Cariñena: Guild of Sommeliers Report 2014

The Guild of Sommeliers sent six members to Cariñena DO/DOP in the spring of 2014 to discover this unexplored region in northeastern Spain, and report back on its wines, culture, and potential. Following is their story.

Andrew Rastello

Coming out of passing my Advanced Exam in April, I wasn’t sure my high could get much, well, higher… but days later, I received notice that I’d been awarded the travel scholarship to Cariñena. As my excitement settled in the following weeks, I began thinking about what I was hoping to take away from my international excursion. Let me be clear: I love Spanish wine. But is it what gets me out of bed in the morning? No. I generally drink whites, and if pressed to choose a Spanish red I’ll likely opt for a Bierzo or a “pretty” Rioja. I can’t say I’ve ever been excited about wines from Priorat, and as my trip approached I became nervous that I wouldn’t be able to “get” the wines of Cariñena.

What little I knew about the region was what I had read on the Guild site. Cariñena is the birthplace of this same-named red grape, more commonly known as Carignan in France. The region of Cariñena is located in the heart of the Ebro Valley in Aragón, with the Pyrenées Mountains forming a natural border with France to the north and the Calatayud DOP to the east. The vineyards range from high elevation to windswept plains, all of which experience an intense diurnal shift. Cariñena is the only wine region that has a variety named after it, and at one point this red grape dominated the region. Also known as Mazuelo or Carignan in France, it has firm (some call it unapproachable) acidity in youth and can be accompanied by very high pyrazines. “Like high-acid Carmenère? Praise glory!!” I thought. Well… not exactly, I came to learn. Growers and winemakers complain frequently that the grape is “hard to grow”…

Today, the region of Cariñena has chosen Garnacha as king. I figured this was probably done in hopes of mirroring the quick success of Priorat and the 100-point scores that Parker handed out like lollipops to some of that region’s bigger, bolder wines. Could Garnacha’s coup in Cariñena be motivated by neighbor-success-envy?


Jorge Villacorta

Created in 1932, the DO of Cariñena is among the oldest officially recognized wine regions in Spain. Vines here are planted mostly on reddish-brown, iron-rich clay soils called “royale” by the locals, producing wines with stronger mineral flavors and higher levels of acidity. Approximately half of the land belongs to Garnacha—though Cariñena is still grown here in its hometown, the grape has fallen out of favor with the locals due to its difficulty to grow, its susceptibility to disease and its very high acidity as well as stronger tannic structure. These wines must be aged for a longer period of time before they are ready for consumption—as such, they’re more costly and risky to produce than Garnacha, which produces wines that are softer in tannin and acidity.

Garnacha also reacts well to the local, arid climate due to its strong wooden trunk that resists drought. As we were to discover, the wines grown at lower elevations are fresher, more fruit-forward and easy-drinking; as the elevation begins to increase (especially in excess of 600 meters), the wines show darker fruit flavors and aromas with more spice and stronger minerality. The highest vineyards, on slopes of approximately 850 meters, allow for great sun exposure and drainage, further ripening the grapes to produce intense aromas with strong acidity and ripe, dark fruit flavors. Higher-elevation vineyards also see nighttime temperatures drop 35-40 degrees (°F), allowing the richer fruit to retain great acidity. Aside from elevation, a major contributing factor to the quality of the Garnacha planted in this region is the age of many of these vines: some are over eighty years old, producing wines with immense concentration, complexity, and great length. 

Miranda Elliot

Straight from our arrival at the airport in Madrid, we took a train up through Aragón to Zaragoza, about 45 minutes northeast of Cariñena. Our first encounter with food was at the incredible Bodegón Azoque. Rows of Ibérico ham legs greeted us; they hung from rope on hooks or were already carved and resting on stands. I was ecstatic and exhausted, trying to take everything in while battling jet lag, but those gorgeous ham legs kept me alert, their marbling pristine and unlike anything I'd ever seen in the states: straight up-and-down, evenly distributed fat and muscle. Another staple we were to enjoy many times throughout the trip was sardines, simply prepared with olive oil, salt and pepper, grabbed two at a time with our fingers and eaten in one bite, like French fries. Along with lunch we were introduced to various Cariñena wines, a rosado and some tinto. We finished the meal in full Spanish lunch style with orujo de hierba, essentially a pomace spirit flavored with herbs. By that point, I was full and happy and very ready for a nap.

Our next day took us up a long, winding road high up into the Sistema Ibérico mountains, where we arrived at Bodegas Paniza, and where we began our love affair with Cariñena. While Bodegas Paniza, like most of the producers in Cariñena, is a co-op (essentially groups of locals selling their grapes to the central winery), we were struck by the high quality of fruit—something we might not ordinarily associate with a co-op. This was, for most of us, our first intimate experience with the Cariñena grape from the Cariñena region. As a grape, Cariñena tended to show more red fruit along with an underlying—but not overpowering—gaminess. In fact, my favorite food-and-wine pairing of the trip was grilled Ternasco lamb (it’s actually a PGI itself, for lamb with a certain weight and age from this region) with Cariñena: The gaminess of each complemented each other while the bright red fruit offset the meat’s richness.

