Sunday, 16 January 2011

Carignan - the ugly duckling of the wine world?

Who says Carignan isn't capable of making great wine? Well, lots of people, as it happens, including some of the wine world's most prominent and influential writers and journalists. In the 3rd edition of The Oxford Companion To Wine (published as recently as 2006), Jancis Robinson MW describes Carignan as a "late-ripening black grape variety which could fairly be called the bane of the European wine industry, although old bushvines, as is their wont, are demonstrably capable of producing particularly concentrated wine." Frankly, the last part of that sentence serves as little more than an afterthought, and simply adds insult to injury. To be fair (and I'm struggling here) she does add later, "the produce of old vines on very poor soils such as at Domaine d'Auphilac in Montpeyroux and Ch de Lastours in Corbieres is exceptional - even if some would argue better in a blend than as a 100 per cent varietal." If you try very hard, you might spot in that statement the merest hint of damning with faint praise.

To be even more fair (and believe me, I'm still finding it difficult) I have heard rumours that Jancis has since made the occasional conciliatory remark about this or that Carignan-based wine. But because my knowledge of such remarks is at best second-hand or anecdotal, I can do no more than dismiss them as heresay.

So are the capabilities of Carignan limited entirely to adding the occasional bit of interest to wines made predominantly from other grapes varieties? I don't think so - and my friend and fellow Nottingham Wine Circle member Andy Leslie and I this week presented a line-up of wines which we hoped would give our own nay-sayers (and they are a hard bunch to please, believe me) plenty of food for thought. The line-up comprised wines from France, Sardinia and California, with vintages ranging from 2008, back to 1997. Most were 100% Carignan, though the first two were blends. Prices of the wines with links are my website prices. Other prices are either what Andy or I paid at auction, or wine-seacher prices, where currently available.

1. Mas de Lavail Ballade 2007 Vin de Pays Cotes Catalanes (£8.63)
50% Carignan and 50% Grenache, from vines in excess of 50 years old. I have to admit that many of those present didn't think much of this wine (I did say they are a hard lot to please!) but they are of little faith, for it has potential that is hidden to all but the most ardent and patient Languedoc wine fans. On the night, it was dominated by its inherent tarriness (some said rubber) but there is so much fruit in there that it cannot fail to emerge. And as I type (a full 4 days later) I am enjoying the remnants of the bottle immensely, with the tar almost gone, to be replaced by mixed red and black fruit aromas, oranges and a hint of damp earth. There's a touch of savouriness to the palate, but again plenty of sweet fruit and a good acid/tannin structure. If you want to drink it now, decant it at least a day in advance. Otherwise, give it 3 to 5 years (or even more) and watch it grow in stature and (dare I say it) become more and more like a really good Cotes du Rhone Villages.

2. Mas Foulaquier Gran’ Tonillieres 2006 Pic Saint-Loup (£18.89)
Again, a 50/50 blend of Carignan and Grenache, from old vines, grown in the far north of the Pic Sain-Loup appellation. Aged for 24 months (half in concrete vats, half in barrels and demi-muids of between 3 and 10 years old). Biodynamic, and with just 10 mg/l of SO2 added at bottling. I was too busy talking and presenting to make much of a note on this bottle, but it showed very nicely, as did my previous bottle;  "Intense and amazingly pure blackcurrant and bramble aromas mingle with garrigue herbs, clove and cedarwood, along with some quite meaty/savoury notes and an interesting hint of iodine (always a good descriptor in my book, by the way). The palate is packed with red and black fruits, herbs, allspice and dark chocolate, with firm but fine tannins and ample acidity."

3. Domaine Monplezy Emocion 2005 Vin de Pays des Cotes de Thongue (£18.00)
100% old-vine Carignan, aged in barrel for 12 months. Fresh and perfectly balanced in the mouth, with concentrated black fruit and chocolate flavours. Good acidity and fine tannins. Both fruity and savoury, with plenty of weight, and a good structure for ageing. As I sell this wine, I have tracked its progress over the last couple of years and, having finally lost its first flush of youth, it appears to be going into a bit of a closed/dumb phase. But it certainly has both the fruit and the structure to evolve beautifully over the next 5 to 10 years. Perhaps it is time to squirrel-away a few of my remaining bottles for myself!

4. Domaine de La Marfée Les Vignes qu’on Abat 2007 Vin de Pays de l’Hérault (£24.50)
100% old-vine Carignan, aged for 2 years in barrel. Biodynamic. The name "Les Vignes qu'on Abat" translates roughly as "the vines they are pulling up" - a commentary on the sad fact that so many precious old Carignan vineyards have been consigned to the bonfire. Although my own experience of winemaker Thierry Hasard's wines covers only the 1999, 2000, 2001 and 2007 vintages, I have a feeling that this wine will never go into a closed phase, such is its sheer vibrancy and level of unctious fruit. Again, I didn't write a note on the night, simply because the bottle we tasted conformed almost exactly to the note on my website, which reads "Raspberries and blackcurrants leap from the glass, with myriad other aromas, including strawberries and cream, garrigue herbs and even a hint of elderflower. Although aged in oak for 2 years (mostly older oak, with just a small percentage of new barrels used each year) there is just the merest suggestion of pencil shavings, with no obvious oak aromas - the sign of very skilful winemaking. The palate is medium-rich, with flavours of blackcurrant and cranberry, tar and spice, hints of garrigue and an almost schiste-like minerality and remarkably ripe, velvety tannins. A touch of sweet fruit returns on the finish, which is spicy and long." Tasting it again did, however, remind me of how remarkably lovely this wine is to drink now. That said, it has a long and brilliant future ahead of it, and will surely age and evolve for at least another 5 to 10 years. All of which does nothing to alter my opinion that Thierry Hasard is firmly established in the Premier League of Languedoc winemakers - and an absolute master of the Carignan variety.

