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Is Garnacha the new star in Rioja?

Is Garnacha the new star in Rioja?

Garnacha, also known as Grenache in other parts of the world, is a grape variety that has been grown in Rioja for centuries. It is one of the five primary red grape varieties in the region, often found alongside Tempranillo, Mazuelo, and Graciano in Rioja’s signature red blends. 

For a long time, Garnacha was the most widely planted grape in Rioja and, as recently as 1973, it accounted for nearly 40% of vineyard land. However, starting in the 1970s, growers started to move away from it due to its propensity for poor fruit set and lower yields, replanting entire vineyards with the more reliable and versatile Tempranillo. Today, it represents only 7% of plantings.

As a result, Garnacha has often been overlooked, perceived as an unfashionable, utilitarian grape that produces bold, rustic, high alcohol wines, more appropriate in a supporting role to enhance the body and sweet red fruit flavors in blends or give backbone to local rosés. 

Today, Garnacha is enjoying a revival and is reclaiming its status as a premium variety. As consumer preferences shift toward fresher, lighter-bodied red wines, local growers and producers are discovering its potential for producing refined, terroir-driven wines. Many of them are sourced from specific plots of land, from old – sometimes centenarian – vines, using traditional viticultural practices, and minimal intervention in the winery.

“Garnacha is the most successful of the secondary red varieties, in terms of both the quality of the wines and their reception by wine drinkers,” asserts wine critic Tim Atkin, MW, in his annual Rioja Report. 

The Resurgence of Garnacha

Photo courtesy of Alberto Martinez-Interiano

In the hands of skilled winemakers, Garnacha can produce complex yet elegant wines with intense red fruit flavors balanced by delicate notes of Mediterranean herbs and spices.

Two factors contributing to the renewed focus on Garnacha are the grape’s adaptability and versatility. The grape thrives in a wide range of climates, elevations, and soil types, making it a popular choice for growers. It is particularly resistant to drought and well-suited to hot, dry climates. Additionally, its sturdy wood provides protection against severe winds and multiple vine trunk diseases. 

“Garnacha can adapt to extreme conditions,” explains noted viticulturist and University of Rioja professor Juan Carlos Sancha. “In very hot vintages like 2022, Tempranillo can stop ripening. Garnacha, on the other hand, usually continues its normal ripening cycle even in the toughest conditions.” 

Garnacha can also produce wines in a variety of styles – from light and fruity rosés to full-bodied, structured reds – depending on vineyard location, viticulture, and winemaking practices. “Garnacha is able to translate terroir – where it’s grown, the soils, the climate – even better than Tempranillo,” confirms David Bastida, head winemaker at Ortega Ezquerro. 

New Viticultural Practices 

Old Garnacha Vines. Photo courtesy of Alberto Martinez-Interiano.

Like many other wine regions, Rioja is experiencing increasingly warm and dry vintages. One of the challenges in growing Garnacha is its propensity for accumulating high sugar levels, which can result in high alcohol, overripe wines lacking in freshness. With lower yields and careful vineyard management, however, producers are addressing these challenges and making fresh, balanced wines that showcase the full character of the grape.

Garnacha’s resilience and ability to thrive in a variety of climates also make it well-suited for sustainable viticulture. Local growers are embracing sustainable and organic farming, implementing practices such as the use of cover crops, compost, and reduced tillage to improve the structure and fertility of the soils. 

David Sampedro from Bodegas Bhilar, for instance, grows seventeen hectares of organically certified vineyards with the help of four horses to plow and till their poor, rocky soils on the foothills of the Cantabrian mountains.

Rioja also enjoys a wealth of old Grenache bush vines – many of them more than 50 years old – which are often situated in the most highly regarded sites of the appellation. These vines have the benefit of developing deep root systems that ensure balanced nutrition and water intake. Old vines also tend to produce smaller yields, and the grapes that they do produce are, as a result, often of higher quality and have more nuanced, concentrated flavors.

