Thursday, 10 November 2016

Time for a Carignan rehabilitation

Carignan is probably not a grape variety whose name readily trips off the tongue. It’s not one of the highly regarded, “noble” varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay. Nor is it, like Pinot Grigio, so ubiquitous that people ask for a glass of it by name in their local gastro pub.

So, a potted biography of Carignan is perhaps in order.

Carignan is mostly found in Languedoc-Roussillon, where it generally forms part of a blend and is rarely seen or its own, or, indeed trumpeted on a front label. It originates, however, in Aragon in northeastern Spain. Back in its native land, it is often known as Mazuelo (or Mazuela in Rioja) or, in Catalonia, Samsó, though you may also see Cariñena (which is also, confusingly, the name of a wine region). Outside France and Spain, you are most likely to come across it in Chile where, thankfully, it is called simply Carignan. There is some in North America, where it has acquired an extra “e” as Carignane.

Carignan has been recorded in southern France since Medieval times, but this longevity has not led to respect and it tends to be labelled a workhorse variety at best. At worst it is derided or even despised. Why?

Carignan needs a long, warm growing season to ripen fully, so it has never spread to cooler parts of France. Its influence in southern France has been waning in recent years, but it was valued by growers, especially up until the latter part of the 20th century, as a high yielding grape which added colour, alcohol and acidity to otherwise weedy wines.

The Carignan vine is a vigorous grower which will provide high yields, if allowed to, which give a deep coloured, high acid wine that is long on tannin and short on fruit. Sounds good, huh? But, but – lower yielding old vines that have not been irrigated and whose fruit has been treated carefully can give wines with distinct, rich inky black fruit, accompanied by present but pleasant tannins and that acidity gives a freshness that is welcome in wines from a warm climate.

Many Carignan vines have been pulled up in Languedoc-Roussillon, partly encouraged by government vine pull schemes. Those that remain are, increasingly, those older bushvines on better land away from the flat, fertile plains – and they make correspondingly better, increasingly very good, wines.

So, now is the time to discover and rehabilitate Carignan – say its name with pride.

3C, Cariñena 2015 (Spain)- £5.25 The Wine Society
Ignore the hideous label and tuck into the delightlful unoaked Carignan within. There is plenty of juicy black fruit and a lick of tannin that will hit the spot on many a chilly, dark night. You are unlikely to find another red wine that packs so much flavour in at this price.

Les Crouzes, Carignan Vieilles Vignes 2015 - £6.49 Co-op
Despite its ubiquity, it is still rare to find a 100% Carignan wine in the Languedoc. This is the essence of the Midi, where a certain rusticity meets fresh and fruity to great effect.

Torres Cordillera Carignan 2009 (Chile) - £13.99 Taurus Wines, Bramley
This is a brilliant example of Carignan made from old, unirrigated bush vines in the Maule region of Chile. Producers there have now banded together to form the VIGNO project, designed to highlight the wines made from these increasingly rare old (sometimes up to 100 years old) vines. This is full of black, brambly fruit with bay leaf herbal characters and a lipsmacking freshness.

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