Single vineyard garnacha from Rioja

Whether you call it garnacha, grenache or even garnatxa, Peter Ranscombe wants to praise the often-overlooked red grape variety.

BLENDING is at the very heart of the winemaking tradition in Rioja.

Whether it’s mixing the tempranillo, garnacha and other grape varieties used to make Spain’s most-famous red wine or fusing together wines from the Alta, Alavesa and Baja areas within the region, skilled winemakers employ the technique to create bottles that have won legions of fans throughout the world.

When the phylloxera louse struck France in the mid-1800s, decimating vineyards throughout the country, drinkers turned to Rioja to fill the gap left behind by the collapse of Bordeaux.

Tempranillo and garnacha took the place of cabernet sauvignon and merlot, with a similar focus on the marrying properties – and oaky flavourings – of wooden barrels.

Even though Rioja has recently unveiled a new designation for single vineyard wines, its tradition of blending means that it’s always exciting to come across wines that seek to express the characteristics of a single site.

And that’s exactly what winemaker Juan Carlos Sancha set out to do.

Sancha, who is also professor of “oenology” or wine at the University of La Rioja, has not only made a single vineyard wine from his own 95-year-old garnacha vines, but has also crafted individual wines from five of his neighbours’ plots.

The result is a set of six wines that shows how garnacha growing in neighbouring vineyards can produce such a diverse set of flavours and textures.

Sancha made the six wines using exactly the same technique – he fermented the grape juice in 500 litre barrels then aged it for 11 months in French oak.

The only difference between the wines is the “terroir” of the sites; the magic mix of soil, slope and aspect.

As well as celebrating the terroir, Sancha’s other aim was to salute garnacha itself – the variety accounted for almost 40% of the vines in Rioja in 1973 but that figure has now slumped to just 8%.

He praises his neighbours as “heroes” for tending their ancient vines, even though producing wine from them is no longer viable economically.

One grape, six wines

Wine merchant Woodwinters’ Edinburgh branch recently hosted a tasting of Sancha’s 2014 Coleccion de Garnachas Centernarias de Rioja (£150); while the 2014 is sold out, the company expects to import the 2015 next year.

Sancha produces two barrels of wine from each of his neighbours, giving one barrel back to them and decanting 600 bottles from the other.

First up was the wine from the Picon del Verozal vineyard, which faces to the north. There’s lots of coffee on the nose and palate and lighter fruits, like cranberries and blackcurrants, with a savoury touch of pepper on the finish.

Coffee was also shining through in the Carretera Banos, along with aromas of smoke, roast meat, red cherries and blackberries. The fruit was much juicier on the palate, with blackberries and blackcurrants wrapped in vanilla, plus more forceful tannins.

The Cuesta La Pena El Gato was one of the most interesting bottles from the sextet – even a day after being opened, it still felt like it needed more time to breath to get rid of the slightly metallic notes. That didn’t detract from its blackcurrant aromas, which morphed into brighter redcurrant in the mouth, with ripe tannins and a black pepper finish.

The south-facing La Solana yielded more smoke on the nose and darker fruits too, with damsons and ripe blackberries joining the coffee notes. It was the fresh acidity that really struck me about the palate, along with brighter redcurrant, cranberry and blackcurrant notes.

Sancha’s own wine, Pena El Gato, was the lushest and roundest, with blackcurrant and blackberry aromas following through into its flavours. The nose also had an enticing note of liquorice.

Finally, the Cuesta La Pena El Gato had much grippier tannins, while its black cherry aromas were replaced by fresher blackcurrant and juicier blackberry flavours on the palate.