Low Intervention Winemaking 

 Photo courtesy of Bodegas Altun

Rioja winemakers are also bringing innovation to the winery to adapt to these changing conditions. Several producers are experimenting with new approaches like earlier harvest dates, cooler fermentation temperatures, the use of whole clusters, and aging in alternative vessels such as large, used oak barrels, clay amphorae, and concrete tanks.

To preserve Garnacha’s primary flavors, winemakers must handle it with care. This includes fermenting at lower temperatures and using whole bunches to provide an aromatic lift and enhance red fruit intensity. “Garnacha is a grape that needs to be treated with a white glove in the winery,” says Jose Gil, a member of the new generation of grower-winemakers in Rioja Alta. 

Other producers are bypassing the use of traditional 225-liter barrels in favor of different types of vessels that don’t rely on classic oak flavors that many associate with Rioja, instead allowing a purity of fruit to emerge. “When aged in cement or large, neutral oak, we get a subtler, more complex expression of Garnacha,” explains Gil.

Examples include Arizcuren’s Sologarnacha Ánfora, a bright, floral Garnacha sourced from two parcels in the Yerga mountains, aged in clay amphorae for five months. Juan Carlos Sancha’s Peña El Gato Granito is a zesty, mineral-driven, savory wine from 105-year-old vines, which is aged in granite containers. Alegre Valganon also makes a juicy, white pepper-laced Garnacha fermented with 60% stems and aged in used, 500L French oak barrels for 19 months.

Geographic Diversity 

Rioja Alta. Photo courtesy of Rioja Academy.

Garnacha in Rioja can have different expressions depending on where it is grown, ranging from elegant, delicate styles in the cool, high altitudes of Rioja Oriental, to more concentrated styles from the Alto Najerilla Valley in Rioja Alta. 

Rioja Oriental has historically been the heartland of Garnacha, where the grape enjoys the warmer, Mediterranean-influenced climate which virtually guarantees full ripeness, even in challenging vintages. Garnacha from this area has traditionally gone into blends, but lately there’s been an increase in bottlings of quality Garnacha from the higher elevations around Mount Yerga, like Ortega Ezquerro’s OE Garnacha and Costumbres Tinto from Vinos en Voz Baja.

In the past, Garnacha from the Najerilla Valley in Rioja Alta was destined to make claretes, traditional-style rosés made from red and white grapes. And, despite initiatives to uproot old Garnacha vines and replant with Tempranillo, it still has one of the highest concentrations of old vineyards in Rioja.

Today, this sub-area – one of the coldest in the denomination — is a hub for structured and concentrated wines with rich red and black fruits and linear acidity.

The Arrival of Varietal Garnacha

Photos courtesy of Gomez Cruzado, Bodegas Altun, and Paco Garcia

Red Rioja has long been known as a blend of multiple grape varieties. However, as demand for terroir-driven wines continues to grow, many producers are focusing on producing varietal Garnacha wines sourced from specific vineyards (Viñedos Singulares) or villages (Vinos de Municipio) that showcase the region’s varied terroirs. 

Some excellent examples of this new, delicate style of varietal Garnacha include Paco Garcia’s Cantamilano, a lively, Atlantic-style 100% Garnacha fermented with whole berries; Bodegas Altun’s La Cicatera, a perfumed, red-fruit-forward wine grown on chalky soils at 500 meters elevation; and Gomez Cruzado’s Pancrudo, an elegant Garnacha from old bush vines in the Alto Najerilla, with firm tannins and intense red plum and cherry flavors.

A Bright Outlook

Rioja Harvest. Photo courtesy of Rioja Academy.

Garnacha is making some of the most exciting wines in Rioja today. As more winemakers turn their attention to this underappreciated grape variety, we can anticipate seeing more high-quality wines coming out of Rioja in the years ahead.

While it may not be as dominant as it once was, it will certainly play a vital role for the foreseeable future, and continue to be a key part of the region’s rich and diverse winemaking heritage. With its versatility and potential for producing expressive, terroir-driven wines, Garnacha from Rioja is worth a try for wine lovers and enthusiasts alike.