5. Santadi Terre Brune Carignano del Sulcis Superiore 2005, Sardinia (Approximately £35.00 - but Andy got it for nothing, from his brother-in-law, who runs a restaurant!)
90% Carignano, with 10% Bobaleddu. Intense aromas of bramble - and pickled bramble, at that - with notes of blackcurrant leaf and menthol, and a healthy dollop of volatile acidity. Complex red and black fruit flavours. There is a backbone of lemony acidity, which may or may not be natural, but it gives a delightful freshness to what is essentially a big, quite modern red wine - albeit identifiably Italian (well, Sardinian). Bags of fruit, bags of character, and really quite lovely - though you wouldn't necessarily identify it as Carignan.

6. Agricola Punica Barrua 2002, Sardinia (Current vintage is around £29, but this vintage was £22 when Andy bought it, several years ago)
85% Carignano, with 10% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Merlot. Perhaps it was the addition of the Cabernet and Merlot, but this one, although still undoubtedly a very nice wine, was just a little bit more "international" in style - although even then, it didn't entirely betray its Sardinian roots. Soft, smooth, tobacco-infused fruit aromas and flavours, but with plenty of meaty/grippy tannic structure. There's quite a lot of oak influence, too - and tasting the remnants of the bottle 4 days later, the impression of oak has grown, with the grape tannins being overtaken by some rather harsh and raw oak tannin. Then again, that may just mean that this wine will take a few more years to really get into its stride.

7. Porter Creek Old Vine Carignane 2008, Mendocino County, California (Around £15 retail in USA)
I can only assume that this is 100% Carignane, as even the grower's website doesn't mention any other grape variety. The nose initially offers an intriguing mix of elerberry, elderflower and apple aromas - and then there's a big hit of raspberries, like summer pudding in a glass. The palate is still quite tannic and a touch tarry, and not overtly fruity, so I think it needs to be aged for a few years. That said, it seems really nicely put together. Later on (in this case, a few hous later) it really begins to open-up, with some fresh, vibrant strawberry and bramble fruit emerging, with a hint of oak vanillin, juicy acidity and softening tannins. Almost (but not quite) like a strapping young Beaujolais. Nice.

8. Joseph Swan Cotes du Rosa 2008, Russian River Valley, California (£20.38)
100% Carignan. What can I say about this wine that I haven't said before? Here's my full tasting note, added to my website just before Christmas; "The nose offers beguiling scents of strawberries, raspberries, plum skins, citrus/orange, a hint of savoury/leather and exotic spices. In fact, those spices, married to what I assume is some old(ish) oak barrel maturation, are strongly suggestive of incense and polished wood. The palate isn't too shabby, either - a delicious mouthful of fresh red and black fruits, incense (yes, I swear you can actually taste it, too), supple, savoury tannins and a simply mouth-watering core of juicy, orangey/appley acidity. With a relatively modest 13.6% abv, this is no glass-staining Cali/Rhône monster - it is supremely balanced, elegant and thoroughly charming. And although it is eminently drinkable now, it also has the capacity to age beautifully for a decade or more - I can say this with confidence, because I have tasted one or two older vintages that were quite memorable. This wonderful wine only serves to strengthen my opinion that anyone who says that Carignan can't make charming, elegant, age-worthy, world class wine needs their head examining!" Enough said!

9. Bonny Doon Ancient Vines Carignane 2004, Santa Cruz, California (£10 retail, locally)
A touch of eau de vie on the nose, but just enough to make it really interesting. There's plenty of varietal character in this wine, with some nice lifted notes and even a touch of that elderflower. The palate is meaty, tarry and full of bramble fruit, full-bodied, with a good deal of concentration, again nicely lifted, with supple (if slightly rustic) tannins and juicy acidity. For £10, this represents cracking good value for money.

10. Terre Inconnue Les Bruyeres 1999 Vin de Table de France (Approximately £12 at auction)
100% Carignan, from vines in excess of 100 years old. I wrote a very enthusiastic blog entry on this wine in 2009, and had specifically saved a bottle for just such a tasting as this. And this bottle was just as good, if not even better - and certainly had the group purring as one in their appreciation. A lovely light carmine/blood red colour. The nose is like smelling an old wardrobe (a favourite descriptor of mine), with additional notes of mint/menthol, oldish oak and a whole box full of mixed fruits, albeit at a fairly tertiary stage. Oh, and a very alluring touch of volatile acidity, which puts one in mind of Musar, but in a somewhat "cleaner" (i.e. less quirky) way. Although this clearly has plenty of age, it still seems so vibrant and full of fruit and life. I'm not sure it will get any better, but neither is it likely to fall off its perch anytime soon. Shame, as this was the last of my 2 bottles! A lovely, lovely wine.

