Called Mazuelo in most of Spain, the Cariñena grape is known by its traditional name throughout D.O.P. Cariñena, as Carignan in France, as Carignano in Italy, and is thought to be native to this part of the Ebro River valley. It has dozens of synonyms, which means it’s likely an ancient variety, spread by trade and military missions in the Mediterranean region over centuries. While there are far less plantings of it in D.O.P. Cariñena today, for centuries it was the denomination’s most important grape.
High in acid, tannins, and color, Cariñena shares top billing with softer, fruitier Garnacha when it comes to the D.O.P.’s history and traditions, but is harder to work and today accounts for much less of the vineyard area. It is a grapevine of extremes: late to bud, very late to ripen, and is dependent on very warm climates. Cariñena is a vigorous producer, with high yields that can reach 200 hl/ha unless growers intervene. Its fruit is also extremely sensitive to diseases like powdery mildew and downy mildew during its long ripening time and is also hard to harvest mechanically. Grape bunches are attached tightly to the vine and are best removed by hand.
But winemakers here have always found Cariñena worth the effort for one very important reason: when this difficult grape is tamed, the wines are an extraordinary and balanced mix of elegant acidity; concentrated plum, cherries and spice; big, food-friendly tannins and body. With careful growing and winemaking, Cariñena grown in the D.O.P. results in vibrant wines that are clearly from this hot, high elevation land. The ways to successfully tame Cariñena have been time-tested over centuries in this area. The easiest technique is to use it as a blending grape matched with more immediately fine varieties: It is often a component of Garnacha-Tempranillo-Cariñena D.O.P. Cariñena red wines made for the denomination’s various aged styles. Carbonic maceration can heighten a sense of fruitiness in the final wine, a technique that works especially well for fresh, juicy Joven styles, which are never aged in oak and are meant for drinking young. Early choices in the vineyard are important too, and the grape puts its best foot forward when it come from bush-trained vines, which are once again valued in this area. These plants with decades, and sometimes more than a century of age, yield grapes that are concentrated and balanced with a sense of elegance all their own.
In the cellar, careful temperature and extraction choices include cold maceration before fermentation begins, and fermentation on the grape skins for two to three weeks. Both methods work to gently extract flavors that will match the unavoidable tannins and acidity. With aging, which by D.O.P. law must be in barrels with a maximum capacity of 330 liters (87,18 gallons) and made of American or French oak, the wines take on greater complexity. Crianza’s stewed plum and berries give way to Reserva’s dried fruit and emerging spices with softened texture. Gran Reserva offers the most complexity and refinement: fruit flavors turn to earthy and spicy leather and tobacco with hints of dried fruit from the wine’s younger years, and a plush body.
While there is more Garnacha grown in the DO Cariñena now, single-varietal Cariñena-grape wines account for about five percent of the DO’s wines.