Certain wine grape varieties come onto the scene and strike international gold (think: your Cabernets, Merlots, and Chardonnays). Others, such as Carignan, have had a bit of a tougher time. Despite its longstanding history in France’s soils, this hearty grape had garnered itself a pretty bad rep among industry folk and vignerons alike. High yields, low- quality fruit, and a reputation for astringency caused it to be ripped out and replaced with easier-to-farm varieties, as well as those that could garner a heftier price on the international market.
However, reputations come and go, and Carignan is finally beginning to get the love and recognition it deserves. After a long history spent in the shadows of Grenache, Syrah, and other regional grapes, this “workhorse grape” is finding its moment in the spotlight among winemakers, industry professionals, and consumers alike. So what’s changed? VinePair spoke with six growers, distributors, and other industry folks to get some answers.
Global Insight on Carignan’s History
Caroline Conner, Master of Wine (MW) candidate and founder of Wine, Dine, Caroline, a virtual wine tasting and education platform, is based in Lyon, France — not too far from Languedoc-Roussillon, where much of the world’s Carignan is cultivated. “Carignan is widely planted and predominantly used as a blending grape for low-quality, mass-produced reds,” she says, citing that plantings are continuously declining due to a newfound “quality-over- quantity” mentality among growers. She notes that the grape is commonly used to add volume to blended wines, though when the fruit hails from old vineyard sites with lower yields, it can achieve greater quality.
Ivonne Nill, trade liaison for Hispanics in Wine and MW candidate, explains that, during the 1960s, Carignan was actually the most planted variety in France, though overcropping led to exploitation. “By the 1980s, Carignan became the most common victim of the EU’s Vine Pull Scheme,” she says. The EU actually provided vignerons with financial incentives to replace Carignan with more fashionable varieties. “As evidenced by wine textbook quotes — for example the ‘Oxford Companion to Wine’ referring to Carignan as ‘the bane of the European wine industry’ — it never garnered many fans,” she says. The grape was additionally cited by the book as being “distinguished mainly by its disadvantages.”
Chilean winemaker Luca Hodgkinson explains the grape likely arrived in the country around 1928, after a massive importation of grafted vines came into the country from California. “However, the real impetus [of its plantings] came after the earthquake of 1939, as part of a strategy to promote production,” he explains, revealing that Chile’s Department of Oenology of the Ministry of Agriculture chose to import French stakes of Carignan to improve the characteristics of the wines from the Maule Valley. “Pais was poorly sold, and they saw a potential for added color, acidity, and structure in Carignan that the Pais lacked,” he explains. However, most of the fruit was planted in low-lying areas laden with water, which yielded worse results than cheap Pais.
Rebekah Wineburg has found Carignane (spelled with an additional letter e in California) among the oldest vineyards with which she works in Mendocino, Contra Costa, and Lodi. Although she’s unclear on how it got there, she assumes that the grape was chosen by Italian and Portuguese farmers for its “dependable” nature and its “generous production” for use in jug wines. Wineburg notes that Carignane requires a warm, Mediterranean climate, making it suitable for growing in her part of the world.
Old Way or No Way
So with a reputation for high yields, austere tannins, and rather low quality, why work with such a variety? The short answer is patience. Hodgkinson notes that as Carignan’s vines age and production slows down, their yields go down, and, in turn, fruit quality improves. Wineburg echoes this, calling the grape’s yields “somewhat anonymous” for the first few decades of its life, yet once peak maturity is reached, Carignan transforms into something completely different. “The vines produce clusters of dark, structured, but not overly tannic berries, full of flavors of red fruits, herbs, earthiness, and good acidity that make for fresh and bright wines,” she says.
Anthony Lynch says that his company, Kermit Lynch Wine Merchants, first imported Domaine de Fontsainte’s Carignan-based red blends from Corbières back in 1979, and continues to import the bottles today. Domaine d’Aupilhac was one of the early pioneers of Carignan. “It suffered from a terrible reputation after decades of overproduction in the Languedoc — its propensity to give high yields made it a perfect candidate for intensive farming in the flatlands, where it was typically overcropped for the mass production of bulk wine,” he says.
Exactly one decade later, Kermit Lynch began working with Sylvain Fadat of Domaine d’Aupilhac, describing the estate’s old-vine bottling as “an awakening to many who thought poorly of the variety,” Lynch says. These bottlings proved that Carignan could make serious, complex, age-worthy reds, so long as it was pruned back significantly to lower yields. Lauren McPhate, director of sales at Tribeca Wine Merchants, concurs, calling Domaine d’Aupilhac’s expressions the “golden standard” for the variety.
“[Fadat] explained to Kermit in his first visits that he practically had to massacre the vine when pruning it in order to curb production!” he exclaims. Domaine d’Aupilhac’s Carignan comes from 70-plus-year-old vines on the marl slopes of Montpeyroux, which Lynch deems as a benchmark for the variety.
