The Snooki of Forgotten Grapes

 Carignane, the Snooki of Forgotten GrapesThere’s a lot more to Carignane than just color, attitude, and personality. First much like old Snookers up there, who can’t even get called by her proper nickname by her own roommates (honestly, she’s been Snooks, Snicks, Snickers, Snockers, and numerous other sundry variations of Snooki over the course of the series), Carignane too suffers from a bit of an identity crisis. For one thing, Californians have decided to add a superfluous “E” onto the end of its name, making it Carignane rather than the more traditionally French “Carignan”. And in Spain, where the grape was born, it’s called Cariñena, after the village in Aragon where it was first popularized.

Second, both Snookers and Carignane love the sun. I mean, hello, Jersey Shore? Come on now! But sadly, like Snooki, Carignane’s never spent any real time on our east coast beaches. Instead, it haunts warmer wine regions like southern France, Spain, Italy, Algeria, Israel, California, Mexico, and most of the wine regions of South America. In fact, after Spain, the grape’s first big move was across the Mediterranean to Algeria, where it became one of the primary exports that African nation sent to France until 1962 (we’ll touch on this a bit more down below).

But suffice to say, Carignane like the heat, and that heat helps give it a whole lot of color. Now maybe Carignane doesn’t get its deep, dark color the same way Snooki does (no fake-and-bake tanning beds for this hearty grape), but its skins do have a dark, rich purple-black hue to them, which may be its most prized attribute. Carignane is not a straight teinturier grape (one that actually produces red juice naturally without any contact to the skins and stems; we touched on this during our Alicante Bouschet discussion), but it is more often than not used as a blending grape, adding deeper, richer color to other wines such as Grenache and Syrah.

And this gets to a key point about Carignane: for most of its life as a Forgotten Grape, it’s only been part of a family but never on its own, utilized the vast majority of the time as part of an overall blend (primarily in the Rhone valley and in the Languedoc region of France) rather than being allowed to shine on its own. Sort of like Snooki when she first entered the Jersey Shore house. The problem is, Carignane can be an especially difficult grape to corral and coax into a drinkable single varietal wine. It’s got extremely high acidity for a red grape, not to mention the high tannin levels (as you’d expect from a wine that dark) and astringency one would expect from such a tannic wine.

Like Snooki, Carignane has a very hard time getting noticed on its own, no matter how much it shows off and plays the fool. It takes a very strong and determined man (or woman; winemakers come in both sexes these days, and Snickers has certainly shown tendencies to get her love on from any person she can get those long white nails into) to tame these wild creatures, and while Snooki was unsuccessful finding her Mr. Or Ms. Right down the Shore, Carignane has gotten much luckier, as more and more winemakers both in California, France, and across the world are taking up the challenge and shining their spotlight directly on Carignane in the form of 100% varietal wines. In fact, the best Carignane results in California seem to come from older vines, where the grapes have had time to mature and mellow in increased age (we suspect the same will hold true for Snooki the older she gets; after all, she is only 21, though looking at her skin, you’d never guess that).

So despite starting out being nothing more than a face in a pack and being late to hitch a ride in the popularity Camaro, a new day seems to be dawning for both Snooki and this week’s Forgotten Grape, Carignane, as more and more people discover just how wonderful, interesting, and complex they both can be. You might even call Carignane a grape with tremendous break-out potential, if only we knew what it was breaking out from. Call it a Guidette, call it just a blending grape, but once you’ve tried Carignane and seen its softer side, there’s no way you won’t remember your experience and come crawling back for more. We suspect the same with Snooki, but we already have a girlfriend and aren’t willing to try. And that right there, bro, is the situation.

How do I pronounce Carignane

Many different ways: CAR-in-yan or CARE-in-yan or car-in-YAHN or care-in-YAHN (for the record, we prefer the first one)

Carignane Looks Like:

Did we mention that Carignanes are dark wines? The grape skins have a dark, purplish-black color to them and impart a lot of that color onto the wine during the crush, pressing, and maceration. Though not a teinturier grape, Carignanes are regularly blended with other wines to provide deeper and richer color to those other wines or blends, so it would make sense that a single-varietal Carignane wine would have a deep, dark purple crimson color to it, a richness so deep that often the wine will look black in your glass. Also, better Carignane comes from old vines, so these wines might have more of a rusty, burnt brick color due to the nature of these grapes.


