Carignan: Best Supporting Actor?

Rarely seen or celebrated center stage, Black Carignan often plays a supporting role in the blend alongside the more considered famous red varieties. Historically a workhorse for high volume production, with care and attention this sometimes-difficult grape can produce complex, distinctive wines with power and freshness. In Roussillon’s dry climate, and on its slopes, the varietal really flourishes, elevating the region’s red blends and even headlining producers’ premium offerings, who often use Carignan as a stand-alone varietal.

Carignan originated in Aragon, Spain, and has established a footprint around the world. It goes under many pseudonyms, including Cariñena and Mazuelo in Spain, Carignano in Italy, and Carignane in the USA. Whatever its name, its role has largely been the same – a cameo in all-star line-ups alongside the likes of Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre and so on.

Part of Carignan’s long-standing appeal has been its ability to produce large volumes of wine naturally high in tannin, acidity and colour. The variety is best suited to poor, stoney soils and warm dry climates, yet even in these conditions, it can be vigorous and produce harsh reds marked by bitterness and unpleasant green characteristics. It has other challenges. Late budding, Carignan can be hit by frost, and late-ripening, it can fall foul of harvest-time rains, making it prone to mildew and botrytis.

But thanks to the know-how and a new generation of Roussillon winemakers Carignan is well looked after, helping the region’s stock of old vines achieve their full potential. Manual vineyard work and yield control ensure concentration and ripeness that balance out those high tannins and acidity levels.

At its best, Carignan can produce powerful, spicy, structured reds that combine notes of black berries with subtle earthy characteristics. It can also be floral. Depending on the type of vinification used (carbonic or traditional maceration) Black Carignan in Roussillon will offer depth and pleasure. It plays a key role in Côtes du Roussillon, Côtes du Roussillon Villages and communal appellations, often providing backbone, freshness and its hallmark notes to the blends. It is also widely used in more fruit driven red IGPs and, by tradition, is frequently found in Maury Sec AOPs.

Carignan can also be a vibrant addition to rosés, bringing freshness with a touch of spice, as well as small crushed red berry fruits. Special mention must also go to Carignan Blanc and Gris, a white or grey-skinned mutation of the red variety, which produces wines of freshness and minerality.

The elevation of the Carignan grape in Roussillon has resulted in some unique and expressive single varietal wines with cult status and a growing following. These are showing what Carignan is capable of when treated with love and respect. But more broadly, understanding of the variety’s unique qualities and potential is helping winemakers to produce better blends, ensuring that Carignan has always a starring role and a bright future across the region.

Photo courtesy of From the Grapevine