By Rose Murray Brown MW Published in The Scotsman 4 November 2017
One of the most popular wines in our recent Spanish Masterclass was an inexpensive wine from Navarra made from a little known red grape, Graciano.
This ancient varietal is one of the unsung heroes in Spain. Its history is unclear, but it is possibly linked to other Spanish grapes like Bovale Sardo and Cagnulari. What is sure, is that Graciano is a Spanish cross, possibly originating from Rioja where most of Graciano’s current 1,500 hectares are now found, used to bolster blends.
Graciano is prized for its intense colour, rich black fruit flavours, pepperiness and high acidity. It is a useful grape to add colour and spice to the classic Tempranillo and Garnacha blend in Rioja, but it is not popular with growers.
The problem with Graciano is that it is a very low yielding grape, so crop levels are low; not favourable to those looking for good volumes. It is also a late ripener, usually picked in late October; it is very difficult to grow, needing short pruning and very susceptible to downy mildew and rot - and is not easy to vinify into an approachable style.
When growers replanted after phylloxera in early C20, Graciano was sidelined as growers preferred high yielding grapes. By the end of C21 the Spanish government was so worried that Graciano was about to disappear from Spain’s vineyards in favour of higher yielding varieties, they offered subsidies to plant Graciano.
The same happened in Languedoc in France, where Graciano (called Morastell or Morrastel there - not to be confused with Monastrell) was once widespread. It is also found in Lisbon and Alentejo in Portugal under the name Tinta Miuda. Graciano was taken to Sardinia in C13, when the Spanish owned the island – and there are also now tiny amounts planted in the New World in Geographe in Western Australia, Mendoza in Argentina and in the Sierra Foothills of California.
Today, the Graciano single varietals come from a handful of wineries in Rioja who specialise in this grape, planting it in cooler sites on clay limestone soils. With its tendency to harsh tannins and high acidity, it can be a difficult grape to tame, so many are reluctant to try.
The Manzanos family have been growing vines in Rioja Alavesa since 1890 and produce the most exciting examples of this grape; they apparently own the oldest Graciano vines. Vinedos del Contino, owned by Cune in Haro produced the first varietal Graciano back in 1994 and still make superb examples, whilst Bodegas Valdemar and Dinastia Vivanco also produce notable single varietals.
If you want to experience a range of special Graciano vintages, The Wine Society have a special 6 bottle case offer for two bottles each of Contino’s 2009, 2010 and 2012 Gracianos (at £225 for 6 bts).
Our tasting’s star value wine hailed from Rioja’s neighbouring wine region, Navarra (pictured right), where there is a little of Graciano planted. Antonio Sanz set up Vina Zorzal in 1989 in the Baja southern zone of Navarra near Corella village – where they make affordable single varietals of both Graciano and Garnacha. I was very impressed by their attempt to tame Graciano’s harsh and austere characteristics to make a powerful fruit-driven blockbuster bargain.
Antonio's son Xabier Sanz reckons that Graciano will be a vital grape in their challenges with climate warming and the baking hot summers they now experience in Spain. One of Graciano's benefits is its tolerance of drought conditions, so we may well see more of this exciting grape as summer temperatures across the world increase.
Navarra, Spain: VINA ZORZAL GRACIANO 2014 Antonio Sanz (£7.50 The Wine Society) ***STAR VALUE BUY***
Voted best value in our Spanish tasting – a gutsy red that delivers well above its price tag. Typically Graciano with its dense colour, intense black fruits, mulberry scents and plummy fruits – for those who like big powerful reds: 13.5%
Rioja, Spain: NAVAJAS RIOJA JOVEN GRACIANO 2015 (£9.99 Fine Wine Co Musselburgh; www.rudewines.co.uk; www.shjones.com)
Winemaker Antonio Navajas crafted this bright youthful cherry-fruited example of Graciano with its perfumed aromas, herbal notes and a savoury edge: 14.5%
Rioja, Spain: CAMPO ALDEA GRACIANO RIOJA 2012 (£14 Marks & Spencer)
A Graciano focused Rioja; deliciously pure peppery version of Graciano, with vanilla notes from two years maturation in American and French oak: 14%
Rioja, Spain: MANZANOS TARGA RIOJA GRACIANO 2016 (£14.99 Virgin Wines) ***STAR BUY***
From the Graciano specialists, the Manzanos family. This is certainly more robust, fresher and plummier than your usual Rioja, but if you like something with spice and plenty of savoury character this is a great buy: 13.5%
Rioja, Spain: MANZANOS RESERVA ANIVERSARIO 2009 (£40 www.laithwaites.co.uk) ***STAR BUY***
A wonderful rare old vine example from the Manzanos family using the world’s oldest Graciano vines grown on clay limestone. Piercing cherry aromas, savoury plummy flavours with a very elegant palate and cedary notes from ageing in new French oak. Just a hint of Tempranillo in the blend, but the focus is on Graciano - bottled to celebrate the Manzanos family’s 125 years of fine tuning this grape: 13.5%
Rioja, Spain: CUNE VINO CONTINO 2012 (£41.50 www.winedirect.co.uk)
Impressive example from Contino with spice and cassis flavours, silky palate and tobacco notes. Graciano has clearly coped really well in the baking hot 2012 vintage: 13%
Join Rose Murray Brown MW’s ‘Chocolate & Wines for Christmas Tasting’ on 12 December in Edinburgh £42 www.rosemurraybrown.com