How to fall in love with Carignan

By Miquel Hudin

Growing up in California you are indoctrinated with the idea that our “Golden State” is at the center of the world when it fact it’s at the very end of it. After the second dot-com crash, I realized that all that glittered was not gold and started traveling more, finding that each trip away from my birthplace got successively longer. At one point, it became impractical to live in California anymore as my career in wine writing started growing and so in 2012 I arrived to Barcelona with the intention to stay.

My initial visits to Catalunya started back in 2007 and focused on Empordà as my wife is a native of Figueres in Alt Empordà. This allowed me to witness the birth of wineries such as La Vinyeta and Martín Faixó as well as the massive evolution that took place at Espelt and is still happening with the cooperatives. Overall, during the last decade I’ve seen DO Empordà flourish to become one of Catalunya’s best wine regions which in turn resulted in my first wine book about Catalunya, “Vinologue Empordà”.

As soon as I started understanding the local wine regions and appellations properly, with their specificities and uniqueness, it pained me to see that for wine professionals outside of the country, Catalunya is still largely known via simplistic and out-of-date bullet points:

  • Cava is the easy-going sparkling wine produced in the Penedès region.
  • Priorat is a pricey, high-quality red region with slate soils and terraces
  • Something else? No, that’s about it. Make sure to eat tapas and visit the Ramblas if in Barcelona.

Sadly, many other smaller aspects are lost internationally and as I educated myself more, it led me to the south of Catalunya where Priorat and Montsant call home. As I immersed myself in their land as well as Terra Alta’s, life in Barcelona became an inconvenience. I found myself more often wandering amongst vines fondled by breezes from the Ebre than riding my bicycle through Eixample, so I moved to the village of Porrera.

It’s only once you truly understand the quadrumvirate of Empordà, Priorat, Montsant, and Terra Alta that a common thread emerges–above and beyond the fact these regions produce wonderful wines–and that’s the grape Carignan.

When talking about local red grapes: Grenache is exhilarating and beautiful, Trepat is most definitely rising, and Monastrell has its merits. I’ve also tasted luscious wines of grapes that were once upon a time only known to be good in France (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, etc.) But for some reason Carignan holds a fascination I’ve not had for other grapes, perhaps because of how ignorant I was of it before moving to Catalunya, or perhaps because its profile is just so unknown to Americans. When I do private tastings for visitors, they come under its sway as well however, becoming full, Carignan Converts.

For a forthcoming article, the editor of Decanter, one of the magazines I contribute to commissioned a piece specifically about Carignan. Due to this, I’ve been tasting wines and talking to people from as far south as Terra Alta and as far north as the Rhône Valley to get at what makes this grape so unique and appealing or, for those who have known it in the past, so despised.

If there is any reputation that Carignan has had, it’s one of poor quality wine. We can thank large French producers for that as the vines north of the Pyrenees were pushed to do what Carignan can do easily which is to overproduce. They were seeing production output of 200 hl/ha which by way of comparison is nearly 300% more than the legal limits of DOs Empordà, Montsant, & Terra Alta and 500% percent more than DOQ Priorat!

It’s no wonder it’s been seen as a thin, unappealing wine when this is the desired use of the grape. It’s as if a person were made to do manual labor for 7 days straight with no break. How much personality would they possibly be able to have after being stretched so thin?

The secret to a spellbinding Carignan is the same in Spain as it is in France which is to have small production. In those four DOs of Empordà, Priorat, Montsant, and Terra Alta, it’s there that you find old bush vines struggling to produce even 1kg of grapes and at times as little as 300g. This concentration at the vine makes for grapes of stellar quality and it’s only then that the wealth of acidity, fine tannins, dusty plum, and cocoa notes of the best Carignans come forth.

Now it needs to be said that low-production vines are just one part of the equation. While they can produce a nice wine, it will fall short if the winemaking is not at the same level of the grapes. In fact, reduction, that stinky Sulphur smell, rears its head quite easily if Carignan isn’t managed during fermentation. Once sound viticulture is matched with wise vinification you can see the weight of the grape tamed into a wondrous, nuanced wine that glides across your senses with wave upon wave of flavor and depth.

So, who brings out the best of this grape in this slathering of DOs and AOCs that stretch across a bend of the Northwestern Mediterranean? In general, of the 100 or so that I tried, all were recommendable but here I’ve chosen one wine from six regional groupings which really stood out. Note that, as is my preference, everything was tasted blind.

Languedoc
Domaine Anne Gros et Jean-Paul Tollot – Les Carrétals 2015 – AOC Minervois

Leave it to a winemaker from Burgundy to produce what I believe to be the most energetic Carignan in the Languedoc region. It shouldn’t come as a surprise given that the best wines in Burgundy are extremely “terroir driven” and come from small plots, much how it is with the best Carignan wines. Incredible depth and definition to this wine with acidity that lifts the wine without overpowering it while it still holds the typical weight found in Carignan and states proudly, “I am no Pinot Noir.”

Roussillon
Domaine Ferrer-Ribiere – Carignan Vignes de Plus de 100 ans 2014 – IGP Côtes Catalanes

As Roussillon was part of Catalunya several centuries ago it’s no surprise that small plots of Carignan are found in many corners of the region and this winery specifically seeks out these waiting gems to make their wines. This wine from a very old vineyard shows what can be great about the 2014 vintage with forest floor notes and no end of dark fruits to it. As is frustratingly typical with most French appellations, 100% Carignan isn’t permitted so they have to label it under the regional IGP Côtes Catalanes.

