In 2004, the respected wine critic Jancis Robinson wrote a piece entitled “Can Carignan Ever Be Great”? At the time, Carignan was emerging from the darkness of the era of overproduction, and certain winemakers were championing the grape variety as the Next Big Thing. She had been encouraged to write the piece after attending an event in the Languedoc which celebrated 100% Carignan wines. She came away feeling somewhat sceptical that it would supplant other varieties as the go-to cépage, but that the wine certainly had greater potential as a wine which added something important to a blend. But even that was an improvement upon the image of Carignan throughout the 1990s.
You may be surprised to learn that from the late 1950s through to the late 1980s, Carignan was the most planted grape variety in France, reaching a whopping 167000 hectares in 1988. The Pieds Noirs winegrowers returning from Algeria in the 50s and 60s planted Carignan massively as they knew that as a late budder it could avoid late frosts and was extremely drought, heat and wind resistant. Yields of 200 hectolitres per hectare were also common. Yet hardly anyone in France, let alone in the rest of the wine-drinking world would have heard of it. In short it was the backbone of all the cheap plonk that the Languedoc had been churning out for years. With huge levels of overproduction, and the vine itself pushed to the limits of its yield, why would anyone be interested in the grape varieties in one of those litre bottles of red wine with a plastic flip top and stars around the neck? And when the market for the nasty stuff began to seriously implode in the late 80s and early 90s, the first thing many people did, either existing growers, or new ones coming from around the world, was to rip up their Carignan vines, some of which were 70 or 80 years old. It made poor wine and that was that.
The government had introduced a scheme whereby winemakers could earn money by ripping up the old varieties responsible for all the plonk, and replacing them with “cépages améliorateurs”, grape varieties which it was felt would improve the overall quality of Languedoc wines. Syrah in particular was rightly hailed as a potential saviour. By the turn of the century there were only 95000 hectares of Carignan. But what many producers had discovered during this important period in the Languedoc’s wine history, was that away from the fertile plains, up on the poor soils of the coteaux, which were often in full sun and battered by the Tramontane and Mistral, by lowering yields the Carignan started to produce wines which had a character of their own. Yes there were tannins and Carignan always has a certain astringency which needs to be managed, but in the hands of a good winemaker, and given a little time, it produced a wine with a very particular profile. One action which helped (and still helps) those early Carignan pioneers was that of Macération Carbonique (Carbonic Maceration). This involves covering the freshly harvested bunches of grapes with CO2 (or an inert gas if you can afford it!) which creates an anaerobic atmosphere. This generates an initial intracellular fermentation in the grape itself which is done by the grape’s own enzymes. The result of this initial fermentation, before a classic yeast fermentation finishes the job is the production of a wine which has stronger fruit flavours and aromas, and amongst other things, excesses of tannin and astringency are tempered. Unsurprisingly this method was developed initially in the Beaujolais area.
In 2004, Jancis Robinson did mention some exceptions to her feeling that Carignan was just a good blender. Today though, there are a good number of 100% Carignan wines all around the world, from the Languedoc, Sardinia, Priorat (Catalonia), California and South America. New techniques mean that Carignan is no longer a high-risk product. As is so often the case, on the poorest soils, with the most exposed position, the grapes that are produced at low yields have the most potential. Brigitte Chevalier from Domaine de Cébène in Faugères, whose wines we will be stocking from next week, deliberately searched out north-facing vines on the windiest coteaux. Yields are very low but the wines are exceptional. She doesn’t make 100% Carignan but it is is a vital part of some of her blends. I still think Carignan is best as a blender but it is now a monovarietal in its own right. There are also wines produced from Carignan Blanc such as the excellent one from Domaine la Grangette. It's a great partner for white meat.