By Rose Murray Brown MW Published in The Scotsman 17 February 2018
The Carignan grape has gone from boom to bust. Once the most planted grape in France in the C20, it then fell from favour and growers ripped out their Carignan vines replacing them with the more popular Merlot. Now it is coming back in favour again.
“Carignan is known as the bad boy of the Languedoc”, says Katie Jones of Domaine Jones (pictured centre), an Englishwoman who owns a patch of 100 year old Carignan vines in Maury, Roussillon.
“This black grape was once prized for its high yields, which made rather average wine and often disappeared into blends”, says Jones. “Now Carignan is seeing something of a renaissance as growers realise that old bush vine Carignan and small yields make a lovely concentrated wine”, she says.
If yields are not contained, Carignan can produce four times as much as Cabernet Sauvignon, so it is no wonder it infiltrated the Midi in post-war France, where it became the backbone of Fitou and other southern French blends
But it can be a very awkward grape to grow. It ripens late so needs a warm climate, is susceptible to mildew and its stalks are so tough hand harvesting is essential. If yields are not kept low, it can make an unforgivingly tough and sometimes rather unpleasantly tannic high acid wine. Today there are around 300,000 acres of Carignan in France, about half the amount grubbed up under the EU vine pull scheme in 1980’s.
Now this much-maligned grape is seeing a change in its fortunes in France and across the world. It is believed to have originated from Aragon in Spain and is still found in Catalonia (called Samso), Priorat and Rioja (Mazuelo) - and in Italy on the island of Sardinia owned by the Spanish for four centuries (known as Carignano) where it makes fine lush reds. In the New World, it has a following in South Africa, California, Mexico, Argentina and Chile.
We could have called our Carignan tasting – an ‘old vine tasting’. Some of the youngest vines were 40 year old, relatively young compared to Clos de Gravillas’ 100 year old vines and Sardinia’s 150 yr old vines.
Some producers like Katie Jones of Domaine Jones in Maury and American John Bojanowski and his French wife Nicole of Le Clos du Gravillas (pictured) in Minervois are focusing on Carignan as their signature grape as they believe in its potential.
“When we bought the property we found some very old Carignan vines which had been planted in 1911”, says Bojanowski. “We learnt that Carignan treated seriously and respectfully returns the favour planted on our rocky limestone soils”, he says.
CARIGNAN TASTE TEST
Languedoc Roussillon, France: ALAIN GRIGNON CARIGNAN VIEILLES VIGNES 2016 (£6.99/£7.99 Majestic Wine)
Dark inky rugged version of Carignan from its homeland in the Langeudoc. Quite meaty with a luscious cherry fruit character for the price. Made from 40 year old vines grown in Herault: 12.5%
Languedoc Roussillon, France: SOIF DE PLAISIR 2010 Clot de l'Origne (£15.99 Raeburn Wines, Edinburgh) ***STAR BUY***
This is not 100% Carignan, but it is such a stunning biodynamic blend of 73 year old Carignan with Syrah and Grenache from schist soils of Agly valley in Maury, made by Marc Barriot. Mellow earthy bouquet, forest fruits, complex, silky smooth, rounded with good finish. Very good: 13.5%
Languedoc Roussillon, France: LE CARIGNAN MONT BAUDILE 2013 Domaine Auphilac (£16 www.thewinesociety.com)
From 60-80 year old Carignan vines grown on clay limestone in Montpeyroux. Enticing bouquet with liquorice and smoke, but lacks complexity, tannic finish and prominent alcohol: 13.5%
Languedoc Roussillon, France: CLOS DU LO VIELH CARIGNAN DE 100 ANNS 2015 Le Clos du Gravillas (£22 Les Caves de Pyrene www.lescaves.co.uk; www.noblegreenwines.co.uk) ***STAR BUY***
Earthy leathery rich liquorice flavours and complex fine tannins. Lo Vielh which translates as ‘the old one’ in ancient Languedoc. A superb example of 100% old vine Carignan from a tiny 2 hectare plot made by American John Bojanowski in Minervois: 14%
Maule, Chile: DE MARTINO OLD VINES CARIGNAN 2014 (£12 Marks & Spencer)
The discovery of 70 year old Carignan vines in Maule Valley has been exciting for Chile – and this is definitely the best Carignan from South America. De Martino’s version from dry farmed vineyards is very ripe making deliciously dense chewy concentrated wines: 14%
Montsant, Spain: TIERRAS COLORADAS OLD VINE CARIGNAN 2015 (£10.49 Waitrose)
Made from 40 yr old Carignan vines in a simpler style with cherry and damson fruits, creamy, prominent tannins and slightly bitter finish: 14.5%
Swartland, South Africa: SPICE ROUTE TERRA DE BRON CARIGNAN 2014 (£19.99 Fine Wine Co, Musselburgh)
Rich ripe lush spicy single vineyard Cape Carignan from 17 year old vines with fine tannins and a smooth finish - made by Charles Back of Fairview in his Swartland winery at Klein Amoskuli: 13.5%
Sardinia, Italy: PORTA FLAVIO CARIGNANO DEL SULCIS 2015 Calasetta (£9.99 reduced from £14.99 www.laithwaites.co.uk)
A fascinating example of Carignan from 150 year old vines. Bouquet enchants with mulberry spicy, lovely rounded flavours, lush velvet smooth palate finishes with tannic edge: 14.5%
Join Rose’s Loire & Rhone wine & charcuterie tasting at The Royal Scots Club in Edinburgh on Friday 23 March £45 www.rosemurraybrown.com