Empordà
Vinyes d’Olivardots – Vd’O 1.11 2011

Year after year, Olivardots has proven that they handily understand their old vineyards and specifically, Carignan. This wine is sourced from two slate vineyards and having tasting multiple vintages of it, I’ve yet to be let down. The 2011 wine showed more pepper and spicy notes than other years but has lovely blue fruit notes on the palate and a finish that lingers forever. It lends a great deal of truth to the commonly-heard phrase that Empordà is “Priorat by the sea”.

Priorat
Vall Llach – Mas de la Rosa 2015

It was a wise decision of this cellar to create separate Village and Vi de Finca wines back in 2010 as both have flourished ever since. Mas de la Rosa, from an old vineyard initially planted back in 1906 is stupendous and shows everything that’s possible when Carignan is at its best. Wild herbs with floating orchard blossoms, it’s delicate in the mouth despite a hefty 16% alcohol. And one of the aspects I appreciate most about this wine is that in more difficult years like 2014 and even more so in 2011, they simply don’t make it which for me, is always an impressive statement by a winery.

Montsant
Vinyes d’en Gabriel – Mans de Samsó 2014

DO Montsant is interesting in that it actually has more old vines than DOQ Priorat and so we’re just starting to see the birth of stupendous single vineyard wines being released. Given that Carignan likes a bit of heat (as opposed to Grenache which can easily go atomic in terms of sugar) the southern reaches of Priorat County suit it very well. It’s was a tough call on this as the Celler Masroig – Les Sorts Vinyes Velles 2013 and this wine nearly tied but I went with Mans de Samsó here as year after year, it’s proven its excellence, including the nefarious 2014 vintage. Much like the Domaine Ferrer-Ribiere, it shows what’s great about 2014 with buoyant acidity balancing out how “big” Carignan can be on the palate. Given the wealth of tannins and defined fruit, this is one of the ’14 wines that should be aged for quite some time yet.

Terra Alta
Celler Josep Vicens – Mon Iaio Sisco Vinyes Velles de Samsò 2012

I received about 10 varietal Carignan wines from Catalunya’s most southern region and overall, was surprised. Given how much we talk about their White Grenache, I didn’t realize they had much of Carignan but more to the point, they were all very good. There is indeed more work to do as they, like the other regions I’ve mentioned are working to find their own signature touch to this grape. What I love about this specific wine is that it is unabashedly Carignan and while it holds that classic rustic aspect (which when controlled is excellent) the winery clearly picked and vinified correctly, maintaining excellent acidity while also showing luscious fruit and that mouthwatering floral aspect of violets that I treasure in this grape.

I know everyone wants to know which wine was truly “the best”. You can read my full tasting notes that will be out in January, but I have to say that it’s less an issue of “the best” but that there are two very different styles between France and Spain. In France, they pick much earlier, sometimes in the middle of September whereas in Spain, it’s the beginning of October or even November depending on the vineyard.

When picked earlier, you do get a wine that’s less alcoholic, more acidic, and definitely more appealing to many people. I’m not a fan of picking Carignan early as shown by some old-vine Carignan I recently tasted from my native California (yes, we have old vines there for the same reason as here in that the grape could produce an ungodly number of grapes) and the winemaker had picked at the end of August in 2016, sadly. The result was, “different” to say the least, especially when compared to another wine made from an adjoining plot that was picked at the end of September that reached a level similar to what we see in Catalunya.

Worrying about alcohol levels can’t be your main premise in winemaking as when Carignan is grown upon poor soils, especially those of slate found in Priorat or Empordà this appears to mitigate the issues of the alcohol being the protagonist and lend to making a more “rounded” wine. To me, Carignan enjoys lengthy ripening to be at its best although I have to admit that when picked earlier, it’s more food friendly because if you try a bold, Southern Carignan with strong cheeses, especially Roquefort or Cabrales, it’s patently horrible; two beautiful things are vying for the spotlight as if Jackson Pollock painted on a statue by Rodin. I’d advise sticking to roasted meats, especially lamb for full enjoyment with Carignan.

My one regret in writing about Carignan is a fully selfish one in that I want to keep all these wines to myself and my friends. I worry that if an explosion in popularity happens, these old, rare plots where the grapes for the best wines are sourced will “Burgundize”, fetching prices that will be far beyond the reach of my admittedly lethargic wallet. If it happens, I suppose there’s little I can do about it, but if fame and worth are given back to this once-scorned grape, it certainly won’t be a bad thing. This may even encourage others to produce lovely varietal Carignan wines in the future which is a much more pleasant thought than the other option from a recent and misguided past which was simply to tear out these old precious vines ignoring what we have found they are ultimately capable of.

Miquel Hudin
Miquel Hudin is a Certified Sommelier originally from California who moved to Catalunya in 2012. He’s the creator of the wine book series, Vinologue which includes titles for the regions of DO Empordà, DOQ Priorat, and DO Montsant in Catalunya. He judges in various international wine competitions including the Decanter Awards in the UK and the Concourse International de Lyon in France. He is also a regular contributor to the magazines, Decanter, World of Fine Wine, and Harpers, among others, and in 2017 he was named, “Best Drink Writer of 2017” by the prestigious Fortnum & Mason Awards.

This article has 4 comments

  1. Floris Reply

    Did you take advantage of this tasting to taste some carignan blanc? I am appalled that no taster is able to understand this grape until I make him taste a bottle of 5 years and another one of 10 years!…

    • Miquel Hudin Reply

      Yes, I tasted a small amount of Carignan Blanc in this as well and yours were great. Unfortunately for the article, I had to focus on the red variant due to space as well as the fact that in all the DOs of Spain, the white mutation isn’t permitted.

      One of the issues (and why there is so much prejudice) is that it seems winemakers who don’t understand the grape end up with an extremely reductive wine with searing, unbalanced acidity. What I’ve tasted in blends in Roussillon and now in varietal form in Languedoc is quite promising and I think those north of the border understand this particular white grape a great deal more than in the south.

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