Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

lunedì 6 marzo 2017

War Grapes

di Sandro Fracasso

(Vigna di Grenache, Banyuls-sur-Mer, Vial Magnères Domaine)

Nations do not exist, earth has no boundaries, yet there are mountains, rivers, seas, plains and men striving to settle into them.


Over the centuries, countless factors have contributed to alter the world as we know it today. If lately, so-called but nevertheless traumatic natural actions are being praised, human action is often considered the source of every catastrophe. Nevertheless, even from the bottom of the worst experience, a silent and exciting tie develops, drawing a veil of peace over lands still echoing from the clattering of conflicts. The Germanic word werra, scuffle, explains it all. In fact, in ancient times, except for the use of archers and catapults, scuffles between soldiers were essential in order to defeat the enemies. During scuffles, bodies and smells would mingle and clash together, along with countless other habits, resulting in a deep and intimate knowledge of the rivals. Armies would settle in occupied lands for years, sometimes centuries, given the absence of means of permanent oppression other than tactic and numbers. As much as weapons could prevail in technique and use, most of the times there were very little differences between armies: hand-to-hand combat was therefore crucial. It explains the importance of wars as events of contact between different populations, together with proselytism, trades and migrations.

Living away from one’s own country for a long time means assimilating flavours and habits of the conquered lands. At the end of a conflict, or even during truces, it would be normal to bring home products, animals and plants belonging to places that had eventually become a second home. This is how some dishes have spread so far away from their country of origin; this is how a grapevine conquered first Europe and then the whole world.

Brief Historical Notes


According to the principle published in the 20s of the 20th century, establishing that the presence of a bigger number of different clonal varieties of a vine variety in a specific territory is a clear indication of the origin of the plant, it is possible to assert that Garnacha is Spanish. The same conclusion results from a few ampelography tests, stating the Aragonese origin of the vine variety. Supposedly under the Aragonese Reign, Garnacha spread into French Roussillon and Sardinia.

A few distinguished Italian scholars have recently been involved into a dispute over the possibility that the Sardinian variation of Garnacha, known as Cannonau, is the actual origin of the vine variety. Oenologist Enzo Biondo showed how the Accademia della Vite e del Vino acknowledged strong similarities between Cannonau and Mesopotamian wine. Moreover, a few Cannonau grape seeds tracing back to 1200 B.C.E. have been found in the archaeological site of Dous Nuraghes (located in the county of Nuoro, Sardinia). According to this theory, its introduction in Spain, maybe from Sardinian ports or through the trade networks of Shardana, took place only in 1300 C.E., after the Spanish invasion of Sardinia. This hypothesis is supported by the absence of traces of ampelographically certified red vine variety in Spain before those years. It is therefore possible to gather evidences of a Sardinian origin, but where did Shardana come from? Shardana arrived in the Mediterranean Sea together along with Sea Peoples, towards the end of 2nd millennium B.C.E. from Ur, Mesopotamia.

According to a series of studies, Phoenicians travelled together with Sea Peoples, a population that raided the Mediterranean Sea during the 12th century B.C.E. The generic classification “Sea Peoples” does not support the theory of their homogeneity, least of all an alliance between them; one of the proofs in the hand of archaeologists are some letters from Ugarit, a Phoenician settlement destroyed by Sea Peoples around 1180 B.C.E. Sea Peoples were not a homogeneous group, but they would actually fight and invade each other, and were part of one of the most important changes of the ruling status quo. Hittites, Mycenaean, Ancient Egyptians and Phoenicians (after the occupation of their main ports Tyre, Sidon and Byblos) faced heavy crisis because of their invasion. The consequence was that Phoenicians set out towards the West, not to occupy but rather to move into settlements that had been safe landings for centuries. (Tharros, Tartesso, Karalis, Nora, Kornus, Bosa, Nabui, Torres, Olbia, Alalia).

