Poor Carignane. It doesn't have many champions. The grape's rough edges and "needs food" profile have not won it many fans among the top critics of the world. At its worst, wines made from Carignane show pippy, grapey aromas and flavors and have a tendency toward astringency. But at its best it can be quite intriguing. The question is, does anyone have the patience to tame this grapey beast?
Wherever it has traveled--from its origin in the Aragon provence of Spain to Algeria, France, Italy, the US and beyond--Carignane has most commonly met the fate of being used as a minor blending varietal under a different name (such as in Rioja production, where a small percentage is traditionally blended into the red wines disguised as the regionally named Mazuelo grape) or as inexpensive juice for bulk wine production.
The Carignane we are most likely to encounter in the market today is French, which despite maneuvering its way onto the list of the 22 approved Rhône varietals, is typically (and in most cases, negatively) associated with bulk production in the the Languedoc-Roussillon (right) in the latter half of the twentieth century. Carignan came from Spain to France via Algeria, where it was grown to produce bulk wines for export. After Algerian independence in 1962, the French needed to come up with their own source of bulk wine, so Carignane vines were transported from Algeria and planted widely throughout this part of southern France.
We have the Italians to thank for our California Carignane tradition. Carignane came from Spain to Italy via Sardegna, where it is still made into varietal wine, Carignano. Italian immigrants to the US starting in the late 1890s brought the vine to California, and through the early and mid-20th century, Carignane was one of the most widely planted grape varietal in California. It formed the base of many a "jug" of hearty red California wine!
Caretakers of Carignane
Carignane may never become as popular as Cab or Syrah, but in France it seems to be undergoing a bit of a renaissance. Over the last 10 years, thanks to the labor-of-love, grassroots efforts of a a few good growers in the Languedoc, it is slowly--perhaps for the first time--earning the attention of critics and wine geeks the world over. Producers such as Clos du Gravillas and Domaine Rimbert are not only making some honestly good Carignane from their treasured old vines, but are also devoted to promoting quality production of Carignane and advocating for it's recognition as a varietal capable of fine wine.
Similar efforts are being made in California to promote and protect the few remaining heritage Carignane vineyards. For the last decade, Ridge Vineyards has produced a varietal Carignane from fruit grown at the historic Buchignani Ranch, where the 60- to 80-year-old vines were planted in the gravelly hillside by immigrant Dominico Ceritti, grandfather of current grower and proprietor, Stan Buchignani. Ridge treats this special old-vine Carignane with the same care as its single-vineyard Zinfandels, but the 40-45 barrel production has limited distribution--wine club and direct sales only. The 2008 Buchignani Ranch Carignane (right) is soft in the mouth and with moderate alcohol (13.9%). It is a lively, medium-bodied wine with ripe strawberry and cranberry aromas, grape seed accented red and black fruit flavors, and a touch of oak spice (the wine spends one year in mostly used American oak). Varietal typicity is not lost in this otherwise stylish and accessible wine.
Carignane: A True California Heritage Varietal
More recently, maverick wine producers Matt Licklider and Kevin O'Connor have started to pay attention to Carignane in an ever bigger way. Together, O'Connor (wine director at two-Michelin star restaurant Spago in Beverly Hills) and Licklider (veteran European wine importer) created LIOCO in 2005, a natural wine company whose mission it is to produce authentic, terroir-driven California wines and to promote heritage varietals in an effort to bring diversity back to the California wine market. (Read our recent interview with Licklider here.) They believe there is more to California than full-throttle Cabernet and overly oaked Chardonnay, and seek to prove that with their portfolio of distinctive, natural wines. Old vine Carignane-- not Cabernet--forms the basis of their everyday red wine offering, Indica (right).
The Tollini Vineyard, located in Mendocino, is another historic vineyard site in California, with treasured vines planted on original 70 yr-old old-vine Carignane root stalk. Thrilled to discover this special site when seeking out sites for their project, LIOCO began sourcing from it almost immediately.
Unlike Ridge's manicured 100% Carignane, Indica is a blend of old-vine Carignane (66%), Mourvèdre (25%), and Petite Sirah (9%), made with the intent to showcase the freshness and flavor of old-vine Carignane while letting the other grape varietals (as opposed to oak) provide weight and richness. In this way LIOCO's Carignane more closely resembles the Carignane and Carignane-based blends of the new Languedoc (perhaps that is why they go with the French, sans 'e' spelling?) than the more oak-influenced Ridge bottling. It is a medium-bodied, fresh and darker-fruited fruity wine; Carignane's higher tones are rounded out and deepened by the addition of Mourvèdre and Petite Sirah. It is sealed with a screwcap to remind us that it is best when drunk young and fresh.
Back on the Map
While Ridge's Buchignani Ranch Carignane may be the suaver and more seductive representation of 100% old vine California Carignane, LIOCO is certainly doing its part to champion the California Carignane cause. While you have to physically go to Ridge to get a taste of their Carignane, Indica is distributed nationally, has received great press, and is available by-the-glass at many of the nation's top foodie destinations.
Given this trend--who knows? Are Californians ready for more Carignane?
LIOCO Indica is available by the glass at these Bay Area locations:
Buy Indica and other LIOCO wines online at KLWines.com