Most wineries here have turned their attention toward Garnacha, as Cariñena is much more difficult to grow. But many of us agreed that Cariñena has more depth of flavor here, especially when it’s from old vines. As we were told more about the area, about how almost everyone there grows grapes for money, and about how the region has become pretty impoverished, it became clear that the switch from Cariñena to Garnacha is economically driven. Asking them to switch back to Cariñena is asking them to grow something that may taste better (to us) but that produces less quantity and therefore less income. It’s a tricky equation—and a sensitive topic—but we discussed the possibility of charging more for Cariñena: The quality is high coming from old vines, and it could be marketed as a unique grape from its ancestral home... It will be interesting to see where this region goes in the coming years as it undergoes this renovation period, modernizes its style and tries to find a new market and its own niche.


Katie Kelly

On day two of our trip, we met with Rocío, the woman in change of the export department of Bodegas Paniza. She took us to the local monastery, with its breathtaking view of Cariñena and the snow-capped Pyrenées in the distance. Although we experienced perfect weather (mid-70s Fahrenheit and bright sunshine), the area's wind is legendary. Like the Rhône’s Mistral or South Africa’s Cape Doctor, Cariñena has Cierzo, an intense wind that creates a naturally healthy environment for grape-growing. It carries just a bit of humidity that nourishes plants in scorching-hot summers, but its fierceness prevents stagnation and banishes mildew or rot.

Bodegas Panizas, originally named Virgen de la Agila, changed its name to honor the town of Paniza and its 700 inhabitants, 400 of which are members of the Bodegas Paniza grape-growing cooperative. In terms of the age of its members, this is the youngest co-op in Spain, and they’ve made a commitment to the DO of Cariñena through their time, education and money, shown off in their state-of-the-art facility. It is here that we first learned about the economic struggle of Spain, and specifically Aragón, which was financially hurt particularly hard by the Spanish Civil War, and which continues to struggle. Like many regions blessed with rich land but facing financial hardship, they use their number one resource—grapes—to sustain themselves. Put simply, Garnacha is Cariñena’s bread and butter. Make no mistake, these growers are passionate about the wines they make, but they are also definitively focused on making money from them—not out of greediness or a lack/disregard of identity, but for the viability of the region.

On day three we visited Bodegas San Valero, one of the older wineries we saw, yet considered to be the most progressive in the region. 20% of their Garnacha vines are classified as old vines, ranging from 30-100 years old. San Valero is also home to the first bottling machine acquired in Cariñena—and one of the first in Spain!—in 1962. It was a bit of a relic but still very cool to see the early stages of this region taking wine production to the next level. 

We discussed the soil and the “magic” within it, and our first glimpse of this magic was a visit to a 35- to 40-year-old Macabeo vineyard. The soil was clay, with a good amount of glacial rocks on both the topsoil and in numerous layers of subsoil as well. While clay tends to have poor drainage, these rocks keep the clay loose, allowing the vine roots to dig deeper. Moving up in elevation in this vineyard, we reached the Moscatel parcels, where we started seeing much more rock in the soil. These rocks help to reflect heat, which dehydrates and concentrates the grapes, allowing Bodegas San Valero to make a lovely late-harvest Moscatel—botrytis even occurs in certain vintages. With a breathtaking, panoramic backdrop, we tasted the Bodegas San Valero’s “Particular” Chardonnay and Moscatel d’Alexandria blend, which was bone dry and deliciously crisp and refreshing—perfect for a late breakfast. 

Next came visits to the Tempranillo, Garnacha and Cariñena vineyards, all of which were completely covered in jagged, flat stones called cascajos, caused by erosion from the Sistema Ibérico range. The more rounded stones in the Tempranillo parcel were uniquely identified as cantos—rounded over millennia by the flow of the Ebro River.

On our visit to Grandes Vinos Y Viñedos, we were able to learn more about how altitude variation in the DO specifically affects the wines. Starting at a 1,000-foot elevation vineyard characterized by the red “royale” soil, we progressively moved higher, noticing how the amount of heavy stone in the vineyards increased as we traveled up. At one point, we also saw vines affected by esca, the main cause of death among their vines. Topping out at 2,800 feet (850 meters) was an 85-year-old Garnacha vineyard called the Saints’ Path. Back in the cellar, five different elevation levels were noticeably reflected in five different wines. Garnacha from the lowest altitude had bright red cherry and raspberry notes with subtle tannins, while the second Garnacha expressed darker fruit aromas—more blackberry and red plum. By the third and fourth versions (from higher vineyards), more concentrated, complex fruit was apparent: notes of juicy blueberry and balsamic were prominent now, with hints of milk chocolate, a beautiful mouthfeel and tannic structure. The fifth and final Garnacha, from the highest plots, had even further complexity with strong notes of black tea and fresh herbs.

