Today Garnacha is one of the top ten most widely-planted grape varieties worldwide, but its ancient origins lie in Aragón, northeast Spain.
The Crown of Aragón transported Garnacha vines to other parts of Europe such as a Sardinia – a Spanish colony from 1479 to 1740 – where it still thrives under the name Cannonau.
On the other side of the Pyrenees, Garnacha found a home in the southern France as Grenache, spreading from Languedoc-Roussillon to Provence and the Rhône Valley.
In the eighteenth century, it was one of the first grapes to be introduced to Australia, and has since made its way to California and, most recently, China.
Rise, fall and renaissance
After phylloxera ravaged Spain’s vineyards at the end of the nineteenth century, Garnacha was widely replanted due to its fertile nature and tolerance of hot, arid conditions.
But, unable to secure its position as a fine wine, Garnacha’s rising star was eclipsed by Tempranillo, as well as international varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot.
In Rioja, Garnacha plantings fell from over 30,000ha in the 1970s to less than 5,000ha in 2020, while Tempranillo plantings nearly tripled.
EU subsidies for uprooting vineyards also impacted Spain’s old-vine Garnacha plantings. It was readily uprooted, partly due to its sensitivity to coulure problems and the bad reputation of overly ripe, alcoholic and oxidised ‘vinos agarnachados’ in the 1970s.
However, in recent years the once undervalued Garnacha grape has been experiencing a renaissance – thanks to a new wave of interest in preserving the country’s old vines and vinifying them with a more modern approach.
Spanish Garnacha benefits from hot, windy, arid conditions with well drained, low nutrient soils, and even a degree of water stress.
If unchecked by these factors, it can grow too vigorously and produce high yields, which make for poor flavour and aroma concentration.
The grapes gains better flavour intensity from impoverished, stony soils such as schist, sand, limestone and granite. Stony or pebbly soils can also absorb the sun’s heat and radiate it slowly at night to aid ripening in cooler, higher-altitude areas.
These soils could be too loose to support some vines, especially in wind-blown areas, but Garnacha can be trained low to the ground as a bush vine due its strong, upright canopy growth.
Suited to dry conditions, Garnacha prefers soils that drain well, like limestone or sand, forcing roots to search for water and encouraging low yields.
Garnacha is an early-budding, late-ripening grape that needs a continental climate with a long, hot summer to reach full phenolic ripeness.
Its long growth cycle is one of the attributes – along with drought-resistance and naturally low pH levels – that has marked Garnacha as a good option for Spanish grape growers who are facing a climate change trend towards hotter, drier conditions.
From vine to glass
Garnacha is a thin-skinned grape, dubbed ‘the Pinot Noir of the south’, which doesn’t bring a lot of tannins to the final wine. But what it lacks in tannins, it makes up for in alcohol – often reaching above 14% abv.
More tannic structure and toast notes can supplied by oak – although Garnacha can tend towards oxidation and it requires careful handling to avoid overpowering its primary aromas.
For this reason some winemakers vinfiy Garnacha at lower temperatures and use whole-bunch fermentation to enhance ripe red fruit flavours.
When it comes to ageing, most Garnacha is better suited to large, used oak barrels (foudres) or neutral containers like concrete eggs to protect its fruit expression and terroir-driven flavours.
Regions and styles to know
Garnacha is Spain’s third most widely-planted red variety after Tempranillo and Bobal, accounting for around 6.4% of the country’s vines (OIV 2017). Its main regions are concentrated in the northwest, running parallel to the Ebro river from Rioja to Catalonia.
Sierra de Gredos is a notable exception, located in the mountains west of Madrid in central Spain and covering the appellations of Vinos de Madrid, Vino de la Tierra de Castilla y Léon and Méntrida. Here, ambitious winemakers are restoring Gredos’ old Garnacha vineyards on slate-granite slopes, up to 1,200m above sea level.
In its birthplace, Aragón, Garnacha vines are well adapted to its windy, hot and arid conditions, and it is found across many of the DOs at a range of elevations.
DO Campo de Borja, in the heart of Aragón, is the self-proclaimed ‘Empire of Garnacha’, producing fleshy single-varietal wines with some minerality from high-altitude areas like Tabuenca.
DO Cariñena claims to have more old bush vines than any other appellation, while DO Calatayud has its own Superior classification for wines made from at least 85% old-vine Garnacha (over 50 years old).
Garnacha, or Garnatxa Negra, crops up in blends and varietal wines all over Catalonia, from DO Empordà in the north to the southern limits of DO Terra Alta.
Priorat DOCa brought Spanish Garnacha back to the global stage as a premium wine in the 1990s, producing blends with Cariñena and French varieties. Garnacha thrives in its vertiginous vineyards with low rainfall (less than 500mm annually) and deep red schist soils, called llicorella.
Garnacha accounts for less than 10% of Rioja DOCa plantings, versus Tempranillo’s 84% share. It plays a supporting role in Tempranillo-led red blends, contributing alcohol, body and aromatics.
However, some producers have highlighted a need to redress the balance by restoring Garnacha plantings, in order to adapt to climate change and improve biodiversity.
Cooler parts of Rioja Oriental, such as Sierra de Yerga and Tudelilla, are primed for quality Garnacha production – boasting old vines, altitudes of up to 750m, just 400mm rainfall annually and poor alluvial-clay soils.
To the west, in Rioja Alta’s Alto Najerilla Valley there are pockets of old-vine Garnacha. Top sites here include the north-facing, rocky foothills of the Sierra de la Demanda, which are capable of producing well-defined, juicy wines.
Both Rioja and nearby Navarra, favour Garnacha for rosado, or rosé wines, due to its low tannins, medium alcohol and fresh red fruit notes. Fruit for these wines can be picked earlier to guarantee high acidity and lower sugar levels.
Spanish Wine Academy from Ramon Bilbao
A note from our sponsor
When Ramón Bilbao purchased a 90ha plot of vineyards on the Sierra de Yerga slope in Rioja Oriental, chief winemaker Rodolfo Bastida was looking to make a red wine from the Garnacha grapes growing there. But the first release was actually a rosé, which is affectionately known as the ‘jewel’ wine at Ramón Bilbao HQ. Lalomba Finca La Linde is a blend of 90% Garnacha and 10% Viura from 5ha in the Sierra de Yerga, produced with maximum attention to detail at every stage of the winemaking process.
Since that release Ramón Bilbao has also recovered 21 additional hectares of Garnacha. Planted at 700m on stony, clay-limestone soils, the surrounding Mediterranean forest shelters the vines on the Sierra de Yerga slope from prevailing winds. The altitude and the poor soils, combined with the windy conditions, express the greatness of Garnacha, according to Bastida.
The other Garnacha in the Ramón Bilbao portfolio is Viñedos de Altura. Finding grapes with freshness and elegance is central to the production of this red. It is a wine that blends Rioja’s main red grape varieties – 50% Tempranillo and 50% Garnacha – sourced from vineyards at 700m above sea level, but at opposite ends of the region.
‘For the Tempranillo, I turn to Ábalos on the slopes of the Sierra Cantabria in Rioja Alta; while the Garnacha is grown in Tudelilla in Rioja Oriental, where you can find some of the oldest vines in the region,’ explains Bastida.
‘On paper, these are two very different landscapes, in very different lands, but with a shared altitude. This means they are often harvested at the same time and, most importantly, it means that the grapes have the red fruit, elegance and freshness that I’m looking for.’
Ramón Bilbao will be releasing a 100% Garnacha wine from the slopes of Monte Yerga, in Rioja Oriental, later this year.