Moving back in history of a few thousand years, the discovery of the first wine production site was made in Armenia by professor Areshian of University of California. It is not just about a few grape seeds or dry shoots; findings include a real proto-cellar, as well as leftovers of squeezed grapes, a basic vat and some pieces of amphorae buried for the preservation of the wine. It all dates back to about 6100 B.C.E., it is only the latest proof of what is considered to be the first origin of wine. There have been major improvements in dating techniques, ever since archaeologists have been taking advantage of the tools that biology and chemistry have made available on a global scale. Research tools such spectrophotometers and spectrofluorometers, Carbon-14a and DNA tests provide unquestionable, definite results, backing up exegesis of ancient sources and archaeological documentation analysis. The above mentioned findings have caused a major change in perspective. Other evidences found in Mesopotamian Sumer settlement, on the employment of vitis vinifera fruits are dated back to 3500 B.C.E., seem now recent. Moreover, the region was and always will be place of trades and exchanges. Phoenicians were a population of Semitic origin dating back at least to 22nd Century B.C.E. It is possible that from their original settlements (Lebanon), and being such good seafarer and traders, Phoenicians started exchanges with Iberian Peninsula and Sardinia well before the 12th Century B.C.E. Before any invasion or colonization, contacts between traders were common, and amongst them, spies and militaries in disguise would look for possible target areas with metal fields and rich soils. The turmoil caused by the series of invasions that occurred at the end of 2000 B.C.E. might have caused Phoenicians to head for West, to settle in those rich villages they had contributed to build.

Phoenicians were very well known for the richness of their merchandises, which included pigments, artefacts, slaves, wine and much more. It does make sense to think that the grape seeds found in Dous Nuraghes were part of a wine brought by Phoenicians, or produced in Sardinia with grape vines bought from Phoenician traders. On this subject, studies carried out by Università di Milano faced severe difficulties, because of the poor preservation of the grape seeds. It must not be forgotten that similar evidences could have been available in Spain or North Africa but might have gone lost or not found yet. According to this reconstruction, that is solely propositional, it cannot be excluded that Phoenicians or other trading populations were the actual carriers of Garnacha or Cannonau in Mediterranean area. It would be factitious to say that only one of these two regions fathered this vine variety. All studies, even those apparently in contrast, do not exclude that this vine variety arrived from east, centuries before the story we are now going to write about.


At the beginning of the 8th century C.E., in a little more than five years, Arabs stole the Iberian Peninsula from Visigoths. The term Reconquista refers to the period from 718 C.E. (Pelagio rebellion) to the complete banishment of Arabs from the Iberian Peninsula, on January 2nd 1492. The word itself clearly reflects the Christian European influences on the writing of history. Iberian Peninsula is considered as belonging to Catholics, seized by Arabs, and a land to be returned to Christianity. But it will take about 750 years for it to happen. Yet there are on earth nations whose history lasted much less than 750 years. Iberian Peninsula is definitely the result of its own Christian-Muslim roots. Arabs fathered some of the most fascinating discoveries of humanity and, amongst the other things, diffused exotic fruits and spices in Europe. Arabs also spread numerous vine varieties, including Garnacha. Furthermore, there are no indication of wine production and trade during the domain of Visigoths in the region (from 624 C.E. when they stole it from the Byzantines until 713 C.E., year of the Moorish invasions). In those nearly one hundred years the wine production in the peninsula was probably lower than average and, as a consequence, export had substantially reduced. Far from commonplaces, Arabs never fought against the production of wine, certainly not against the Iberian type, considered precious for its high alcoholic gradation; they actually took advantage of it by burdening Iberian wine traders with taxes.

Christian armies from Western Europe crossed the Iberian Peninsula for over 750 years of wars, truces, conquests and occupations. Soldiers scattered all over Europe everything they had learned from the refined culture of the Moors, a culture with only one major fault: the profession of a different religion. Some of the bloodiest and best-known battles occurred in those centuries: Poitiers, 732 C.E., with Frankish led by Charles Martel defeating Arabs and killing General Abd al-Rahman; Roncesvalles, 778 C.E, where Roland, celebrated paladin serving Charlemagne, lost his life; then, in 1064 Barbastro’s proto-crusade, when Pope Alexander II (born in Milan but with very strong ties with the order of Cluny) gathered a large French-Italian-Spanish army; it was a massacre, with over 50,000 deaths amongst the Arabs, sacks and war booties. During the next centuries, triumphs, ceasefires and defeats alternated; Christian armies relentlessly proceeded towards the southern part of the peninsula. Finally, in 1492 the Spanish catholic kings entered Granada preceded by a crucifix; what might seem as the final act of the Reconquista, was in fact the beginning of a series of robberies, forced conversions and bloody events that will culminate with the sadly well-known Spanish Inquisition.

