Thoughts on: Carignan, Cariñena and Samsó

Carignan is an interesting grape variety and caused me a few conflicting moments in my very early days of learning about wine. In the late 20th century, Carignan was known as being a simple grape with limited potential that was massively over-yielded in the south of France, producing in excess of 200hl/ha in more than a few cases. This was how I first learnt about it and also how I encountered one of my first conflicts with the accepted facts. You see, Carignan is noted as a French grape but it’s entirely likely to be from DO Cariñena in Aragon, hence the Spanish name for the grape, although oddly it’s almost exclusively grown within Catalunya now with DO Cariñena focusing quite a bit more on Grenache. Way to miss an open goal, Spain. (There was a briefly interesting discussion about this on Twitter, unfortunately spoiled by one of the participants channeling his inner Donald Trump. Worth a read anyway!)

Anyway, the Carignan I’ve tried before starting my formal studies on wine was nothing like I subsequently read in textbooks. In DO Montsant and DOQ Priorat, some of my very favourite wines were either a Carignan heavy blend or, better yet, 100% of the grape itself. The dark, smoky and almost metallic flavours of the wine were intense, concentrated and utterly delicious. So why then am I reading this nonsense? Well, aside from the WSET Level 3 material being slightly outdated at the time (they’ve since revamped the entire course) it seems that consumers across the world are still a bit in the dark with regards to the potential quality of Carignan. Conversely, wine-makers seem to be latching onto it in some unlikely places. Quite familiar with varying levels of the grape produced locally, I hunted down a couple of bottles from Chile and Argentina to taste, more to see what was going on than anything else.

Villalobos Carignan Reserve 2013

When I first discovered that Chile had some of the oldest Carignan in the world, I was a little taken aback. I couldn’t say why, it just didn’t seem to add up; traditionally Carignan is a very warm climate grape and although on the other side of the Andes to Mendoza, one of the warmest climates in the wine-making world, Chile tends to be more gently Mediterranean. However, particularly in the Maule Valley, Chile is home to some outstandingly good Carignan. So much so in fact, that they have an organisation dedicated to the protection and support of producers who want to work with these vines, VIGNO. Having previously tried the excellent Lomajes de Vina Roja, I was excited to try some more examples and I was already a fan of Villalobos after trying their delicious Carmenere.

Villalobos are a small producer in Colchagua Valley who historically only made wine for their own consumption. That changed when the wine-maker, Martin Rosseau, died in an accident and the family decided to continue with the production and release it commercially in 2009. Since then, the wines have gone on to win great acclaim, very ‘new wave’ and minimal intervention in style with bright fruit, soft herbal notes and a lively, fun character. At only 12.5% alcohol, this is by far the lightest, freshest Carignan I’ve tried stylistically and what it lacks in complexity, it more than makes up for in charm and sheer fun. A bit steep at 30 a bottle in Spain, but well worth the experiment.

Famila Cecchin Carignan 2012

Over to the other side of the Andes now, to see how Argentina is getting along with the same grape variety. There are two main differences here compared to their neighbours and rivals. Firstly, the climate is considerably warmer and drier in Mendoza than in any part of Chile, with one of the most continental climates on earth. Secondly the vines tend to much younger. I haven’t yet been able to discover why Chile planted Carignan so much earlier than Argentina but the difference is telling, with Chile owning vines with well over 50 years of age in some cases.

Interestingly I’d actually visited this winery in 2016 but don’t recall having tried this particular wine. Cecchin are a quality produce of organic wines in Argentina, with only 11 hectares under vines and a small production as a result, focusing quite heavily on varieties from Spain and France. The wines, like Villalobos, are quite ‘new wave’ with low additions of sulphur, indigenous yeasts and generally a much lighter profile than other wineries within the area. This was quite a bit more like the Carignan I was used to, I suppose due to the similarity in climate and grape ripeness, with lots of ripe red and dark fruits, earthy aromas and the tell-tale, ferrous smell I associate with concentrated Carignan. Still, quite a refreshing wine despite the 14.3% alcohol, but lacking the intensity and depth I’ve come to expect from the grape. I suppose living in Catalunya has made me slightly spoilt!

Conclusions

Ultimately, it’s not possible to compare grape varieties based on such a small sample size but it does seem that there is one clear distinction between Carignan produced here and that in Catalunya; style. Where Catalunya revels in the depth and intensity of the flavours in their old-vine Samsó, the Catalan name for the grape, the New World seems to be more focused on producing lighter styles of wine from it. Oak is dialled back and the wines seem more appropriate for younger, easier drinking whereas the very best Samsó from Montsant and Priorat can age for well over a decade. Call me biased but I still can’t see past the top producers of Priorat where Carignan is concerned, although I look forward to trying more examples from around the world and seeing how they’re getting on with it. If anyone finds any examples from California or South Africa knocking around Spain, let me know!

