Wines: The wild side of Carignan
Carignan – Each wine region of the world has their flagship grape. For Argentina, it is Malbec. Tuscany has their beloved Sangiovese and Burgundy will not be the same if they did not had Pinot Noir. In Roussillon, it is all about Carignan. Slowly but surely, the grape is making a strong comeback in the International wine scene. I was in Rousillon, at the end of May and I had chance to familiarize myself with the many nuances of this Catalan grape.
Roussillon is blessed to have old vines of Carignan well adapted to their mineral soils. So much the grape is entrenched into Roussillon wine culture, by law, is the principal variety in the palette of Côte du Roussillon appellations. Carignan yields structured and powerful wines with predominant notes of ripe red fruit when young and evolving towards the floral and animal side with age.
For centuries,the true colours of carignan, and its true potential, were completely ignored; it into the high-volume vat along with everything else. Then, in the late 20th century, as the world wine drinkers were turning away from quantity to quality, many Roussillon producers decided to get with the times. They took out high yielding vines and planted more Carignan.
The lesson that they learned was that low yields of carignan would make wines of better quality, and that letting carignan hang on the vine until was fully ripe was the best way to bring out its unique flavor profile. With proper handling, carignan can go from the grape making dark, dull wine to a grape that produces wine full of cherries and berries in youth and that takes on characteristics of earth,truffles, barnyard, licorice, and spice with a few years of age. The kicker is that , fully ripe carignan has a great capacity to retain very good acid levels.
However, Carignan has its own set of drawbacks. It is a late ripener and has a predilection for warm and dry climates. Otherwise, it will suffer from powdery and downy mildew. It is a perfect fit for the mediterranean climate of the Roussillon-hot summers, mild winters and autumns. The region has as well numerous and frequent winds which gives a natural protection against pests and diseases such as the mildew mentioned above. In fact, due to this favorable environment, Roussillon is the premier region for Organic and Biodynamic viticulture
In wine, location is everything. This truism specifically applies to Carignan, where it will yield different results according from where is grown. In the Aspres sub region , between Perpignan and Spain, Carignan will yield highly aromatic mineral and floral wines. Aspres Terroir can be characterized by clay and gravel quartz, metamorphic and sedimentary rocks.
In their wines, Domaine Ferrer Ribiere represents well the Aspres terroir. Their cuvee Empreinte du Temps 2015 ( 140+ year old Carignan) stunned me with its dry blood, iron and red currant fruit with a stream of dry rose and violet petals. Fresh, and fluid, with cashmere tannins and an aerial structure, and an elegant finish.
Equally stunning is their cuvee Centenaire 2014 ( 100+ year old Carignan). Different and thought provoking with notes of graphite, asphalt and dry black fruits. Austere with angular tannins and a powerful expression of minerality. Legendary wine.
In the Agly Valley, near the village of Maury, the Carignan grape yields more gourmand wines. The soil here is a mix of black and red soils, marnes with a high chalk component. The wines have volume and spice with freshness and crunchy tannins. Representative of this style is the Domaine Lafage Carignan Cayrol Vieilles Vignes 2015 which shows the generous animal and spicy side of Carignan around those parts .It displays aromas of dry peperoncino, with Tuscan leather undertones. It has a polished texture and a enticing fresh acidity.
For me the apex expression of the Carignan was found in a parcel of producer Mas Amiel. Vol de Nuit 2014 is a pure breed Carignan 100+ years old from the St-Eugene parcel. The terroir here is pure black schist which lends the wine the most purist display of Carignan. Very perfumed with dry petal flowers, spices and game notes.. Very smoky. Dense, with fine tannins and lots of amplitude
I hope this interest sparks your interest in the Carignans of Rousillon. There are more than 20 Carignan based blends listed on the Cotes du Roussillon to start your wine quest and probably a few more on the private importation network.