On a warm June night a few weeks ago I got together with a group of sommeliers and winemakers at Casa Pedro restaurant in Zaragoza, the picturesque food and wine capital of the the province of Aragon and, most importantly for our purposes, of the wine region (or D.O.) of Cariñena. Our host was Raul Igual, twice named the best sommelier in Spain, a charming fellow who, in addition to his humbly voiced expertise, is an incredibly nice guy.
Raul had pulled together the top wines from three different wine groups for us to taste. I say "wine groups" because each of the three companies is more akin to a co-op than a single winery of the sort that comes to mind in Napa or Bordeaux. Cariñena has hundreds of small growers who, without banding together, could never have an impact on the market.
Cariñena is a bit tricky to discuss at first because it is the name of a small town, the name of the wine region and the name of the grape that the French and Americans call carignan and the Italians call carignano. The name, like the grape, comes from this region of Spain though, so it is a little ironic that it is not the best known grape of the region.
Raul explained that, "cariñena is a variety that is difficult to cultivate and has high acidity so it fell out of favor as easy drinking wines became popular." Many of the vineyards were torn up and replaced by other varieties with wider acceptance, especially garnacha (called grenache in France and most other countries) and tempranillo. Garnacha was first written about in Aragon in the 17th century and is a grape that does astonishingly well in Cariñena's tough soil, but today, with improved technology and winemaking skill, cariñena, the grape and the region, are making a comeback.
By the time we met for dinner, our group had already spent two days traveling around the region and were suitably amazed by the lay of the land - winemakers in Cariñena have adopted the slogan "Wines Crafted in Stone," and you can certainly see why. The vines, often grown as bush vines, or "head pruned," look like phalanxes of bark-skinned soldiers stretched out across the landscape. Juxtaposed against the stony soil and iron-rich red earth, it's an inspiring and somewhat arid sight.
There is considerable, albeit austere, beauty here that absolutely captivated me - there is a gallery of photos from Cariñena on this site and many of my tasting notes from the trip as well will be added in the days ahead.
But back to Raul and his intriguing take on his home region.
Igual points out that Cariñena, located midway between Barcelona and Madrid, has a hot climate with no Mediterranean influence. What it does have is altitude - the vineyards range from 300 meters to over 800 meters in Cariñena’s rolling countryside, so it can be cooler than on the plain, though the sun is also stronger. There are flat areas and areas with dramatic slopes, but the soil is uniformly poor, and here is where economics come in. The Spanish Civil War took a heavy toll on the region and it still shows some of that effect in the sparse population of the widely scattered towns outside of the regional center of Zaragoza. After the war people were poor and struggling and that is when the vineyards decayed.The hillsides, generally preferred by winemakers, were harder to work and produced less quantity so though they were the highest quality they were first to be pulled out under the fascist Franco regime. "By the 1970s, there was a push to revisit vineyards in general," says Igual. "The co-ops gave growers an incentive to care for their vineyards by providing a market for their grapes and paying for quality." Up until then, the impression and reputation of Cariñena in Spain was fairly low but thanks to a number of factors (including encouragement from the EU, growing international interest in wine, the search for interesting wines at a low price), the 1990s saw a growth in both the market abroad and resources expended at home. Garnacha powered the recuperation and it is only now that cariñena is coming back as well.
This is exciting to me, because you have one grape with guaranteed international interest and another grape with a sense of mystery. Chateauneuf-du-Pape in the Southern Rhône and Priorat in Northern Spain have both fueled an appetite for grenache, and the way they make it in Cariñena, carignane is a sexy grape. I was frequently torn during tastings and struggled to pick a favorite when having grenache and cariñena from the same producer.
Igual did not make the task any easier - he came up with some stunning food pairings with the two brothers who helm Casa Pedro. Dinner started out with tuna marinated in rice vinegar and served with dollops of ajoblanco, a cold soup made with bread, almonds, garlic and olive oil. At Casa Pedro, chefs Luis and Javier added a bit of apple to the ajoblanco to round it out and give it just a hint of sweetness to balance the garlic. It was an interesting juxtaposition of flavors that balanced surprisingly well with youthful cariñena and garnacha. If you think red wine has no place with tuna, here’s why this worked: it’s the tannins in reds that often works against ingredients like raw or marinated fish, but salt moderates tannins (salt actually counteracts bitterness), and with these wines that had only a few months barrel aging, the tannins were quite light, especially in the naturally moderately tannic garnacha.
With the second course, Raul ventured the view that the best pairing of all for a young garnacha is bacalao (salt cod) fritters with a black garlic aioli. This youthful style of garnacha was given an exemplary showcase in Paniza Alto Cinco 2011 (Paniza is the name of both a small town and a high quality co-op). The wine is dense ruby in color but not at all heavily extracted. Smooth and soft, it has both a bouquet and flavor of cherry with a bit of spicy oak underneath. That spiciness is accentuated with the truffle aromas in the aioli and the salty tang of the buñuelos - a really heavenly match of velvet richness and rustic simplicity. Alto Cinco is made in partnership with the U.S. based Purple Wine Company, so it's guaranteed good distribution at least in the United States.
The Alto Cinco style of garnacha with only a few months of barrel aging hews to the conventional wisdom in Cariñena is that garnacha does not improve with barrel aging - the locals like the youthful freshness of the wine. That is certainly one style, but I disagree it’s the only one. I had some great examples of both garnacha and cariñena with barrel aging, most notably the fabulous Anayón made by the cooperative Grandes Vinos y Viñedos. Chief winemaker Marcelo Morales, a Chilean who is making amazing wines in Spain, was at the dinner as well. He said his colleagues thought it was a great risk for him to use a lot of new oak in his garnacha and cariñena. Igual agreed but said he thought the very best quality garnacha comes from higher elevations, where it gets more tannin and acidity that help it stand up to new oak. You can certainly taste the new wood but it’s not overpowering and the fruit shines through.
The same is true of the Anayón cariñena where the balance of acidity and fruit blossoms with a rustic character supported by the oak. There is a beguiling violet hue to the intensely dark and bright black cherry color. On the nose, there is a firm foundation of cedar and American oak layered with vanilla and black cherry that carries through on the long finish. This is one of those wines that just can't lose - appealing in its youth, it's still clearly built to age. Raul thinks this is one of the region's highest expressions of color and aroma, and the food pairing didn’t hurt - stewed guinea fowl with black trumpet mushrooms and vegetables with a heady sauce redolent of black truffles.
For the main course of lamb shank with heady fresh herbs and a slightly sweet onion sauce (and honestly, I don't know how we ate all this food) Raul chose to show off Paniza Grand Reserva 2007. Here, the focus was clearly on how successful the region is with unique blends. Mostly cabernet sauvignon with 30% tempranillo and just 10% garnacha, the wine had big flavors, but the high level of oak subdued the fruit and took away some of its appeal for my taste.
I went back to the Anayón and a bit of the guinea fowl I'd hoarded. Seeing my look of ecstasy as the perfume of truffles intertwined with the bouquet of the wine, Raul told me that 40% of the world’s black truffles are produced in Spain (take that, Périgord!), and 30% of that amount is from the small town of Teruel where the best pata negra, the black footed pig, is also produced. Not incidentally, Raul's own restaurant is located in Teruel as well. Seriously, Spain’s best jamón, truffles and dazzling red wine all produced within an hour’s drive? I can’t wait to go back, and I’m taking an extra suitcase with me.