Voilà an Old Ruffian making a Renaissance
Common old Carignan is making a comeback from overlooked corners of rocky terroir where, unpressured, it is allowed the time to flaunt its flambouyant flavour.
Making the Irish-Languedoc connection from cuisine to culture, Mar Hampla writes Evening Hérault from a ‘sunny little shack’ near the Canal du Midi, a blog liberally laced with Irish condiment and full of intriguing musings about France.
Here reprinted by kind permission of the author, is Mar’s account of the unexpected revival of an old Languedoc grape varietal.
The Carignan renaissance begins here
by Mar Hampla of the Evening Hérault
Once upon a time Carignan was the most widely planted grape on the planet. It was the single most common vine variety planted in France.
Its vines are late budding, ripen late and are highly susceptible to rot and mildew. They favour a hot climate and long, dry growing season – is it any wonder that Carignan became the grape of Languedoc-Roussillon?
Then something happened. It fell out of fashion.
The amount of Carignan vines in the south of France halved during the 1990s. It was overtaken by Merlot.
If you believed some wine experts (and we’re not experts by any means, just wine fans), everything about Carignan – all 100% of it – was absolutely wrong: “too high in acidity”, “rough tannins”, “green and unripe flavours”, “not great for early drinking”, “and doesn’t age well either”.
Carignan became associated with “the kind of wine you could pour into an empty petrol tank in an emergency”, as one English Sunday newspaper harshly put it. Or take the highly respected Jancis Robinson’s verdict:
“Its wine is high in everything — acidity, tannins, colour, bitterness — but finesse and charm. This gives it the double inconvenience of being unsuitable for early consumption yet unworthy of maturation.”
Jancis Robinson in “The Oxford Companion to Wine”
Carignan vines can be exceptionally productive – sometimes “churning out” (Ms Robinson’s words) 200 hectolitres per hectare – and maybe that was part of the problem too. Excuse the mixed metaphors, but the Languedoc-Roussillon’s cash cow became the elephant in the room.
As our Twitter friend from Cork, Blake Creedon, so vividly puts it, Carignan was “long regarded as the lantern-jawed ruffian of the wine world, mostly destined for the notorious EU wine lake”. We can’t help thinking of a ruffian and said jaw being tossed into a very large lake.
The gnarled old Carignan bushes began to be replaced by gentler, fruitier, trendier grapes, the “improvers”, the cepages ameliorateurs. Not that Carignan disappeared altogether. There was still plenty around, but now it had a much lower profile. It disappeared into blends – particularly to add acidity to Cinsaut and/or Grenache.
So very brave was the producer who dared to make a 100% varietal Carignan, of all things.
The authorities weren’t against Carignan, not officially, but there were all them EU grants to rip up the old vines, and while many Languedoc-Roussillon producers took the funding on the one hand, very few would be planting new Carignan vines on the other.
The result, by luck perhaps, was that what was left included a lot of very old vines in overlooked corners. And some growers found that the problem wasn’t with the grape per se but with where the vines were planted. Instead of going for big volumes on your best soil, you had a much better wine if it came from these older vines, vines with plenty of character, on extremely poor soils, with much lower yields.
You’d also get better results if you let the grapes ripen properly, and harvest them late, and store them in older oak barrels, and do the “Edward Scissorhands” thing and prune back your vines very severely every year.
Lo Vièlh and the Carignan fightback
Carignan’s fightback had to come. It seems to be led by a couple of Languedoc vignerons – John Bojanowski, originally from Kentucky, and his French wife Nicole (nee Fernandez).
They run Clos Du Gravillas, a small organic domaine in St Jean de Minervois, on chalky gravel soil just south of the Montagne Noire (Black Mountains). Gravillas means gravel, crushed white gravel chips, or beaucoup de cailloux. Take it away, John (in French)…
Before becoming winemakers, John was the East European Sales Manager for a supplier of uninterruptible power supply equipment, and Nicole was as an export manager at Terroirs D’Occitanie.
In 1999 Nicole came across two and a half hectares of Carignan vines in their vineyard’s neglected nooks and crannies: vines planted in 1970, 1952 and 1911. Imagine that – some of the vines are now over a century old.
They started to make a 100% Carignan wine, Lo Vièlh (“The Old One” in Occitan). Ask for a glass of it the next time you’re in Le Chameau Ivre in Béziers.
Anyway, John started the Carignans.com website, and in 2004 he organised the first “Carignan World Tasting”, a gathering in Béziers of dozens of local growers, Carignan fans, and (v imporant) some doubting scribes from the international wine press.
As Ryan O’Connell explains on his blog, “Now, there’s a safe community where growers can come out of the Carignan closet and admit to the world and to themselves that it is a great grape when grown right.”
And when it’s treated right, a 100% Carignan is superb: silky smooth, easygoing, with great depth and flavours, from black olives to coffee and dark chocolate and a hint of tobacco.
OK, Carignan is an underdog, a workhorse rather than a racing stallion. Yet what’s wrong with workhorses? This one is a strong and sturdy and a perfect reflection of its perfect terroir.
It can also be great value in Irish shops: take the “Rare Vineyards Carignan Vieilles Vignes” from the Hérault, which has been appearing in Superquinn in recent times for as little as €6 a bottle (apologies to specialist wine merchants: we’ve only seen it in the supermarket giants, so if you too have some good 100% Carignans, please give yourselves a nice big plug in the comments box below).
Mind you, the labels for this particular “Rare Vineyards” wine try to press all the right marketing buttons (“terroir”, “garrigue” etc) in a contrived sort of way, in clumsy English that seems deliberately so…
“Made of a forgotten Languedoc grape” (Of? from?)
“Grown on rare vineyards” (On? in?)
“Located in far away valleys” (Far away from where? Narbonne? Carcassonne? Termonfeckin?)
“This Carignan old vines expresses all its true characteristics enhanced by its ‘garrigue” terroir aromas” (Buttons. Being. Pressed)
“The wine richness and concentration will transport you through the 40 years age vines…” (Sorry?)
It’s a pity too that (unlike Lo Vièlh etc) these labels are ever so vague about who produced it, and where exactly these Rare Vineyards are located. All us consumers can work out is that it’s bottled in a 34360 postcode, maybe around Pardailhan near St Chinian.
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- 2005 Mas de Daumas Gassac Vin de Pays de l’Hérault (France, Languedoc Roussillon, Languedoc, Vin de Pays de l’Hérault) (vinopelz.blogspot.com)
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