Here are my favourite local producers of 100% or at least Carignan dominated wines. Prices range from moderately to outrageously expensive!

Producer – Wine – Region

Clos Mogador – Manyetes Vi di Vila – Priorat

Cal Battlet – 5 Partides – Priorat

Mas Doix – Doix 1902 – Priorat

Vall Llach – Mas de la Rosa – Priorat

Bodegas Mas Alta – La Basseta – Priorat

Ferrer Bobet – Seleccio Especial – Priorat

Alfredo Arribas – Trossos Vells – Montsant

Portal de Montsant – Hugo – Montsant

Celler Masroig – Masroig – Montsant

Edetaria – Finca la Pedrissa – Terra Alta

Thoughts on: Defining Wine Expertise

Trying to learn the world of wine is a daunting task, as there’s not only thousands of years of history, production methods, tradition, legal and cultural factors to learn but like every modern industry it’s constantly changing and evolving. This has never been more true than today, when every year it appears that there are more regions being explored, more indigenous grapes being discovered and more different wine-making techniques being used. Like every industry in the world there is a whole network of unseen roles and responsibilities, often unglamorous and overlooked, that make it tick. Buying, selling, serving, educating, making, presenting, marketing and everything in between. When I wrote my 3,000 word essay on the bulk transportation of wine for my WSET Diploma, an entire sector of the wine industry became known to me that I had never considered before; the logistics of transporting and bottling wine without compromising quality. The scope is enormous and that leads me to my question; if it’s entirely obvious that the world of wine can’t be fully understood and mastered, what then is wine expertise all about?

The most popular expression of wine expertise in modern wine culture is, without a doubt, the sommelier; an old fashioned French word meaning “wine steward’. Thanks to the glorification of chefs and the restaurant industry, this previously uncelebrated role has now risen to fame and created a whole new culture of wine appreciation, mostly in major cities throughout the world. The key role of a sommelier is to understand, and potentially build, a wine list that offers good value, interesting wines that pair well with the cuisine of the restaurant and turns a decent profit for the owner. The practical job is then to take care of your customers, make sure they can choose a wine that suits the food they’ve ordered and is within budget, whilst adding to the overall dining experience. The word ‘sommelier’ has now become almost synonymous with most young wine professionals, much to the chagrin of experienced sommeliers working in restaurants, and has done much to create excitement around the industry as a whole. On the off-chance you haven’t seen the documentary SOMM, make sure you take an hour to watch it as it was a turning point for the profession and for wine education programs, particularly in North America.

Having said that, it seems that most sommeliers seem keen to improve their knowledge, education and skillset with the intention of moving away from working the floor, with the most desirable jobs including the purchase of wines for restaurants, hotels and retail stores. This seems counter-intuitive to me, especially as most train through the CMS program that is specifically designed to teach you how to be a good floor sommelier, but clearly shows that being a sommelier is considered a stepping stone to greater things. Wine buying is a position of great responsibility, as not only does it require an extensive wine knowledge but also a strong understanding of the realities of the trade. Wine buyers are treated like royalty for obvious reasons; they are the single most important link between wineries and their customers, especially in an increasingly consolidated market-place. Unfortunately, due to this smaller market there are understandably fewer wine buyers than ever before. The other reality of being a wine buyer is that wine is often diminished to a commodity; after all, the reality of your job is to turn a profit and sell what you think people will buy, not necessarily what you’d want them to.

Another highly visible position within the world of wine is working as a wine critic, either for an established magazine/institution or for yourself, if you manage to build a large enough following. This, however, is incredibly hard to define and ends up coming around seemingly by accident more than anything else. Think of the people who work as a wine critic and the same names tend to crop up; Jancis Robinson, Robert Parker, Oz Clarke… the list is relatively short. The problem is, with very few exceptions they tend to work in a variety of different fields. Jancis Robinson is better known for her wine-writing, particularly her work on the essential Oxford Companion to Wine and The World Atlas of Wine. Oz Clarke is as much a wine personality as a critic, appearing at various conferences and even television programs around the world, and Robert Parker is very much on his way out, having handed over the majority of his responsibilities to his underlings. Newer critics coming into the field tend to be wine-writers of some description, who happen to get the occasional gig on more established platforms. It’s commonly accepted that wine-writing is an over-saturated business and that most consumers are valuing applications such as Vivino and Cellartracker, where consumers leave their own scores and notes en masse, over the opinions of individual critics, no matter how respected.