11. Domaine de La Marfée Les Vignes qu’On Abat 1999 Coteux du Languedoc (Approximately £16 at auction)
100% old-vine Carignan. I opened and decanted a bottle of this a few hours before the tasting and wasn't sure if it was quite right. Nevertheless, I took it along and passed it around, to see what others thought. The general consensus was that it was corked (and indeed it was, if only "slightly"). Thankfully, my suspicions led me to take a back-up bottle along, which I opened and passed around the table. Although I am always sad to encounter a corked bottle (especially one which promised much) the second bottle served only to show the immense gulf between a "slightly" corked bottle and a perfect one. And the second bottle really was perfect - a full 8 years older than wine number 4, but still with more than a little of that trademark elderflower and mint perfume, together with an abundance of plum, damson and bramble fruit - a truly glorious nose. The palate is beautifully focused and in balance, with dense fruit concentration, softening tannins and fine acidity. An utterly more-ish wine, which is beginning to approach its peak (though it isn't quite there yet) and will undoubtedly hold for another 5 years or more. Brilliant wine!

12. Joseph Swan Cotes du Rosa 1997, Russian River Valley, California (Approximately £12 at auction)
100% Carignan. Boy, is this different! The Swan label says 14.6% abv, but the UK importer's label says 16% - work that one out! The nose is unbelievably rich and perfumed, with dense bramble, plum and rich fruitcake aromas. A touch of VA balances the almost Port-like, tarry aromas, making for a wine that fills the senses. And it does the same thing to the palate - rich and dense, almost akin to a fortified wine, but without the excess alcohol. In fact, for a dry wine, this wears its 16% remarkably well. I bet it was a bit of a monster when it was young, but it has evolved into a delicious, almost elegant wine, with intensely sweet fruit, balanced perfectly by lemony, almost volatile acidity and resolved tannins - big, but very beautiful. A real curio, and if you are lucky enough to have some in your celler, I'd say drink it with a juicy steak, or just enjoy it on its own, by a warm fire. A fine way to finish a most interesting and educational tasting.

So what are the conclusions? Well, there's no doubt that the best Carignan wines are made from old (and preferably very old) vines, and take a good while in bottle to really show their potential.

Vinous treasures - 100-plus year-old vines, owned by Terre Inconnue in Languedoc

Frankly, it is a crying shame that so many great old Carignan vineyards around the world (though especially in southern France) have been ripped up over the last 10 to 20 years. I'll wager that there are a good many vignerons who are quietly remorseful about the fact that they took what must have seemed good money at the time, in order to rid the planet of such an "undesirable" grape variety. For a list of just some of those that resisted the temptation to do so, have a look at the Carignan Renaissance website, created and maintained by John and Nicole Bojanowski, owners of Clos du Gravillas, who make some cracking wines (from Carignan and other varieties). The list is far from exhaustive (where are Joseph Swan and Domaine de La Marfée?!) but it provides a good starting point.

Furthermore, I am greatly admiring of anyone who is brave enough to plant new vineyards with Carignan. But if they don't, where are the great old-vine wines going to come from in the future? For it is a sad fact of life that old vines are like people - they are going to die eventually - and wines like the ones above may eventually become as rare as hen's teeth. For now, though, I can only urge you to seek these wines out and treasure them. And once you have aged them to perfection (for most of them do indeed take 10 years or more to show their best) enjoy them in all their glory - and damn the critics!

Meanwhile, I'll leave you with another quote from Jancis Robinson MW;

"But perhaps this is to miss the point of Carignan. Perhaps it is meant to be a cussed brute, like the rocks that litter the Languedoc landscape? If so, let others wallow in it."


Anonymous said...

Some great notes here, appreciate it.


ps find it hard catching up with all your notes!!! Too much snow removal, keeps me busy.

Leon Stolarski said...

Glad to see you are still reading, Bob. Snow? We've not seen any now, since Christmas. I'm almost (but not quite) beginning to miss it!

Vinogirl said...

I always enjoyed the Carignan (blend) from Chateau Routas, but they don't seem to make it anymore...wonder if they ripped out the old vines...

Leon Stolarski said...

Vonogirl - if you've never tasted Swan's Cotes du Rosa (or indeed any of their wines) then you should. Amazingly delicious, quirky wines - and relatively cheap, for California wines of such quality. They look to be around 30 miles or so from Napa (they are based in Forestville).

By the way, I've never seen you mention the name of your winery - what is it? Feel free to email me, if it is something you prefer not to mention on the blog.

Vinogirl said...

I think I have had a Swan wine in the past, but seeing as they have been featured on your blog quite a bit lately, I feel a need to try all of them :)

Vinogirl said...

I don't use Outlook, so I do not have access to your email address :(