Roussillon is a fascinating region in the southern-west of France, where Romans, Visigoths, Saracens and Frankish ruled over the centuries. It was one of Charlemagne’s strongholds, where he set up the Marca Hispanica, a defensive barrier between Frankish and Moors. Obviously, trades and exchanges were common in that area, and most of the goods coming from raids in the Iberian Peninsula were brought here. There is an interesting coincidence between history and wine tradition: Roussillon is the French region with the most ancient development of Garnacha. Sometime grapevines travel on men’s back, sometimes riding on the back of war horses. It is not by chance that terroirs of the most selected grapevines of this region remind of the ones of the celebrated Châteauneuf-du-Pape; aside from its resonant name, it is still Garnacha.

Looking back at Fernando Pessoa and his heteronyms, here is a short list of some of the numerous lives of Garnacha: from Cannonau to the prestigious Grenache noir, to the noble Gamay Perugino, going from Blaufränkisch to the rare Tai rosso: from court to court, through the ages. It is interesting to note that even though Gamay and Garnacha are not related, Gamay Perugino and Garnacha are indeed. The name Gamay shall not mislead. This vine variety arrived at the Trasimeno Lake around 1500 C.E., apparently as part of the dowry of Duchess Eleonora de Mendoza, spouse of Alessandro Della Corgna. But the region had been under Spanish control before the wedding. Garnacha was probably introduced quite well before then. Vine grapes often moved through wars and dominations. It could be the reason why their origin often traces back to legends and noble weddings, thus sweetening this brutal truth.
The relationship between Garnacha and Austrian Blaufränkisch is little more than a hypothesis. According to some DNA studies, Blaufränkisch derives from Heunish Weiss and from an unidentified Frankish variety. Also, during Middle Ages, in Germanic regions, grapevines of Hun origins (such as Heunisch Weiss), less precious, were kept strictly separated from those of higher prestige, called Frankish, introduced by Charlemagne and his edicts. Here is what is stated in the Capitulare de Villis: “Our iudices shall take an interest in the grapevines that are part of their minister, shall take care of them and shall put the wine in good-quality containers, and shall be careful that in no ways the wine could be damaged, they shall buy more wine, by exchanging it with animals and natural goods, and shall send it to the king’s villae. In case more wine than necessary has been acquired, they shall inform us in order for us to decide the use of it. They shall obtain new plants from grapevines and shall send them to us to grow them in other plantations for our advantage. All fees paid with wine by our villae shall be sent to our wine cellars.
As previously explained, scientific results are the only way to get rid of any possible doubt on a grapevine, but, exactly as in other situations, there are not enough proofs, both for a poor preservation of the evidences, both for lack of elements to compare the results with. In cases such as this, it may be useful to hark back to written recollections and event connection, thus developing theories that science can confirm or deny. As reminded above, it was Charlemagne who actively took part to the Reconquista and strengthened Frankish defence against Moorish invasions in Roussillon (where Garnacha is widely grown). How can we exclude that the noble Frankish grapevine, from which Blaufränkisch takes its origin, is actually related to Garnacha?
As a preliminary and indicative step, VIVC (Vitis International Variety Catalogue) allows to verify the existence of a relation between Garnacha and Blaufränkisch. It is a public database, with free access, collecting scientific contribution of 130 institutions from 45 different countries. The genetic comparison enabled by VIVC is carried out with microsatellite markers nSSR (nuclear Simple Sequence Repeat), usually referred to as SSR. In this specific case the six loci involved are: VVS2, VVMD5, VVMD7, VVMD27, VrZAG62, VrZAG79. By comparing Garnacha Tinta with Blaufränkisch it can be observed that: values of the two alleles (A1 e A2) of VVMD5 are identical, as well as A1 of VVMD7 and A2 of VVMD27. Finally, the value of A2 for VVS2 is very similar: 145 vs 143. To prove that there is a direct relation such as father-son or brother-brother between two vine grapes there must be at least one shared allele for each locus. In this case there are loci with no shared allele; therefore a direct relation can be excluded. It is nevertheless a fact that there are at least 4/5 shared alleles out of 12, therefore a contribution of Garnacha to Blaufränkisch cannot be totally excluded. Of course, more investigation will be needed to prove that this is more than a simple, fascinating hypothesis.