We were privileged to enjoy dinner at Casa Pedro with a special guest host: local sommelier Raúl Igual, who was twice named Best Sommelier in Spain. Igual is a native of Teruel, a region just southeast of Zaragoza, so not only was he full of information about Aragón and Cariñena, but he also had a deeply rooted connection to the cuisine and wines of the region. During dinner, he discussed just how much the Spanish Civil War debilitated the wine industry in Spain—and especially in Aragón. Many vineyards were abandoned at this time; unfortunately, the hillside vineyards, which tend to produce the most complex wines, were the first to be deserted. The people of Cariñena worked hard to resurrect these vineyards starting in the 1970s, strategically forming cooperatives to fund and sustain them. In the 1990s and 2000s, winery co-ops (still owned by a group of shareholders today) began investing in equipment and cataloging parcels of vineyard sites. After just a few days with our various hosts, it was easy to feel the strong sense of pride they had for their homeland, its vineyards, and what they’re doing to better it. The people are much like the wines they make: full of quality and potential without being full of themselves. It’s that genuine nature and that same honesty you can pick up in the wines. I’m not sure if I was drunk in love—or just a little drunk—but I was starting to get it… 

We finished our trip in Madrid, ending with dinner at hotspot Hermanos García de la Navarra and a bottle of 1975 Rioja Bordón—which our sommelier expertly opened with vintage Port tongs. Our nightcap was massive gin and tonics at Terraza Cibeles, a rooftop bar overlooking the city of Madrid. It was a truly perfect end to a memorable week where I came to really understand the Cariñena region. While I wholly feel that these wines are worth sharing on their own merit, I also discovered that much of wine is about the stories and people behind it, and I’m looking forward to sharing those with my guests, too. Wine has brought civilizations together for thousands of years, and now it has brought me to Cariñena, Spain. I couldn’t be more grateful for that.


Jeremy Campbell

My own conclusion at the end of this trip is that one of Cariñena’s big strengths is also a weakness: For now, they make a good quantity of wine in a modern style at very low prices. But I think they have potential to further differentiate themselves. Some of what I tasted before it was bottled was fantastic. The quality of the fruit they can come up with (particularly the older-vine Garnacha from higher elevations we sampled) is really good: rich and dark without being jammy, balanced in alcohol, herbaceous and spicy. There’s a wonderful vein of rocky minerality on the mid-palate followed by enough grape tannin to create a solid structure around which everything can come together (less oak could definitely be used, however, to preserve the purity of fruit).

As for the Cariñena grape itself, this seems like a marketing no-brainer, given that there’s almost no other single-variety examples coming from anywhere else in the world. While this grape, which is most often used as blending agent to add acidity, did have a lot of acidity, that high acid is exactly what kept me coming back for more. Up against the ripe black fruit flavors and streak of savory dried herbs with iron at the core, that acid was like a cold glass of lemonade on a summer day—so refreshing and quaffable.

By building on their great foundation in the vineyards, I have no doubt we’ll be seeing more exciting stuff reaching us from this blossoming DO.

Chris Tanghe MS

In summary, Cariñena is a region rich in history and viticulture. Arid and extremely windy, the region is also strongly influenced by altitude, and diurnal shift is a prominent feature of viticulture—not to mention a necessary one, providing freshness to these overall full-throttle styles.

Traditionally, vines were trained en vaso (bush vines), and there are many vineyards that are over 80 years old. These bush vines are dry-farmed and produce amazing fruit; however, yields are much lower, and as a result most new plantings are being swapped for trellised and irrigated systems. The majority of producers are actually co-ops, but we were very impressed with the emphasis they placed on quality, and many of them have set up extremely rigorous standards for both vineyard practices and harvested fruit quality.

We visited a number of vineyards and some awesome sites, though there is still a lot of room for experimentation. Some producers are starting to plant on north-facing slopes, for example, and it seemed that a larger number of producers than we expected were striving to make wines with more balanced alcohol. It feels particularly important, to me, for our market to express our desire for these more balanced styles in order for the region to excel in this arena—the same goes with the oak treatment. The majority of the wines that rocked me were, counter-intuitively, the entry-level selections that saw neutral barrel or stainless steel. We couldn’t help but wonder: What if the best fruit was treated the same way?

My own positive impressions went beyond an interest in their financial incentives to produce high-quality fruit. I was impressed by their strong sense of community and a drive to work together to raise the bar for their collective patch of ground and the wine produced from it. There’s no question that this region can produce stunningly high quality fruit, and the value is certainly there. I’m confident that the producers will find the right balance in the cellar, and I’m looking forward to seeing Cariñena creep onto the radar of passionate wine personalities in both the US and abroad.

All photos courtesy Jorge Villacorta.