Carignan wine grape

Carignan
Carignan is perhaps the world’s most unloved black grape. It was once the commonest black grape in Europe, covering vast areas of southern France and northern Spain, but successive governments since the 1960s have encouraged farmers to pull it out and plant something better instead. Yet old-vine Carignan can produce excellent, characterful wine and the grape is now being rediscovered. Good Carignan has red berry, plum and bramble flavours and often smells of dried figs.
 
Carignan originated in northern Spain, presumably close to the town of Cariñena in Aragon, from which it took its Spanish name. In its Aragon homeland it has been supplanted by Garnacha (Grenache), but is still important further east in Catalonia, especially in Priorat where it’s often the main component of the blend. It’s a minor part of the blend in Rioja, where they call it Mazuelo.
 
At some point the grape spread to North Africa where it went on to form the backbone of the French colonial vineyards. Its takeover of southern France was led by returning pieds noirs, who arrived back in France from Algeria just as the disastrous spring frosts of 1956 and 1963 devastated the previous workhorse grape, Aramon. The late-budding Carignan would evade future frosts.
 
Carignan is deep-coloured and high in both acidity and tannin. It ripens very late, and needs a hot climate to ripen at all. If not fully ripe, its tannins are green and harsh. It’s disease-prone, requiring lots of spraying unless grown in very dry conditions. Its short, tough stems prevent machine-harvesting; it must be hand-picked.
 
So why would anyone grow it? Yield. Carignan is extraordinarily productive, easily yielding 200 hectolitres of wine per hectare. Remember the EU wine lake? Most of it came from Languedoc-Roussillon, and most of that was made of Carignan.
 
To make wine for drinking, rather than for distilling into industrial alcohol, Carignan was always blended with other varieties, with the pale, fruity and often overripe Grenache a natural fit. Carbonic maceration - the fermentation method most associated with Beaujolais Nouveau - was and is extensively used to minimise the extraction of tannins while maximising the extraction of colour and fruit flavours.
 
The key to producing good wine from Carignan is to control its productivity. Old vines with their naturally lower yields are a fine start. Hot, dry conditions also restrict yields and have the added bonus of combating the grape’s susceptability to disease.
 
The best varietal Carignan is probably Carignano del Sulcis, from the arid south-western corner of Sardinia. The steep sunbaked hillsides of Priorat also produce impressively dense and concentrated Carignan, though here it is invariably blended with Garnacha. Back in the Languedoc old-vine Carignan is being rediscovered, with winemakers using yield-reducing techniques like green harvesting and winter pruning to produce exciting wines.

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