Carignane Smells Like:

Despite their reputation as bullying wines that lack complexity or distinction, Carignanes can have surprisingly delicate and complex bouquets to them, depending on the process in which the wine is made and the age of the vines. Typically you’ll find darker, bramblier fruits on most Carignanes, such as blackberries and black currants. You might also get some plummy notes to the wine, as well as some leather and hints of grilled meat or game. However, with Carignanes made from older vines, you might get more vinous or vegetal aromas, such as olives, and also dark rich scents like toffee, chocolate, and something resembling a tawny port. And of course, depending on how long the wine spent in barrel, you might also get a heavy oak scent on the wine too.


Carignane Tastes Like:

Despite the deep color and dark and rich nose, most Carignane wines will be bright and alive in your mouth, extremely fresh and lively as it dances across your tongue. You have the higher acids in the wine to thank for that. They’ll lighten up the darker fruit flavors or blackberry and black currant, turning them more dark raspberry and black cherry. You may also still get some of that brambly, more vinous flavor on the wine, particularly from old vine Carignanes. If oak was involved in the production, you’ll sense it here, either with a rounder mouth feel or a little tinge of sweetness to the wines, and there should be some length and good aftertaste to the wine as well. And of course, there will be tannins. Depending on how the wine was produced and the age of the vines, the tannins might be mollified a bit, or they can be coarse, astringent, and very drying of the mouth, but you will definitely feel them there. Oh yes, you will feel them.


Key Regions:

  ●      California, especially Mendocino County and the Sierra Foothills

●      Southern France,including the Rhone Valley and Minervois region of the Languedoc

●      Spain

●      Italy

●      Algeria

●      Israel

●      Mexico

●      Most of the wine regions of South America


Cindy’s “Did Juneau?”:

Carignane got its start in Spain but quickly made its way into Algeria, where it was one of the few vinifera grapes that could thrive in that country’s desert conditions and under that hot, unforgiving sun. As Algeria spent the better part of the first half of the 20th century as a French colony, the grape was imported into France and all was well. But then Algeria wanted independence from France and when they got it in 1962, the Carignane supply to France was cut off virtually overnight. To make up for it, winemakers in France’s sunnier southern regions, particularly the Languedoc began planting Carignane in their fields, turning the high grape yields into cheap table wine and vin de pays, which sold well and led to more and more plantings. As long as the average Frenchman was buying and drinking plenty of vin ordinaire, everything was copasetic, and in 1988, Carignane achieved the notoriety of being the most widely-planted grape in France, with over 167,000 hectares (that’s over 412,000 acres) planted, primarily in the south.

Well, that same year, the government decided it needed to do something about the quality of French wine both in country and being exported around the world (it’s not a coincidence that 1988 also marked the rise of California, Australian, and South American wine imports hitting the market). So the government embarked on a highly ambitious vine-pulling strategem that, while targeting numerous varietals both Forgotten and traditional, affected Carignane most of all: by 2000, the number of vines dropped to under 100,000 hectares and Carignane was replaced by Merlot as France’s most widely-planted grape. This vine-pulling and wine-quality directive still exists today, with the government paying more and more subsidies to vintners and grape growers not to grow their grapes (Midwestern farmers, you’ve got someone who can empathize with you). But even despite this alleged rise in the quality of wine, per capita wine consumption in France has declined by over 30% in the last few years and the majority of French wines regardless of varietal continue to be devalued with more and more wines from other parts of the world flooding the market. See, it’s not all Carignane’s fault.


Perfect Pairing:

Bistro favorites like venison and sweet potatoes and steak frites pair well with a Carignane, but duck goes surprisingly nicely with a Carignane as well – and yes I know that Pinot is the classical pairing with duck, but we're thinking outside the box here. Carignanes also go surprisingly well with figs: their earthier mellow sweetness contrasts the wine’s higher acidity, and you often get some fig notes in the nose of the wine. So, a roasted duck breast with a fig sauce will pair well with the acids in the wine, and if you can find a Carignane that’s had its tannins tamed a bit, all the better.

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