I’ve been having some very interesting back and forth with Tom Hill lately about Carignane; it’s been on my mind certainly, what with the new 2007 Ridge Vineyards Buchignani Ranch Carignane just released, and Tom seems to be feeling the same way; he’s been posting notes on a few different vintages of late … (can be found here) … and I’ve been doing some “research” as well (it’s never “drinking,” it’s “learning!). Anyhow, I’ve got myself geared up to do a few pieces on this oft-misunderstood varietal, beginning, well, now!
As can be seen from the following quotes, Carignane has it kind of rough sometimes …
–”Carignane mostly produces wines that have high color, acidity, and tannin, without displaying much distinct flavor or personality and with very little appeal. Only a few growers carefully manage vine vigor and limit crop size to produce interesting, distinctive wines from this grape. As with many other varietals, older carignane vines seem to produce wines with generally more character and less brutality.” (from winepros.org)
–”Despite its commercial success, the Carignane is considered a ‘workhorse’ grape rather than a noble variety such as Pinot Noir or Cabernet Sauvignon. Wines made from Carignane can be good but are almost never excellent. As a result, Carignane is slowly diminishing in the number of acres planted to it. As consumers want better quality wines, the Carignane grape is being displaced by other varieties.” (from cellarnotes.net)
–”The Carignane grape suffers from the curse of high yields … These high yields mean that there’s plenty of wine to go around; often more than the market can handle. This lack of interest is exacerbated by the tendency of high-yielding vines to grow poorly concentrated fruit, especially in the absence of devoted efforts at pruning in the vineyard … Certainly, there is fine justification for the efforts, sponsored by the European Union, to pull Carignane vines from vineyards in France in the last decade. The surplus of wine was undeniable. Much of this wine had little to recommend it. But when produced from very old vines that are carefully tended, Carignane can help craft characterful and concentrated wines.” (from wineaccess.com)
But written into these quotes is some cause for hope; in that, running throughout these largely dismissive comments is an important truism; one should not fault the varietal for the method!
Meaning, don’t blame the grape for what the producer did to it. I give you another example; how many times have you heard people say, “I don’t like Chardonnay”? I’ve certainly heard this innumerable times in innumerable tasting rooms. I don’t like Chardonnay?!?! That’s like saying, “I don’t like blue”! Chardonnay is such a versatile varietal, almost a chameleon; how could one possibly claim to globally dislike chardonnay? Answer (more often than not, I wager): they don’t actually dislike it! What they probably, maybe even uniformly, seem to dislike (at least in my experience) are flabby, over-oaked, acid-less, “butter-bombs.” (for lack of a less cliche term …) But is that chardonnay’s fault? No! Again, don’t blame the varietal for the method!
So let’s look a little closer at those quotes above, and isolate a few key lines:
” …a few growers carefully manage vine vigor and limit crop size to produce interesting, distinctive wines from this grape…”
“…in the absence of devoted efforts at pruning in the vineyard…”
“…when produced from very old vines that are carefully tended, Carignane can help craft characterful and concentrated wines…”
In each case here, there is an implied acknowledgment of fault that has to do with methodology, not with the varietal itself. It’s my opinion that every varietal is its own little world; one that imposes its own set of terms and requirements that one can choose to honor or not, and I certainly think it’s incumbent upon a producer to do their best by the varietals they work with.
When I co-write with other songwriters, or produce albums for other musicians, I often tell them, during the compositional process, something along the lines of, “The song is the boss. It knows what it wants to be. Our job is to listen, and realize.” I think the same can be said for a varietal. It knows what it wants to be, our job is to listen, and realize. If it doesn’t come out right, is it the grape’s fault? No! Or, at least, not necessarily …
So, this is the beginning of my multi-part treatise on Carignane. The point here is that I don’t believe Carignane deserves to be maligned to the extent it often is, and I don’t believe it’s a “lesser” varietal per se; it may be a more demanding varietal, with an admittedly narrower spectrum of potential (hello Pinot Noir!), and I’ll concede it may be an acquired taste for most (hello solo-varietal Cabernet Franc!), but I don’t think it should be written off. And no, I’m not necessarily putting Carignane on the same level as the two afore-mentioned varietals, I’m just interested in giving Carignane a reputational chance …
More soon …