  2. Enjoyed the history here Susannah. I’ve read a bit about Ferdinand and Isabelle and personally found it odd she was recognized as a servant of God. They ordered the expulsion of Muslims and Jews from Spain. Hum.

    It’s really too bad Aragón wines are difficult to find there. Perhaps people like Fernando Mora and Pedro Ballesteros MWs will be more vocal about the wines.

  3. Thanks for the history lesson! I was never interested in history before I started studying wine, now I find it a fascinating backdrop for why things are the way they are.

  4. Really appreciate the valuable history in this post, Susannah. I didn’t initially realize that these were the same Ferdinand and Isabella monarchs who ordered the Inquisition. Yikes! As Jeff notes, wine takes us places.

  5. I’ve had this wine in the past, but it has been a long time and your post is making me think that it is time to revisit it! Thanks as well for sharing all of the fascinating history of the region and the useful breakdown on the DOs.

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