Garnacha Masterclass conducted by Norrel Robertson MW
Since writing The wines of Roussillon, I have become much more aware of the qualities of Grenache, or rather Garnacha as a grape variety, so to continue the exploration further, south of the border, I took the opportunity to listen to Norrel Robertson presenting a Masterclass on Garnacha, to give its Spanish name.
Norrel has been making wine in Spain from old Garnacha for the last 18 years, after studying wine-making at Lincoln College in New Zealand. And so he is well placed to talk with enthusiasm about the character of Garnacha. It is a grape variety that originated in Spain and has a very positive story in Spain. It is planted all over the country, and responds well to prevailing drought conditions and does not suffer from disease pressure.
It is low in tannin, colour and anthocyanins. It has a long growing cycle, with an earlier budbreak than Tempranillo, but ripens later. Frost can be a problem and in some parts of Spain you can get frost as late as 10thMay. It is very sensitive to yields, with much greater concentration of flavour obtained from low yields. Quality is also affected by vine age. It is rare to find a Garnacha at under 13.5°; you need that level of alcohol to obtain ripe flavours. Smaller berries make for more concentration and sunlight is important with respect to aroma, so that with too much sunlight, the flavours are too heavy. You also need just the right amount of leaf cover; too much and there can be a problem with botrytis. Garnacha prefers bush vines.
Plantings of Garnacha have declined in Spain; notably in Rioja. In 1973, it accounted for 40% of the vineyards of the Rioja, but since then Tempranillo has soared in importance so that Garnacha now only represents 9% of the vineyards. At the same time, the diversity of grape varieties has plummeted, from 44 in 1912 to just 7 in 2000.
Garnacha has travelled, all round the Mediterranean. It went from Catalonia to Sardinia, on to Greece and as far as Israel, from Catalonia, Roussillon, the Languedoc, Sardinia.
An interesting selection of wines followed the introduction:
2019 Garnacha Blanca, or Garnatxa Blanca, Herencia Altés from the DO of Terra Alta near Priorat in Catalonia. Garnacha Blanca is becoming more popular, and Norrel also observed that Grenache Gris is a variety to watch, with some serious potential.
Herencias Altés is a new winery, a husband and wife team. The wine was whole bunch pressed and the flavours were delicate and rounded, with elegant fruity herbal notes, with satisfying weight and texture and a creamy smooth finish. An excellent start to the tasting. 13.5°
2018 Navaherreros Garnacha de Bernabeleva, Bodegas Bernabeleva, Viños de Madrid 14°
From vines between 40 and 80 years old. Grown on decomposed granite, which makes for less colour in the wine. A continental climate with vines at some altitude.
Very light colour, with fragrant cherry fruit on the nose. A light palate with fresh fruit and a little spice. An appealing cherry kernel note and a little weight on the finish.
2018 Contino CUNE Garnacha 14.5°
From the Rioja Alavesa. A deep young colour. Ripe berry fruit, and a rounded mouthful of flavour. Quite smooth, with ripe fruit and a depth of flavour. The oak is very well integrated so that it does not dominate the flavour. French oak barrels of varying sizes were used for the élevage and then the wine was finished with a period in cement vats.
Norrel observed that 2018 is an interesting vintage. It is rare to get Garnacha under 13.5° and a handful of people are championing Garnacha in Rioja, an instance of Rioja diversifying and moving away from the hierarchy of crianza, riserva etc. towards single vineyards, as in Burgundy.
2018 La Muta Old Vine Garnacha. El Escoces Volante
This is Norrel's own wine., From the inland DO of Calatayud in Aragon, and an area which benefits from good diurnal differences. No oak, but epoxy lined cement vats, with some pigeage.
Deep colour. Dark plummy fruit. Quite concentrated and ripe, with a firm streak of tannin, and a slightly rustic note on the finish, but none the worse for that.
2017 El Terroir, Domaines Lupier, Navarra
Navarra is a DO that was originally based on Garnacha, but as in Rioja, the Garnacha has declined. The soil is limestone, with 27 different plots in this estate, which is farmed biodynamically. The weather is influenced by the Atlantic. The wine spent 12-14 months in 500-1500 litres oak, of which 7 – 8 % was new wood.
Deep colour with a ripe nose redolent of black cherries. Quite a smooth palate, with ripe cherry fruit, with a tannin edge. The oak is well integrated with satisfying depth of flavour. A wine that will age. Norrel enthused about the longevity of Garnacha in Spain and the fact that it does need the back up of other varieties.
2016 Secastilla Old Vine Garnacha, Viñas del Vero.
They are the principal producer of Somontano in the foothills of the Pyrenees where Garnacha is the main indigenous variety, but it has been replaced extensively by international varieties. Crushed and destemmed in the vineyard in small stainless-steel containers, which are then taken to the winery. A cold soak and ageing in 500 litre oak
Deep colour. Quite a firm solid oak nose, with a dense palate, with ripe brambly fruit. Firm and oaky, with some acidity. The oak was the most apparent on this wine, but maybe it will also have the most ageing potential.
Altogether a nicely horizon broadening tasting, as I have to admit that my knowledge of Spanish wine in general, and Spanish Garnacha in particular is fairly limited.
I used to own a house overlooking Mirepoix and it was nearby, at the golf club in Carcassonne that I came across Roger Piquet of Chateau Gourgazaud, around 1990. He used to trundle around in a buggy and play a few shots. They stocked his red wine in the clubhouse, which was part of the fancy hotel there. Roger was a kindly fellow and suggested I visit the chateau. I did and bought some wine which I came to love.
I tried to find some Gourgazaud in England but failed. Then I came across it in Toronto, in the Ontario state liquor stores. So I've drunk it over the years.
Roger died and I gather his business was taken over by his daughters. Now, I feel that the wines are not what they were. Is that heretical?