The fall and rise of Garnacha in Aragon?

By Norrel Robertson 

As I write the 2014 harvest in Aragon is drawing to a close for what has been an up and down vintage where we have seen possibly the largest quantity of Garnacha in Spain since the 2004 vintage. Quality is likely to be determined by those who were brave enough to drop crops before veraison and to avoid the risk of disease, especially botrytis, which attacks over cropped, tight and compact bunches that Garnacha produces when intervention is eschewed in favour of kilos.

For many producers, growers and wineries this has produced some respite from five or six lean vintages where Garnacha had become a scarce commodity. Bulk Garnacha prices have risen in the last few years, as has interest in the grape internationally but average bottle prices have not risen accordingly. Something is not quite right.

Owning five hectares of old vine Garnacha myself I am well aware of the production costs involved. To manage and produce grapes on 1 hectare planted marco real (a planting density of 2.5 by 2.5 metres with around 1400 plants per hectare) we are talking around 3000 euros per hectare each year to prune, plough, harvest etc. Even if you are producing 3000 kg per hectare (on many occasions good, old vine vineyards may only produce 1 to 2 tonnes depending on the year) you are looking at a grape price of 1.00 euro per kilo. Why on earth are we selling wine ‘old vine`  Garnachas from Aragon at close to 1.00 euro per bottle?

Norrel Robertson

This brings me onto the definition of what constitutes young or old vines. To paraphrase leading Spanish viticulturist, Jose Ramon Lissarague, it is like asking someone to consider what is a young or old woman: opinions can vary. There is the widespread conception that old vines have a natural balance as the plant has adapted to, sometimes, extreme conditions and has reached a point where the vine vigour is balanced, where the root system has explored the soils and where yield is self-regulating.  In the case of Calatayud the term old vine can be used from 35 year onwards and yield is limited to 4500kg per hectare. From personal experience I would say it is rare to maintain the highest level of quality with over 3500kg per hectare. In 2014 harvest we have seen many vineyards that have actually reached and exceeded legal limits for production. Not surprising as many cooperatives routinely pay as little as 0.35 euros per kilo, where the production costs mentioned above would make no sense whatsoever. That said we also have a scenario where some wineries will pay around 1.00 euro per kilo for grapes from more selected old vine and lower yielding vineyards.

On my arrival in Calatayud in 2003 I purchased maps from 1955 and from 2001. Currently Calatayud has just short of 3500 hectares (roughly the same vineyard area as Châteauneuf-du-Pape albeit less concentrated) widely planted in what is one of the largest geographical camarcas of Spain. In 1955 I calculated that the area had around 45000 hectares of vineyard. That is to say that between 1955 and today we have lost over 90% of the original vineyard holdings. This vine pull was not restricted to just Garnacha in Calatayud, but indeed to the whole of Aragon and Spain in general. Even up until 1990 Spain still held a hegemony of 169000 hectares of Garnacha: then the most widely planted red variety in the country.  In 2013 this had fallen to a meagre 63000 hectares in 2013 (source J R Lissarrague) and despite being the birthplace of Garnacha, Spain has now been usurped by France which commands well over 95000 hectares today despite only having 24886 hectares in 1958. So what precipitated such a disaster and loss of vineyard heritage and patrimony in Spanish Garnacha?  To buy a hectare of old vine Garnacha today in Aragon may cost you around 5000 to 10000 euros. In Châteauneuf-du-Pape the going price is 400,000 euros (source Adam Dakin, Vinea Transaction).  

We can happily call this a triumvirate of disasters. Firstly, as was the case in many other Garnacha producing countries such as Australia, old Garnacha vineyards fell prey to subsidies for the grubbing up of vineyards, with very little respect for old and difficult to manage vineyards which were favoured for vine pull due to lower yields and a sometime inhospitable terrain to manage for many growers.  For these reasons I am totally opposed to EU subsidies being made available without discrimination in favouring the maintenance of heritage.

Secondly in Spain, as occurred in many wine producing nations, we witnessed the internationalisation of vineyards from the 1980s onwards with any new plantings which favoured the selection of Cabernet, Merlot, Chardonnay etc. This internationalisation was also accompanied by clonal selection of Garnachas which favoured fruit set and higher yield from many French nurseries as growers were increasingly given a limited selection of clonal material to chose from if they did want to plant Garnacha. This really flies in the face of the original arguments to grub up in the first place. To this day I am staggered at the paucity of material available for planting for those wishing to plant new Garnacha vineyards. Of the 100 or so hectares requested for planting in the last 2 years locally I still see many growers still planting clones  70 and 224 (these clones favour fruit set and yield over colour, tannin and flavour) which I would not even recommend for making rose wine. There are good selections around based on research in Aragon, Navarra and Castilla Leon and it is still encouraging to see some villages cultivating selection massale to defend their concept of Garnacha Fina but until we have some stronger guidance from local governments and the DOs, where Garnacha is predominant, and the incentive for growers to plant lower yielding and quality based clones, it is likely that we will continue to witness the planting of sub standard material.

