If you’re trying to farm in Calatayud, you’re pretty much stuck between Las Rocas and a hard place. Among the most inhospitable-looking places in the solar system, ranking between Halley’s Comet and the fifth moon of Neptune on the bucket list of retirement destinations, Calatayud, in Zaragoza, in Aragón even sounds like it should be orbiting some made-up Star Trek planet.
In fact, it’s located in northeast Spain, along the river Jalón in the midst of the Sistema Ibérico mountain range. The municipality motto is ‘Muy noble, leal, siempre augusta y fidelísima ciudad de Calatayud’, which is a Catalan phrase meaning, ‘It’s too friggin desolate here to do anything but lay siege on the capital or get drunk.’
It is—despite the rocks and arid climate—home to some really remarkable wines.
Or, as Las Rocas would have you believe, it’s not in spite of the rocks; it’s because of them.
In 1962, a group of Zaragozan grape growers formed a cooperative in the frontier town of Miedes, about 55 miles north of Madrid. Named Bodegas San Alejandro, it is going stronger than ever and now comprises 350 farmers on more than 3000 rock-strewn acres in Calatayud; under the directorship of delightful Yolanda Diaz, the area has done some truly magical things with garnacha.
La Kook Garnacha
Not only a ‘kook’ but a ‘kek’—one of its many aliases.
Another is ‘grenache’, which is what it’s called in southern France. Here, especially in the Rhône and Languedoc-Roussillon, it’s a blending grape often used to complement cinsaut, syrah and mourvèdre. In Spain, where conditions are particularly favorable for this thin-skinned, heat-loving varietal, it is often made into a stand-alone wine that can, when handled deftly, show wonderfully savory flavors of rhubarb, pomegranate and pepper. And by ‘handled deftly’, the understanding is that the vines will be planted in higher elevations which thicken the skins, and where there is a sufficient temperature drop during the night to preserve the fruit’s natural acidity. Otherwise, the grape is prone to flab out quicker than Jessica Simpson at a country buffet; garnacha’s high sugar content requires the balance of tart tartaric acid to keep it lively and is the main reason that it’s the most popular grape for fortified wines like Banyuls, Maury and Australian versions of Port.
Calatayud sits at an average elevation of 1800 feet, with vines planted as high as 3500 feet where conditions permit garnacha to fully ripen while clinging to chemical stability and a rich ruby color. As a result—and as Las Rocas so effectively proves—the best wines from the best vineyards do not require the melioration of other locally grown grapes like tempranillo and syrah.
And cheap? A lot of inexpensive, quality wine can be grown in semi-deserts like Calatayud, where the rain comes a single season (spring) and the rest of the year is gripped in drought—provided that adequate water is provided. Zaragozan summers consistently reach temperatures in the low hundreds, and yearly precipitation is under twelve inches. But the large-scale irrigation system around the Ebro River has helped make Aragón among the richest autonomous regions in Spain, especially in agriculture. The co-op method is also key to keeping prices stable; pooling resources and sharing equipment and marketing costs is vital. EU subsidies don’t hurt, either.
From what I can tell, the trio of Las Rocas wine covered below are stellar examples of Calatayud terroir, Calatayud intensity and Calatayud price point.
Rock on, Yolanda. If you’re gonna get stoned among the stones, this is the way you wanna do it.
Las Rocas Garnacha, Calatayud, 2009, about $14: Juicy with sweet raspberry and dark cherry, and expressive without the overpowering smack of oak that can (in Rioja, for example) slow the appreciation factor. With less than a year in barrels, the wine is bright on the palate with a nice intriguing depth showing up at the finish line, mostly earth and pepper.
Las Rocas Garnacha Viñas Viejas, Calatayud, 2009, about $20: From vines between 80 and 100 years old, this is a huge tipple for the tariff. It shows big fruit, mostly plum and cherry and the forefront, with a bit of chocolate and ginger dropping in around mid-palate. Savory and integrated, the mineral notes seem to reflect the depth that the roots have reached in their long journey through the Spanish soil to my kitchen table. Finishes with vanilla and graphite.
Las Rocas Red Blend, Calatayud, 2009, about $14: Lacking a bit of the flavor depth of the first two, this blend is an exception to the 100% garnacha that characterizes the region’s wine. Tempranillo and syrah go into the mix, though at what proportions, the accompanying literature does not specify. Jammy and a little tight, the wine has a slight tannic bite but is otherwise alluring and ripe with spice, black raspberry and stone notes.