While waiting for crucial experimental elements, let us go back to space and time. It is verified that Blaufränkisch and Hungarian Kèkfrankos are the same grapevine (the word Kèkfrankos is the Hungarian literal translation of Blaufränkisch). In Italy, it has been called Franconia only since 1950, and its diffusion with the name of Blaufränkisch began in the area of Venice (according to official documents it started out in 1877). Austrian occupation of Triveneto was the key to its diffusion, and the grapevine was almost immediately appreciated for its good production and strength against plant diseases and cold climates, features that made it a very good post-phylloxeridae grapevine.

Moving back to central Europe: courts and empires follow one another, while earth stays nearly unaltered. 16th century saw the domination of the House of Habsburg that, through marriages and wars, controlled a kingdom “with no sunset” (Charles V). Even though Blaufränkisch is quite recent, according to official documents (1862), we know that its ancestors are way older, going back at least to Middle Ages. Likewise, it is generally believed that Kèkfrankos was introduced in Hungary by some German immigrants at the beginning of 1800. But it might have been grown in this region for a few centuries before then. Who did actually introduce this variety? Blaufränkisch has spread in a region with the highest rate of castles and summer residences of the Austrian court, in the south west of current Austria and Czech Moravia. Why shouldn’t have it reached the fertile lands situated in the southern part of the Danube region (Hungary), with such good potential in grapevine growing? This area, even though nominally controlled by Habsburg, was in fact under Ottoman rule until the end of 17th century. So, has Blaufränkisch spread in Hungarian lands because of Habsburg or because of Ottomans? When Kadarka arrived in Hungary, it was brought by the Turkish. More recently, its genetic similarity with Bulgarian Papazkarasi, grown on the borderline with today’s Turkey has been proved. The introduction of a new red grapevine subverted the Hungarian wine production based largely on whites, and created the bases for a new, fascinating product: Egri Bikaver also known as Bull's Blood of Eger. It seems that during the siege of Eger, Turkish soldiers were shocked by Hungarians’ beards, red because of the wine they had been drinking. Turkish believed the enemy had been drinking the blood of bulls; that could give them superhuman strength and, shortly after, they capitulated. It is indeed an ironic destiny, the fact that a wine brought by a population could contribute to its own capitulating to the enemy.

As time passed by, Kèkfrankos replaced Kadarka as main grapevine for Bull’s Blood; it was much easier to grow and well-known for its fragrance. And, apparently, according to a legend, it is from Hungary that Garnacha moved towards Italy, closing a circle started with Cannonau. Apparently, a carpenter (marangon in Venetian dialect) from Nanto (Vicenza), working for the Austro-Hungarian army, settled in Hungary for a while, more precisely in the area of Tokaj, where he could taste this red-berry grapevine that had nothing in common with the prestigious Hungarian white Tokaji. Around 1850, at the end of his army duty, the carpenter went back to Italy bringing with him some vine slips that he later engrafted in his birth place; in fact this wine was called “del Marangon” for some time. In 1950, its name became Tocai di Barbarano, to change into Tocai Rosso (n° 236 in the Registro Nazionale delle Varietà di Vite) and, from there, to Tai Rosso. Beyond this evocative legend, it is very likely that Garnacha arrived in Vicenza at the end of 1700, in a difficult moment for the viniculture of the area, thanks to frequent and well-documented trades with Sardinia.

Garnacha in the world
Even though in the past 24 years Garnacha has gone from the second to the seventh position in the list of the most grown grapevines in the world, it still has one of the highest ranking for number of nations. Considering the amount of names it has, it is not surprising. From Europe to North Africa, from Australia to California, from Argentina to Middle East. The huge production of French wine is worth a special mention, especially in North Africa, especially of Grenache (in the 60’s Algeria produced 16 million hectolitres each year, becoming the sixth producer in the world). It was mainly a production of average wines that markets would swallow in great quantities and at a very low price. Since then, it is interesting to note how a very unpretentious wine, almost always a gregarious (such as in Rioja) is taking revenge on those who considered it trivial. Its low reputation was caused by decades, or rather, centuries, of being the wine of armies and peasants, light red, low tannic and very alcoholic. It took very little to improve it: a few changes in the planting system, from the traditional sapling system to the espalier system and extension of the ripening. Today, there are so many different varieties and terroir hosting Garnacha and its brothers, that it can easily be called, with the words of Professor Attilio Scienza, a “collective grapevine”; as above mentioned, it is all about heteronyms, that, over the centuries, have lost sight of each other, for the joy and the taste of those taking advantages of the results.

Technical Notes

Varieties and Regions

Vitis Vinifera
Abundante, Aleante, Aleantedi Rivalto, Aleante Poggiarelli, Alicant Blau, Alicante, Alicante Grenache, Aragones, Bois Jaune, Cannonaddu, Cannonadu Nieddu, Cannonau, Cannonau Selvaggio, Canonazo, Carignane rosso, Elegante, Francese, Gamay del Trasimeno, Garnaccho negro, Garnacha Comun, Garnacha negra, Garnacha Roja, Garnacha tinta, Garnatxa negra, Garnatxa Pais, Gironet, Granaccia, Granaxa, Grenache noir, Grenache rouge, Kek Grenache, Lladoner, Mencida, Navaro, Navarra, Navarre de la Dordogne, Navarro, Negru Calvese, Ranconnat, Red Grenache, Redondal, Retagliadu Nieddu, Rivesaltes, Roussillon Tinto, Roussillon, Rouvaillard, Sans Pareil, Santa Maria de Alcantara, Tentillo, Tintella, Tintilla, Tinto Menudo, Tinto Navalcarnero, Tocai rosso, Tai Rosso, Toledana, Uva di Spagna and Vernatxa (Vitis International Catalogue)
Middle East, Sardinian, Spain
Aragona, Alella, Priorat, Roussillon, Rhône, Rioja, Sardinia, Liguria, Vicenza, Perugia, Australia, California, Argentina, South Africa, China

Garnacha was well known for its productions of alcoholic wines, little tannic, highly oxidizable and with high yields. As mentioned above, all these factors depended on the growing system (sapling); there was very little interest in the vine grape itself. A short note: for many years, little tannic, alcoholic wines have been considered blending wines or little more; therefore price had to stay low and yields high. In light of a re-evaluation of ancient grapevines, strongly influencing modern oenology, things have changed radically. Some examples are: Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Priorat, Vin Doux Naturel and some new productions of Cannonau, Tai rosso and Gamay Perugino. Low yields shall not be supported at any cost, neither should be the compulsory ageing nor the prevailing of spicy notes on fruity notes for each grapevine, but, of course, it is positive to have as many varied examples as possible, all of them respecting the potential of such different terroir.


So far, our researches seem to suggest a middle-eastern origin of Garnacha. All the theories here exposed, though fascinating and rich in good points, do not provide any element that could exclude it categorically. And while waiting for further findings and unquestionable scientific tests, we launch these new hypotheses, open to an exchange of ideas and happy to contribute to a better knowledge of this unfairly underestimated grapevine. Its long wandering does not seem to have changed the main features of the wine, easily and clearly recognizable.

This article will be followed by further in-depth analysis that will include the results of additional researches involving the international types of Garnacha, so as to ensure that the whole picture is as varied and accurate as possible.


I'm very grateful to Sandro Milei, sommelier and friend, for his support and contribution to this demanding, on going project. I also like to acknowledge the kindliness of the Grenaches du Monde movement and Olivier Saperas ( Vial Magnères Domaine) for his hospitality.

Sandro Fracasso 
Laureato in Chimica a Ferrara, dedica una dozzina d'anni alla ricerca presso l'Ateneo Estense. Nel 2010 si ritira in Toscana, dove si occupa di autoproduzione e di ricerca agro-enologica indipendente.

2 commenti:

  1. Trovo lo scritto, da cultore delle scienze agrarie, del dott.Fracasso spendido. Grazie dottore

    1. Grazie, la review è il prodotto di oltre un anno di ricerche, dal lavoro emergono più ipotesi che punti fermi. Del resto, preferisco seminare domande aperte che certezze chiuse. sandro fracasso