In praise of Carignan

The charge list against the grape variety Carignan is extensive:

  • the twentieth century saw thousands of hectares of Languedoc-Roussillon being planted with it as France’s answer to the loss of its colony Algeria and with it a source of cheap, deeply coloured and alcoholic wine.  So it is a post-colonial gesture.
  • it was planted for its high yields, decent tannin and acidity, colour and alcohol, not its flavour or finesse.
  • by the end of the century it was the principal, if not the only, grape variety which was the subject of the EU’s vine pull scheme, in a desperate attempt to avoid Europe being submerged under its wine lake.
  • it is susceptible to disease – rot, both types of mildew – and nematodes; it needs perfect exposure and excellent drainage to thrive.
  • to get the best out of it, it is said, it needs to be improved by blending with other more characterful grapes, typically Grenache for roundness and Syrah for bright, fruit flavours. It can be overly bitter.

These points are entirely valid for today’s quality-minded drinker.  Carignan may have been better than the variety it replaced, the pale Aramon, but sheer productivity, up to 200 hectolitres per hectare, and its other pluses are not enough.  The consumption of the most basic vin de table by agricultural and industrial workers has declined steeply and the world is awash with flavourful, relatively inexpensive wines bought by officer workers and the middle classes. Wine is no longer primarily a source of cheap calories and an aid to a lunchtime siesta, as it was for centuries.

Today Carignan has two main uses.  Firstly, it is a standard part of Southern French blends.  It can play its part in a blend with more assertive varieties.   It is used similarly in  Rioja under the synonym of Mazuelo.  After all, it is productive, alcoholic, quite tannic and deep in colour, and most of all, it is already there in the vineyard.

Secondly, and most excitingly, it is capable of wines of great interest and character from low yields on the best sites from really old vines.  You will notice the number of qualifiers in that sentence to which we could add some more:

  • IMG_9485old vines, ie 50 years or more, is the key.  Carignan in its youth and early middle age is very productive but just a bit dull. Those of us past our 50th birthday, are delighted to learn that depth and interest come with increasing age!
  • the best sites – it needs warmth, perfect exposure and excellent drainage.  It does well on sun-baked sites and poor soils.
  • The age of the vines, the poor soils and the harsh conditions all contribute to low yields.  Many of the best vineyards are made up of bush vines which have to be worked by hand.  All these factors mean that quality old vine Carignan can’t be cheap.
  • for everyday wines, it responds well to carbonic maceration without producing that bubble gum aroma which I at least do not enjoy, producing deeply coloured, moderately fruity wines with lower tannins than traditionally made reds.

But where all these seemingly adverse factors are in place, it can be an absolute revelation.  In expert hands, wines made from old vine Carignan are dark, full of earthy flavour and soft tannins.  And they have one other big bonus – they are not Syrah!  Not that I have anything against the noble grape from the northern Rhône, but it is in some danger of becoming ubiquitous in Roussillon and Languedoc, rather in the way that everyone earlier thought they must grow Cabernet if they are to be taken seriously.

IMG_8808My epiphany moment with Carignan came with Carignan 1903, Domaine Roc des Anges, 2006, made by Marjorie and Stéphane Gallet, a humble Vin de Pays des Pyrénées Orientales rouge.  However the key bit of information is also prominently displayed on the label: the wine is made from Carignan vines planted in 1903, so now over 100 years old.   ‘Old vine’ doesn’t really do justice to these centurions.  The vines are planted on a vein of quartz, a white soil surrounded by black schist. There is only a metre of workable soil above rock, thereby offering the perfectly ‘tough’ conditions that suit Carignan.  The average yield on the estate is a miserly 17 hectolitres per hectare – about one tenth of what this prolific variety can produce in fertile soil.  At this level the wine, having spent 3-5 years in good quality Burgundy barrels, gives off profound aromas of liquorice and  mulberry, with a sort of fleshiness on the palate, dense and satiny, long and satisfying. We decanted the bottle 12 hours before tasting the wine and then tried it again 24 hours later at which point it was basically in the same condition.  A remarkable wine and one that reveals the potential of the lowly Carignan grape.

The ‘1903’ cost €33 a bottle in a wine shop in Perpignan.  But of course there are Carignan or Carignan-based wines at much more everyday prices. At the other end of the scale, Carignan Vielle Vignes, Vin de Pays des Côtes Catalanes, Les Vignerons des Côtes d’Agly 2009 costs €5 and is a good everyday wine: deep purple-ruby colour, dark plum fruit, some mineral notes and bitterness, decent acidity and enough tannin to match meat dishes well.  The important thing is that some people continue to work with this variety to produce wines which genuinely reflect particular, rather inhospitable, landscapes and preserve a distinctive flavour profile.  Not everyone is going to enjoy this style, but it is genuinely worth it.

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