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Carignan, the blight of the south…or not?

Come closer, friend…I would like to talk with you about a vilified grape known as Carignan.

Or Cariñena. Carignane. Carignano. Or Samsó…well, sometimes. Sometimes Samsó is actually Cinsault (a grape probably best-known in Provence, particularly in rosés). Apparently, according to the seminal reference Wine Grapes (Harding, Robinson and Vouillamoz), what we are talking about is best referred to as Mazuelo. In Rioja, it is known as Mazuela.

You know this grape. Even if you don’t think you do, you most likely do. It’s the grape that was nearly singlehandedly responsible for the “wine lake” in Europe by the 80s and 90s – resulting in the vine-pull schemes where poor farmers were basically paid to uproot their poor-quality vines, so that the huge surplus of production could be brought down to a manageable level. Back then it was most often encountered unannounced as a blending partner in cheap, overly acidic (partly due to very, very high yields and the resulting poor quality) Vin de Table, Vin de Pays and a diverse array of other forgettable wine categories along the Mediterranean and in the south of Europe generally.

But that certainly isn’t the whole story.

The grape still exists in much of the south, though in reduced amounts. The south is logical for a few reasons, but the fact that this variety buds late and ripens VERY late means that only the south offers the conditions for the variety to produce reliably. It can be found in Provence, in Languedoc, in Roussillon, in many parts of Spain – most importantly in Priorat, but Montsant in general is of increasing importance – especially for delicious varietal wines from very old vines. It’s even on Sardinia, like it’s southern compatriot Grenache (known there as Cannonau). And it isn’t only in Europe – it made its way across the Atlantic and can be found in Chile, for example, holed up in high-altitude, inaccessible vineyards. There was no sense in uprooting it for poor landowners and farmers for whom there was far more utility in focusing on the plantings of other grape varieties that were worth investment; land was cheap and easier to work than where those – by now very old – parcels of Carignano were found.

But even that doesn’t tell the story.

Because this grape variety is Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It is two-faced. Assume you start with clones of good quality – definitely not a given, but bad clonal material will simply give bad wine, with few exceptions. If the vines are planted on infertile, rocky soils, if it is dry and hot, if you just leave them alone for a while…let them get a bit older…what they can produce becomes magical. After a while, the yields, like with all vines, come down naturally. As the vines age, their roots dig deeply – denied the assistance of irrigation and fertiliser. Then, if handled appropriately, the must can be coaxed into revealing the real potential of this much-maligned poorer cousin of the great Mediterranean grape varieties. Gone are the insipid, acidic, rough, poor wines of just thirty and forty years ago. Those same vines, with a half-century of age or more, will bring forth wines that sing of the soil, vivid in their acidity instead of sour, the fruit etched in glass with a firm backbone of minerality, a caress of wild herbs and spice. The stuff gets sexy.

And therein lies the rub, if you will forgive a bawdy pun. After phylloxera devastated the vineyards of the world in the 19th century, the poor farmers of the south replanted with high-yielding, less sensitive grape varieties – grafted onto louse-resistant North American rootstocks. The goal was production; quality was a distant second. And who can blame them? After decades of suffering, of vines dying in the vineyards, and having tried one possible remedy after another to no avail, they needed to have a crop – something to earn enough to put food on the table and assure continued survival.

What was the problem?

Particularly as a young vine, Carignan is very good at giving high yields – left to itself, up to 200 hectolitres per hectare are not unusual. And so it was that it was planted all across Southern France and in Spain, yields were high and millions of litres of wine that was, at best, forgettable, was produced. Production reached such a height that prices were driven down to a point that, again, the farmers could barely survive. Unrest inevitably ensued. And eventually, the burgeoning EU stepped in to try to make things better, instituting a grubbing-up scheme and distilling excess production into industrial alcohol. Carignan declined in favour of “improving” varieties like Syrah, and its potential as an “old vine” nearly disappeared.

But it is still around.

There remain significant plantings of this grape. And it is particularly in the rocky, dry, unforgiving climes – otherwise not attractive to work for lower quality wines – that the most promising plantings remain. There, where it was uneconomical to replant, the vines were left to the wild – often bush-trained, fortunately, and needing no direct human involvement to survive. Decades later, they have been rediscovered by ambitious, often young, winemakers seeking out old plantings of vines in forgotten zones, where land is cheap. And suddenly, we are getting wines of extraordinary character and quality. The first (now) important region to reflect this development was Priorat, located some 125 km west of Barcelona, near the Mediterranean coast of Spain. No, the wines are not pure Carignan, but theirs are the old, old vines – often making up a third of the blend or more, planted on the harsh, predominantly schist soils known as licorella – that form the core and give the unique character to their wines.  You can buy many Priorat wines that contain no Carignan, but the great ones – and they are commanding the same stratospheric prices as any other cult region, these days – almost always contain it. And the movement has spread far beyond Priorat. Other regions of Spain have rediscovered the grape, and discovered, too, that they have ancient plantings of it; Montsant, perhaps unsurprisingly, since it surrounds Priorat and has similar soils, is an excellent source of monovarietal wines made from Carignan, for example. Languedoc and Roussillon in France are both sources for fine, old Carignan, and winemakers are taking notice.

Yes, the Old World…and the New.

And let us not forget Chile. Chile, already a Utopia of organic production (partly due to climate, and partly due to its historic poverty) has become quite rightly famous for its Carmenère, which is now, for all intents and purposes, a native grape variety, much like Malbec in Argentina. It is also home to some superb, dry-farmed, extremely old parcels of Carignano. Abandoned or cultivated by subsistence farmers (hence the lack of chemicals and irrigation), these vineyards are capable of producing extraordinary wines with a distinctly Chilean signature – and yet unmistakeably Carignan. It is this kind of consistency of identity – already familiar from vagabond varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon – that, when combined with a capacity for real terroir expression, makes a grape variety exciting and fun. This is what makes me want to try a different region’s take on a grape I know: when there is real potential to make something different and interesting, without losing sight of what it is.

Yet, young, overcropped vines are unquestionably not worth the time it takes to get to know the wines that come from them.  The difficulty is, first, finding old, possibly abandoned parcels of good-quality vines, then convincing the owners of existing parcels to try to approach the variety as a star in its own right, or having the patience to wait for newer plantings of good vines to start to realise their potential. Fortunately for us, we already have a number of producers fulfilling these desires.

Carignan is most often found in blends. If the quality is good, it can add vivid red fruit, some spice, and the finish will be enhanced with salty minerality. I have mentioned Priorat and Montsant several times as some of the great zones using Carignan, but France is also crafting wonderful wines with the grape; it can be found in Corbières and Minervois, in Fitou and Faugères, and even in Bandol. Depending how much of the grape is in the blend, it can be difficult to identify its presence. Much more useful for our purposes are the wines made as near to 100% of the variety as possible. 

Carignan Heroes

The four bottles of Carignan standing on a counter.
If it is going to be Carignan, let it start with these…

I looked at four essentially monovarietal wines for this article. Do check out my reviews for these wines.In ascending order of price, they are:

Domaine Lafage: “Cayrol” Carignan Vielles Vignes 2014, Côtes Catalanes, France

De Martino: “Vigno” Old Vines Dry-Farmed Carignan 2009, Maule Valley, Chile

Coca i Fitó: “Carinyena” 2012, Montsant, Spain

Celler de Capçanes: “2 Pájaros” 2012, Montsant, Spain

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