Norrel Robertson with a cluster of garnacha

The socio-economic structure of the Spanish wine industry has almost certainly played a large part in the demise of Garnacha, the current malaise and the inability to move forward with a terroir based argument for quality based on patrimony and old vineyards. Around 60 to 65% of Spanish wine production is driven by cooperatives. In Aragon, undoubtedly the figure is higher. It is hard to assign the French definition of vigneron in Spain with the same meaning as in France as typically most grape growers make a living from a poly culture of cultivating other crops, fruits, cereals etc. That is to say that rarely in Aragon do we have a culture of the Garnacha growers actually making and commercialising their own wine as culturally and politically they have always produced and  taken their grapes to the cooperative. Once again taking the example of  Châteauneuf-du-Pape, cooperatives amount to only 7% of  the winemaking activity, there are around 320 separate producers or negociants and of an average production of  105000 hectolitres of wine they bottle around 13.750,000 bottles per year. That equates to a 100% conversion from vineyard to bottle with nothing sold as bulk or declassified to table wine: but why would you when your patrimony and heritage costs 400.000 euros per hectare? No Garnacha producing area in Spain can come close to  this enviable defence of terroir, but the reality is that Spanish and Aragonese Garnacha routinely outperforms France when it comes down to quality. At the 2014 Grenache du Monde competition in Perpignan Calatayud scooped up 14 gold medals, with many of the jurors actually being French.

With the exception of the Priorat, Montsant and the emergence in the last 10 years of quality/terroir focussed producers in Gredos and the resurgence of old vine Garnacha in Navarra, Rioja and a few producers in Aragon,  Spain is more or less bereft of a vigneron culture. Until we develop this concept in Aragon it is likely that we will continue to sell our wine too cheaply and sell our patrimony down the river.

The marketing and positioning of ‘old vine’ Garnacha in export markets has exacerbated the situation further. Any wine marketeer will tell you that once you have fixed your consumers’ opinion on the  perceived quality/price ratio of a wine  it is very hard for them to move them up the quality ladder, even with the addition of ultra premium halo brands to your range as an afterthought. If we take the example of US market ( where the majority of Calatayud Garnacha is exported as is Campo de Borja )many Garnacha producers are fighting over a price segment that commands a finished retail price to the consumer of between $7 to $10 dollars US. The bottom line is that if you apply the typical vineyard structure discussed previously and the production costs, as we say in Spanish —no salen las cuentas— the costs do not add up. To reach this Garnacha battleground in the US means selling your Garnacha at under 2 euros per bottle ex cellar. Once grape and productions costs are removed we can see that for most this is not a sustainable business practice going forward.

It is no wonder then that many competing  Garnacha producers from other countries balk at the prospect of trying to compete with such cheap prices on international markets, and why should they? Those present at the International Grenache Symposium in 2010 in Provence will remember the stern defence of Garnacha by  Australian producers such as Dave Powell from the Barossa and Chester Osborn from the McLaren Vale where they derided cheaper versions and even went as far to say that the production of Garnacha rose was a slight on the grape variety. Their business resides in the defence and recuperation of old Garnacha blocks in both these regions and quite sensibly this could and should be the future defence in Aragon also. In 2007 in the Barossa Valley, Australia, Yalumba and Michael Hill launched the The Barossa Old Vine Charter with a register of old vineyards “to help to highlight and protect these viticultural treasures from ever being pulled from the soils of the Barossa again”. In the case of McClaren Vale they have launched a scheme called Cadenzia similarly to protect their old vineyards and heritage  but with a focus more on the diversity of style and terroir from the McClaren Vale “Cadenzia is a creative and individual expression of McLaren Vale Grenache made by an inspired winemaker to demonstrate harmony, excitement and energy”. The closest association we have in Spain are the Garnachas de Gredos in Madrid and Avila but in the rest of Spain this ground swell to protect and promote Garnacha is sorely missing. There is still so much work to do to protect the heritage and diversity of Garnacha.

Norrel Robertson and his wine

Norrel Robertson

Norrel Robertson MW has been making wine in Spain for over 10 years and is currently the only Master of Wine living and working in Spain. Norrel was born and raised in Scotland and, after graduating from Aberdeen University with a MA Honours degree in Politics and International Relations, has worked in the wine industry for the last 20 years, starting in sales, buying and product development. In the 1990´s Norrel decided to pursue a career in winemaking and decided the best way was to work and learn from the cellar up. Norrel went on to work vintages in Chianti in Italy, Portugal, Australia, France and Chile. From 1998 to 2000, Norrel embarked on the Master of Wine Course and became a Master of Wine in November 2000, winning the Robert Mondavi Award for the best overall theory performance in the exam. In 2002-2003 Norrel studied the Postgraduate Viticulture and Oenology course at Lincoln University in Christchurch, New Zealand, obtaining his postgraduate qualification with distinction. In 2003, he moved to Spain to as Winemaker for International Wine Services and quickly fell in love with the old Garnacha vineyards in the area of Calatayud, Aragon and decided to start making his own wines. His company El Escocés Volante SL (The Flying Scotsman) took off and Norrel now currently produces many award winning wines made from very specially selected vineyards at high altitude in Aragon, Spain

This article has 1 comments

  1. David Molina Reply

    Fantastic article from Norrel, only the truth, straight and deep in to the subject. Thanks for sharing it.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *