Spain vs. Sardinia: Grenache / Garnacha / Cannonau


Wrapping up the series on grapes with 100 names in 100 different places, leaving us with a real underdog: Grenache. Technically, as it is a Spanish grape I should call it Garnacha, but the fact remains the same. Overlooked in most major wine regions its grown in, Garnacha is the unsung hero of many famous blends (Chateauneuf-du-Pape anyone?) that can’t get no respect.

Spanish Garnacha

In the early days of Europe, before many countries we know today were even unified (Spain, France, Italy, etc.) there was a number of city states in Spain, one of which was the Aragon Empire. These Middle Ages pirate/rockstar looted and pillaged a good chunk of the Mediterranean basin, bringing Catalan grapes with them.

Today, the history of this can be seen in places like southern France and the Italian island of Sardinia, which have Garnacha vines planted. Even today in Spain, the Garnacha grape is planted all over eastern and northern parts of the country. But, despite being the underdog in many blended wine regions like Rioja and Penedès, it really gets to show off in the DOCa of  Priorat. Priorat is located in the north eastern part of Spain, known as Catalonia.

There, old vines of Garnacha are planted on extra terrestrial looking terrain. The unique soil is called “licorella” and as you can see in the following picture, looks like a still shot from an outer space landing.


One of the reasons that Garnacha is so underrated is because it has historically been used as a filler in blended wine. Its light colour, high acid and high alcohol levels helped pump up weaker wine, but rarely is it seen 100% or nearly so on its own. Some other grapes included in Priorat wines are Carignan, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Merlot.

Despite this, Priorat produces some of the most Garnacha dense wines in the world, making it famous and respected enough to achieve the highest level of Spanish appellations, the DOCa. Priorat has no shortage of hot Mediterranean sun, which helps to ripen the grapes to extremely high levels of sugar, often passing 15% alcohol.

They also have one of the highest natural alcohol levels for any wine (aside from Primitivo di Manduria) at 13.5%. Along with high alcohol levels, the wines still maintain good balance of tannin, acid and minerality, while still having the trademark Garnacha spicy red fruit. Because of this, Priorat will work well with dishes like braised/stewed beef, lamb, cassoulet, or Manchego cheese.


Sardinian Cannonau

As mentioned above, the Aragon empire is said to have brought the Garnacha grape to Sardinia in the late middle ages. But, some Italian scientists are now arguing that it was Sardinian all along, and it was the Aragon Empire who took cuttings of it from Sardinia and brought it all along their empire.

Either way, Sardinian Cannonau is another on the long list of unknown or underappreciated wines containing Garnacha. Sardinia is located in the Tyrrhenian Sea, just off the coast of central Italy. As its history would tell you, or even its wine history, it has an interesting mix of indigenous Sardinian, Catalan, and Italian culture.

In fact, even though it has been a part of Italy since 1948, its language is a recent introduction, and many other languages and dialects are spoken throughout the island.

sardinian languages

Aside from the history, it is this part of the Mediterranean that seems to make the only 100% Garnacha (or Cannonau) wine in the world. Although Priorat does do it on occasion, its style is more geared towards high proportions of Garnacha with others filling in the blanks. This makes the Cannonau di Sardegna DOC extremely unique.

But, unique as it might be, Sardinian wines are hard to find as they aren’t as popular or pumping out as much juice as other industrial grade wine in other parts of Europe. So, finding a bottle of Cannonau is hard-ish but not impossible, so keep your eyes peeled.

Although further south than Priorat, Sardinia’s isolation as an island in the middle of the Mediterranean makes it susceptible to some fierce winds and cooler temperatures. But, the wines still achieve nice ripeness and will showcase the same candied cherry, raspberry, spice, and chocolate notes especially when aged in oak barrels, which is the fashionable choice for modern winemakers these days.

Like the wine itself, the cuisine of Sardinia is rarely exported, making traditional dishes hard to find. But like other places such as Tuscany, wild boar is a specialty so anything including that (or beef) with herbs is a good food pairing. Other than that, other game meats like venison would be nice, or some aged cheeses like pecorino.


One thought

  1. I think you make a lot of good points about Grenache / Garnacha / Cannonau here. I was in Sardinia recently, and the high-elevation, own-rooted Cannonau vineyards there are really interesting. They make a really hearty, darker expression of Grenache. And the little family-owned, dry and organically-farmed vineyards in the hills around Nuoro look incredibly healthy and well-adapted to growing Grenache. It’s hard to look at those vineyards and not wonder if it just might be possible that Grenache originated in Sardinia. I’m sure that’s a longshot, but it’s possible.

    In my experience, it seems that a thin-skinned grape with a tendency to overcrop is always going to shine in challenging soils, like in Chateauneuf or at higher elevations, like in Priorat and Samontano where you get smaller berries and thicker skins. The French just love to blend, and they’ve certainly made an art out of it. Hard to argue against traditional French blending aesthetics, right?


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