Summer Vacation(s) Ep. 1

How do wine regions work? The vines in the ground and the styles of wine growers make and our access to them aren’t arbitrary. They happen for a reason.

In the first episode of our multi-part Catalunya summer deep dive, we looked at a single grape variety that is, today, ubiquitous across the western Mediterranean and beyond: grenache a.k.a. garnatxa.

How did it get that way? Grenache was born, as far as we can tell, in Aragón, in central-eastern Spain. It only set sail because, back in the 14th century, the dukes of Barcelona and the counts of Roussillon, both Catalán-speaking territories, were united under James I of Aragón.

During that golden age for Catalán seafaring and trade, Catalán merchants walked the streets of Tunis, and Catalán mercenaries served across the Byzantine and Turkish world. (At one point in 1311, the Catalán Company sacked Athens, subsequently ruling it for seven decades. Fourteenth-century team-ups were wild!) Catalán-speaking colonies peppered the northwest coast of Sardegna; even today, an old dialect of Catalán is still spoken in Alghero.

Garnatxa’s name comes from the same root as Italian vines called vernaccia: vernacular. In other words, ordinary, local, everday, ‘of the region’. And that’s exactly what garnatxa/grenache was, before it went travelling.

Like a lot of old, well-travelled grape varieties that have had time to accrue mutation, grenache now comes in every color, as well as local variants that have acquired helpful adaptions. There are certain things that hold true: grenache loves sun, can pile on alcohol and is low in acidity, doesn’t give a ton of color despite its thick skins and can be prone to oxidation. As a fat, low-acid grape that has been used as a blending grape for all manner of Mediterranean workhorse bulk wines, it took me a long time to see its charm.

But the truth is, the longer I do this—and the more I taste truly breathtaking examples of this variety—the more attached I get to just how happy it can make people.

Questions to ask yourself while you taste:

1. Grenache is often paler than you’d expect, even in its fullest-bodied incarnations. Is there a disconnect between how these wines look and what they do once you taste them?

2. The variety is also famous for ripeness and a love of the sun. What role does alcohol, warmth, and body play in these bottles?

3. We’ll taste one grenache-dominant wine that has been blended with carignan. Can you tell what the carignan adds to the picture, and why grenache has so often been mixed with other varieties?

4. More broadly, are there any similarities that unite these three wines? Are there any surprising differences?

Class was on June 18th, 2022 (Father’s Day weekend! Grenache is great dad wine). These were the wines:

How it might look on a wine list
LÉONINE, grenache, “Carbone 14”, Argèle-sur-Mer

In one sentence
Juicy, light-touch glou glou from an early pioneer of Roussillon’s natural wine scene.

Who made it? Stéphane Morin. In another life he was a fashion photographer in Paris. In 2005, with dreams of making wine, he moved back home to the Roussillon and enrolled in a viticulture and enology program in Rivesaltes. There, he met a guy named Jean-François Nicq.

From where? Stéphane bought his 12-hectare property from a retiring farmer to the south, vines in the hills overlooking a village near the coast that had never been treated with chemicals. His cellar is above ground, but it’s covered in sod and grass to keep it cool and naturally insulated; it looks like a hobbit home!

Out of what? A single hectare (the size of a baseball field) of grenache planted in the early ’50s, certified organic and biodynamic.

Made how? 21 days of carbonic maceration (he used to do 14 days, hence ‘Carbone 14’). “Carbonic” basically entails not crushing the berries but instead keeping them whole. An anaerobic fermentation begins inside the berries (at night in a quiet cellar it sounds like Rice Krispies crackle-popping) and starts pushing alcohol and CO2, which protects the fruit from oxidation; meanwhile, their weight means some of the fruit at the bottom of the vat is getting squished, so a little juice accumulates at the bottom and starts fermenting alongside.

Unless you’re very technical and doing this in a sealed steel container and draining that juice, most carbonic is ‘semi-carbonic’. The upshot is that the intra-berry fermentation creates these very particular lifted floral and fruit aromas—it’s a way to get fresh juicy fruit without too much extraction of tannin. As a winemaking approach it’s most commonly associated with Beaujolais, but you see it a lot with winegrowers in warmer climates trying to make lighter, everyday-drinking reds too.

How it might look on a wine list
FRISACH, vernatxa gris, “Les Alifares”, Terra Alta

In one sentence
Copper-pink boundary-crossing skin contact from a young standout of his region.

Who made it? Brothers Francesc and Joan Ferré. (Frisach was their great-grandfather’s surname, and the family home still bears the name Ca Frisach). Their family were historically grape and olive farmers, but they’d always sold their fruit. In 2009, a larger buyer cancelled the purchase at the last moment, and Francesc and Joan decided to make wine from their own grapes for the first time.

From where? Terra Alta—specifically the Ebro river valley, on the border between Aragón and Tarragona. It’s a high-elevation inland plateau shielded from the coast by a mountain range, a dramatic landscape that was a favorite of Picasso’s. The region is small, and grenache in all of its colors and guises (blanc, gris, fina, peluda) dominates; 3/4 of Spain’s garnacha blanca is here. It’s also dominated by the local cooperative winery, and independent winegrowers are a rarity.

Out of what? Organically farmed vernatxa gris (aka grenache gris) from a 3-hectare vineyard called “La Serra,” planted in 1955 at 1500-ft. elevation on petrified sand dunes.

Made how? The traditional way of making wine from pink and gold grapes in this region: fermented whole cluster on the skins with foot-stomping. Locally these wines were called ‘brisat.’ This particular wine sees 30 days of maceration, so it’s basically being made exactly like a red wine. Nothing added or taken away, including sulfur. 

How it might look on a wine list
TERROIR SENSE FRONTERES, garnacha & cariñena, “Negre”, Montsant

In one sentence
Old-school Montsant from a Priorat team famous for looking for freshness, not extract.

Who made it? Dominik Huber and Tatjana Peceric, the head winemaker. (And a couple of other full-time employees.) Both are outsiders to the region; Tatjana is from Serbia, and Dominik from Bavaria. Dominik worked for iconic Priorat winery Cims de Porrera back in the late ’90s, where he met South African cult winemaker Eben Sadie; together, they founded Terroir al Limit in 2001, a winery that bucked the region’s prevailing trends (international varieties, new oak, extraction) in favor of old, indigenous vines and restraint. Fifteen years later, Tatjana and Dominik started this project just across the line in Montsant.

From where? Montsant is wrapped around Priorat like a donut; both regions are in the rugged, twisting hills and valleys in Catalunya’s south. Montsant has often been relegated to being Priorat’s little sibling in terms of pricing and attention, but it has its own diversity of sites and plantings.

Out of what? Younger vines of grenache (3/4) and carignan (1/4) on the sandy clay soils locally called ‘panal,’ purchased from an organic grower they collaborate with in the village of Capcanes.

Made how? Fermented whole cluster in steel tank, pressed after a short maceration (10 days) before they’ve quite finished fermenting. Short aging in tank and bottled young for freshness. 

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