This leads to the next question: When it comes to old-vine fruit, should it hold its role as a blending grape or have a moment to shine on its own? According to Wineburg, both. In her Testa Vineyard Old Vine Field Blend, Wineburg blends Carignane with Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, and Grenache, explaining that the goal with this wine is to represent the overall character of the vineyard, not each variety on its own. When vinified this way, Wineburg finds that Carignane brings bright acidity and medium tannins to the blend, which beautifully counterbalances the jamminess of Zinfandel and the aggressively tannic nature of Petite Sirah.
On its own, Wineburg vinifies a rosé of Carignane from 100-year-old, dry-farmed grapes in Contra Costa. “The more I work with Carignane, the more fascinated I become by it,” she explains. So much so, she will be adding another Old Vine Carignane cuvée from Lodi to her lineup next year.
However, not everyone is as passionate about the variety. “I wouldn’t seek it out [on its own] unless it’s recommended to you by a trusted source,” says Conner. She suggests seeking out light, fruit-driven expressions from AOCs like Minervois and Corbières, as these wines generally use similar vinification techniques (carbonic maceration) as the wines of Beaujolais.
Take it from the pros: If you love Gamay, Carignan might be your next favorite grape. “If you like basic Beaujolais, you might enjoy these,” says Conner. Lynch agrees, citing the use of whole-cluster vinification on Carignan as “perfectly suited” to the variety. “It gives the wines a surprising lift and freshness, almost like a southern Beaujolais,” he says.
McPhate describes Carignan [non-carbonically macerated] as a wild, slightly more funky or gamey version of Syrah. “It’s a full-bodied red with lots of structure, but there’s often something a little barnyard about it — especially southern French examples,” she says. McPhate says that she’d recommend the variety to natural wine drinkers looking for something “old school.” She also adds that Carignan can be a great value proposition. “You can get a full-bodied, unique, and densely textured Carignan for well under $20,” she says.
Nills finds that when vinified at the hands of judicious winemakers, Carignan-based wines are somewhat of a “halfway point” between Gamay from Beaujolais and Loire Valley Cabernet Franc, marked with the weight, body, tannins and meaty edge of a Northern Rhône Syrah. “I’d recommend the carbonic Carignan versions to lovers of dry Lambrusco, Beaujolais, or Côtes-du-Rhône wines,” she says. “For the fuller-bodied, tannic, more brooding versions of the grape, I’d recommend it to guests who love Northern Rhône Syrah, wines from Priorat, Petite Sirah, or Italian reds like Sagrantino or Aglianico.”
Just a few weeks back, McPhate tasted Wineburg’s Post & Vine Old Vine Red Blend and was hooked. “I found it to be super clean, fresh, fruity, and the perfect partner for pizza. It was so delicious,” she says. Nill recommends “bright, zesty, and crunchy” expressions from Two Shepherds — one 50 percent whole cluster and one carbonic, with each clocking in at 12.5 percent ABV.
Future of Carignan
So what’s the future of Carignan, both in the vineyard and on the market? Hodkginson sums it up best: “As with all grapes, Carignan’s future will be directly proportional to the ability of the growers to plant it in an adapted manner and according to the grape’s characteristics,” he says.
Lynch agrees. “I think the future is bright, and people have taken note of the variety’s potential,” he says. He notes that he’s seen more expressions of the grape — both varietally and blended — on the market today. “It is beginning to shed its reputation as a workhorse grape meant for bulk wine as producers learn how best to treat it,” he says. Lynch additionally explains that climate change could play a huge role in the grape’s future success, as it is a resilient variety that can withstand extreme weather conditions, such as droughts and heat waves.
However, not everyone is so optimistic. “Carignan was planted for volume and bulk, and these days, that’s not [what’s in demand] anymore, so if a winemaker were replanting a vineyard, they wouldn’t choose to replant with Carignan,” says Conner. She adds that old vineyard sites of Carignan will continue to get better and rarer and deems the grape’s cultivation as a “long game to get anything great out of.”
But some remain hopeful. “I dearly hope that the future of Carignane is bright, and that no more of the heritage vineyards are pulled out to be planted to more modern and fashionable varieties,” says Wineburg. She says that as the world gets hotter, Carignane has the potential to become even more valuable, and notes that Carignane’s old vines have well-developed root systems and large reserves in their wood, allowing the vines to weather the changing climate.
Above all, it’s the curious and open-minded time that we’re living in that leaves her optimistic. “More and more winemakers and wine drinkers are rediscovering Carignane,” she says. Wineburg affirms her love for old varieties, as well as the authenticity and honest character they reveal in the wines they make. “[These grapes] stay true to their origins, and I will do my part to ensure the future of Carignane.”