Single-varietal Garnacha wines are common throughout D.O.P. Cariñena. Old, bush-trained Garnacha vines abound here, some more than 100 years old. One of the world’s most important production centers of this widely grown grape variety — it accounts for about a third of the vineyard here — the Cariñena production area is also widely considered to be the grape’s origin. Many of the D.O.P.’s wines are made with 100 percent Garnacha. There are also plenty of Garnacha-based blends, some featuring Cariñena along with Tempranillo, others with an international-grape touch, especially Cabernet Sauvignon and sometimes Syrah.
Fleshy, with soft tannins, moderate acidity levels, and recognizable flavors of red berries, Garnacha is a good choice for the rosado wines made throughout the appellation, as it is for juicy Joven red wines, meant for drinking soon after release. However, Garnacha is an easygoing, adaptable grape, and when aged in oak barrels or blended with more structured grapes, it will also show its affinity for age and body. When grown at higher elevations, like 500 meters to 800 meters and more where many D.O.P. Cariñena vineyards are established, it offers higher acidity and intensity. The result is wines with greater concentration and vertical structures, ones that will continue to improve during the denomination’s rigorous aging regimens.
The plant is a solid reliable presence in the vineyard, and tends to be a long-lived vine. It buds early and the grapes ripens late — though not as late as Cariñena — so it needs hot, dry environments like this appellation’s in order to thrive and give quality fruit. It also tends to be vigorous, though sandy soils can rein in that tendency in naturally. Garnacha is sensitive and can be susceptible to grape moth, powdery mildew and millerandage. It has the potential to produce high level of sugars, a winemaking problem when it comes to balancing those relatively low acidity levels. It has good drought resistance, thrives in gravelly and stony sites like Cariñena’s, and is at its best here when trained as bush vine.
To let the grape show off its famously fruity side, winemakers working Garnacha into red D.O.P. Cariñena wines often ferment in neutral vessels like stainless-steel tanks: one to two weeks for Joven, up to a month or longer for Crianza, Reserva, and Gran Reserva styles. Old-vine grapes destined for D.O.P. Cariñena’s aged styles tend to have the longest skin-contact time.
Versatile and easily matched with food, young Garnacha wines tend to be fruit-forward (cherry, raspberry and a signature strawberry) with an herbal note and a tell-tale subtle smokiness. Young D.O.P. Cariñena wine made of old-vine Garnacha is just as fruity, but darker, with notes of raspberry and blackberry jam and cinnamon. Aged Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva wines all maintain Garnacha’s easy-going attitude, but add layers of complexity and structure: look for deepening fruit flavors, dried flowers and tobacco and minty and balsamic notes.