The vineyards of Cariñena lie in northwest Spain, rooted in the dry rocky soils that cover a 32-square-mile plain on the south side of the Ebro River valley, halfway between coastal Barcelona and dry, inland Madrid, in the autonomous community of Aragon which was once a medieval kingdom.
Cariñena was established as a Denominación de Origen (DO) in 1932. It is one of Europe’s oldest official winemaking zones and home to some of the world’s oldest Garnacha and Cariñena, its two native red wine grapes. Vines that are 40 or 50 years old are common, and many are well over a century old. The area’s traditionally powerful, structured wines are known locally as el vino de las piedras, or the wine of the stones.
Cooperatives have been the dominant force, driving both the quantity of wine made and the styles that represent the area. With Garnacha’s recent rise in reputation and popularity, after decades of bulk wine production both co-ops and small estates have been able to move quickly to make quality wines that reflect the area’s traditional balance of strength and elegance. Today’s Cariñena winemakers are focused on attentive vineyard practices and careful oak regimens and produce both wines built for age and fresh wines that show off the red-fruit side of its traditional red grapes. Macabeo/Viura and Garnacha Blanca are the leading Spanish white grapes. International varieties include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Chardonnay.
The land varies from 400 meters above sea level, where vines grow on plains swept by the dry Ciezo wind for robust fruity wines, to over 800 meters above sea level on the slopes of the rugged Sistema Ibérico mountain range, for more lifted, high-toned expressions. An important feature of the Ebro Valley, the Cierzo blows across Cariñena at more than 60 miles per hour, the result of an anticyclone in the Bay of Biscay to Aragon’s northwest hitting a low-pressure area in the Mediterranean Sea to its southeast, and has done so since ancient times, when Cato the Elder called it “a wind that fills your mouth and tumbles waggons and armed men.” Today the wind continues to help winegrowers, offering vines relief from Cariñena summer’s temperatures, which push 90 degrees Fahrenheit/32 Celsius, and keeping summertime humidity at around 50 percent.
Most of Cariñena’s 3,000-plus inhabitants work in the local wine industry, and most of the 1,500 growers work with local cooperative wineries. The Romans made wine here first (though some say the Phoenicians, who first planted Jerez, arrived with their vines before them) beginning in the 5th century BC when the empire’s soldiers pressed on toward the Atlantic Ocean, bringing their love of wine and building the village of Carae. In 1415, Aragon’s King Ferdinand I proclaimed Cariñena’s wines his top choice over all Europe’s wines. Three centuries later, Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire agreed, describing Cariñena’s wines as “lovely.”
In the 1930s, the Spanish Civil War led to the abandonment and destruction of vineyards and wineries alike. Along with areas like Catalonia and Valencia, Aragon was hit especially hard. The final blow came with WWII, which put an end to Spanish wines’ access to European markets. But in the 1970s came the first stirrings of the revitalization we see today: bottling began, production and quality started to improve. With Spain’s entry into the European Union in 1988, outside markets were once again available, setting Cariñena’s revival into full motion. Today, restoration efforts are focused on the stock of old vines in previously deserted vineyards. Younger generations are moving back to take part in their local wine industry, and when there is no next generation, cooperatives step in to cultivate Cariñena’s historical vineyards. What was once catastrophic is now one of the area’s advantages: plots filled with old-vine grapes with more concentrated, complex flavors than those from young grapevines, and a strong understanding of traditional methods which can be applied to today’s new thirst for quality regional wines.
As Spanish appellation laws tend to focus on aging requirements above grape and land specifics, the Cariñena DO rules cover all of the area’s wines, red, rosé, and white, fortified, sweet, and sparkling. There are seven aging regimens, including Crianza with a 24-month minimum, Reserva with at least 36 months (18 for white and rosé), Gran Reserva with 60 months (48 for white or rosé) and Añejo with 24 months.
Approximately 67 percent of Cariñena’s wine is exported, and its top three markets are Germany, the U.K., and the U.S. About 54 million bottles are now sold worldwide.