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May 06, 2021

Rediscovering Spain’s glorious Garnachas, and its old vine heritage

Norrel Robertson MW shares his insight on the legacy of Garnacha in Spain

The term old vine carries a certain amount of romanticism, fantasy, alongside an inherent inability to be defined. As discussed in a piece written for Vila Viniteca 7 years ago, it is a bit like trying to define the age of a woman or a man. 

To truly appreciate Garnacha and its old vine heritage we have to consider the historic context of the variety and the evolution in the vineyard from phylloxera onwards. What is left of these old vineyards? How do we hang onto these jewels and learn lessons going forward? Remember, historically, Spain held over 170,000 hectares of Garnacha. This figure now represents only 60,000.

Part of the glory of Garnacha is its plasticity – the ability to adapt to different microclimates, soil and environmental changes. What once was thought of as a crude, workhorse variety in Spain, used to bolster wines lacking in body and alcohol, now displays myriad styles across Spain’s regions as focus has moved to well-defined sites and single vineyard wines. Espectacle, from century-old limestone terraced vineyards at altitude, high in the Montsant, is possibly one of the finest examples of Spanish Garnachas. Similarly, we can look to the rediscovery of Gredos Garnacha. Again, it is based on old vineyards and altitude, but this time with a continental focus. A base of decomposed granite also contributes to a completely different expression of the variety.

Aragon, sometimes wrongly bundled up into one style, also has a startling old vine legacy and diversity. Defined by the Sistema Ibérico, altitude and continentality, the province of Zaragoza is commonly regarded as the cradle of Garnacha. Somontano in Huesca also lays claim to a fresher style defined by proximity to the Pyrenees. Old, single vineyard-based wines are also starting to appear and will be the pinnacle of expression in Aragón.

San Martín de Unx in Navarra remains a pocket of hidden gems of mountain vineyards resurrected by wineries such as Lupier where the focus is on a fresher Atlantic style of wine and plantings on a wide variety of soils. In Rioja, where only 0.6% of the vineyard area is over 90 years of age, there are defenders of the cause, such as Juan Carlos Sancha from Ad Libitum in Baños del Rio. Tobía have also maintained many century-old vineyards such as Peña El Gato, which like many of the old vine examples from Navarra exhibit more than a touch of mountain freshness. Up until 1973 Garnacha commanded 39% of DOCa Rioja (JC Sancha). Today we are down to under 10%.

DOCa Rioja Ppal

Whilst older DOs, such as Rioja, can provide fairly accurate historical data on the age and evolution of Garnacha vineyards, the rest of Spain does not have the same access to vineyard records as other producing countries. The vineyard register started only in the 1970s and many vineyards are incorrectly dated. Indeed, many old Garnacha vineyards planted directly after phylloxera often have a sprinkling of 5 to 10% of other varieties. The old-timers were already thinking about improved pollenisation and the planting of other varieties to match slope and soil differences within parcels.

With an industry now more focussed on the longevity of vineyards, and the ability of those vineyards to keep on giving quality late into life, what factors are at play? Almost certainly most of the Garnacha mentioned above was planted on Rupestris du Lot rootstock – one of the first available after phylloxera. It puts down a deep root system, has good affinity with the plant above, copes well with drought and tends to produce looser, lighter bunches with a tendency towards poorer fruit set. There is no doubt that it was gradually disregarded due to this last point, but it is now making a resurgence as quality-focused growers are going back to using it, striving for more balance in the vineyard.

All these vineyards would originally have been field grafted, with rootstock planted first then grafted with massal selection. It is also entirely possible that field grafting has provided better vine establishment and longevity. Many producers are returning to field grafting in Spain.

Whilst Garnacha has diminished in vineyard area, some of the reasons behind the survival of older vineyards should indeed dictate to some degree how we plant and maintain new vineyards so that we can maintain heritage and legacy. 

Gran Orden de Caballeros del Vino: Norrel Robertson MW

NORREL ROBERTSON Master of Wine (2000) Gran Orden de Caballeros del Vino (2020) is vineyard owner and producer of El Escoces Volante SL which owns 35 hectares of Old Vine Garnacha around the village of Villarroya de la Sierra, Aragón. Before moving to Spain in 2003 he studied Post Graduate Viticulture & Oenology at Lincoln University in NZ and worked in numerous cellars across the world from the mid 1990s onwards. He also consults in various regions of Spain, Chile and South Africa.

View the Garnacha Masterclass, presented by Norrel Robertson MW as part of the 2021 Wines from Spain Annual Tasting programme:  

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