Monday, 17 February 2014

Carignan: la Belle Endormie se réveille – or The Sleeping Beauty awakes.


That was the title of a conference organised by wine writer, and Carignan enthusiast, Michel Smith, at Millésime Bio.   I have a soft spot for old Carignan, so I was delighted to have the chance to listen to various people enthusing about Carignan, and lots of good points were made, and then there was a tasting opportunity afterwards.

Michel kicked off by observing that when he was writing his book about Corbières, published by Jacques Legrand in 1996, the best wines were dominated by Carignan.  The problem is that a lot of Carignan is not planted in good sites, nor are the best clones used.  However, there has been a distinct renaissance of Carignan, so that a lot of old vineyards have been saved, with a growing number of pure Carignan cuvées produced in Languedoc Roussillon.  He thought as many as 300. 

The origins of Carignan are Spanish, and it is found all round the Mediterranean, in Sardinia, Israel and even Egypt, and was extensively planted in the Midi with the redevelopment of the vineyards after the phylloxera crisis.   At one time there would have been 300,000 hectares in France, responsible for what was rudely known as le gros rouge, with yields on the fertile coastal plans reaching 150 – 160 hl/ha.

These days Carignan is at its best in places like the Agly valley, Montpeyroux and around Pézenas, where it produces much more modest yields.  There are currently about 5 – 6000 hectares in production, and it is being replanted.   

Next speaker was Sylvain Fadat from Domaine d’Aupilhac in Montpeyroux.  He was been producing Carignan for 30 years, as his first vineyard was a vineyard of Carignan, and he did not have enough money to replant it with Syrah.  And he came to recognise its qualities. It is all a question of balance.  It can suffer from an excessive of oak, and from yields that are too high, or too low.  And the vines do not necessarily have to be old to make good wine.   Carignan is benefitting from improvements in viticulture.  These days Sylvain sell his Carignan for more than his Montpeyroux! 

Marjorie Gallet from Roc des Anges in Roussillon has old Carignan on her estate, that was planted in 1903, for vin doux.  Her village Montner produced base wine for Byrrh.   At first nobody wanted old Carignan vines, but these days if there is some Carignan for sale, at least three or four people are competing for it.    She called it the cépage identitaire of the Midi.  It retains freshness, and can resist wind, which is significant in an area where the wind blows hard.   It also adapts well to a variety of soils.

Bernard Vidal from La Liquière in Faugères described himself as a Carignanist on the schist of Faugères.  He has continued to plant Carignan. When the appellation of Faugères was created, people thought improvements would come with the so-called cépages améliorateurs such as Syrah and Mourvèdre.  In fact that has proved the wrong path, because ‘we did not modify our work in the vineyard and the cellar to improve Carignan’.  Consequently a lot of Carignan was pulled up, and replaced with Syrah, with the result that ‘we began to lose our identity’.   He was adamant. ‘Carignan is our originality in Faugères’; it loves the schist, the acidity, the altitude, and the strata of schist allow its deep roots to reach water.   ‘Carignan is part of our identity’.

Jean Natoli has worked as a consultant oenologist for 30 years.  ‘At once time it seemed that all the malheurs came from Carignan, and that it should be eradicated.  The appellation regulations still continue to limit Carignan, whereas in some areas it is ridiculous to do that.  We should preserve as much diversity as possible, or else we shall run the risk of losing it.   However, Carignan should not be planted just anywhere. It is not uniformly good’.   He also mentioned Carignan blanc.  ‘Do not forget it.  It is easier than Carignan Noir to understand, and has aroma and acidity’.   And there is also Carignan Gris.  ‘Communication about Carignan is what is needed’.

And since this was a French conference, naturally food featured, with a chef, Bruno, giving us serving suggestions.  Carignan Blanc, with its ageing potential, would be delicious with white meat and cream sauces, and mushroom.  And for Carignan Noir, which encompasses several different styles, you need to consider the age of the wine.  More powerful meat dishes would favour a young Carignan.   Personally one of my favourite combinations is unoaked Carignan with barbecued sausages.

So it was all very positive, and there was no devil’s advocate to point out the defects and disadvantages of Carignan.  I think of my friend Daniel Domergue who used to make delicious old Carignan, called Carignanissme at Clos Centeilles, who observed rather disparagingly:  ‘if you can make good wine from Carignan, just think how much better wine you can make from another grape variety.’ 

And the proceedings concluded with a small tasting of various Carignan.

Mas Gabriel Clos des Papillons, with some herbal fruit.

 Clos du Gravillas 2011 Lo Viehl, was rich and ripe with supple tannins and fresh red fruit.

2013 1903 Carignan was a vat sample with sweet ripe fruit.

Sylvain 's 1997 Le Carignan showed its ageing potential with some smoky vegetal notes on the nose and cedary fruit on the palate. 

Bernard Vidal’s Nos Racines 2012 was fresh with ripe fruit and supple tannins, while 2011 Stella Nova was firm and gutsy, as was Domaine Sainte Croix 2012 from the Corbières.


For more on Carignan, go to www.les5duvin.wordpress.com  and look for Carignan Story


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