Ultimately, I suppose how wine expertise is defined and pursued is down to the individual more than anything else. I’m still at a stage where there is so much of the world to learn, I can’t yet fathom the concept of mastering even a single part of it, let alone the whole thing. The further you research a topic, the more you realise how little you know, and it seemingly never ends. It’s a wonderful, maddening and absolutely delightful feeling all at the same time. So far I am mainly concentrating on perfecting the private tastings I organise, as well as honing my skills as a tour guide for Devour Barcelona and their excellent wine and tapas tour. However, I most certainly intend to start working in wine education as a WSET educator within a year, and I would definitely like to start judging wine competitions more regularly as well. I’ve been clear in my ambitions to become a Master of Wine but where the industry will take me commercially is still something of an unknown quantity to me. All I know is that I’m deeply enjoying all the different experiences I’ve been exposed to so far, and long may it continue!

So, my question to you is; how do you define wine expertise? What’s your ambition in learning the world of wine, the subtle nuances and great wonders of it all? You might find it as tricky to answer as I have, but it’s a question worth thinking about!

Thoughts On: The WSET Diploma Unit 3 exam

So, I have a single exam left ahead of me in order to successfully complete the WSET Diploma, and it’s the big one; Unit 3 – ‘Light Wines of the World’. As the WSET Diploma is broken down into 6 units, what ‘Light Wines of the World’ basically means is everything that wasn’t included in the previous 5. So no sparkling wines, no spirits and no fortified wines. The information learnt in both ‘The Global Business of Wine’ and ‘Production Methods’ will need to be called upon to answer questions in more depth, but essentially this is about white, red, rose and unfortified sweet wines from every major wine producing region in the world.

The major obstacle is the sheer size and scope of the exam. It’s split into two parts, one to be completed in the morning and one to be completed in the afternoon of the 7th January, a little over 6 months from now. This single exam is worth 50% of the marks for the entire of the WSET Diploma and the minimum recommended study time is 300 hours. My experience with the other, considerably smaller units was that the minimum time really was that; the bare minimum, so aiming to exceed that is strongly recommended. The exam itself is split thus:

Part I – A blind tasting of 12 wines to be completed in 2 hours, with full tasting notes as per the WSET lexicon and additional conclusions to be made depending on the flight. This is trickier than it looks but, famous last words, I’m not overly concerned about it. I practice blind tasting on a weekly basis and having written somewhere in the region of 1,500 WSET tasting notes, I’m pretty familiar with writing them in the time frame required. As a result I’ll continue to practice tasting in exam conditions, but the vast majority of my time will be spent on learning the theory part of the unit.

Part II – 5 essay and/or short answer questions to be completed in 3 hours, with one of the questions being mandatory and the other 4 chosen from a group of 5 (Only one can be avoided). This is where 95% of my time is going to be spent, as the amount of information required is enormous and having never done higher education, my essay and exam techniques leave an awful lot to be desired.

So, with the split clear and obvious, the only remaining task is to choose how to best spend 6 months of studying whilst balancing a small business, extra work on the side, a newly born child and hopefully some semblance of a social life. Whilst I will no doubt turn into over-drive come December and double the amount of time spent studying, the size of the task means that consistent studying has to be undertaken now to avoid failure. With that in mind, here is my plan:

June (Or what’s left of it)2 hours per day to be spent reading through the 170 page study guide and re-reading David Bird’s “Understanding Wine Technology”. According to the examiners report, a lot of students completely forget to revisit the basics of viticulture and vinification, and lose obvious marks when asked a question that requires an explanation of something integral to the region; ie. The impact of planting densities in Burgundy, trellising systems in New Zealand, reverse-osmosis in poor vintages in Bordeaux and so on. 10X2 = 20 hours

July and August – 2.5 hours a day. This is the time when I need to really gather information and resources together, slowly start reading through it and highlight key points. Every section of the study guide has the Oxford Companion to Wine references to study, and that either means lugging around the encylopedic tome with me everywhere, or using my membership to JancisRobinson.com to prepare a study guide and print it out. The latter it is. This is going to be a huge but essential task. 62X 2.5 = 155 hours This may seem like quite a lot during the summer, but July and August in Barcelona are so unbearably hot sitting inside studying with a huge fan blowing directly into my face is actually quite an attractive option!

September and October – 2 hours a day. Study time in it’s simplest form; read, re-read and read the material again. The plan here is also to start looking at some of the more recent trends and developments in the individual wine regions, as well as classifying key producers. 61 X 2 = 122 hours

November – 2.5 hours a day. Similar to the previous block, with the exception that now I also have to check statistics. For each country, it’s important to know the Sales in both volume and value, a basic over-view of trends and have an idea of their major export markets. The reason I’m leaving this until November is if I start with it, I’ll lose the will to live by the end of July. By November, that ship’s already sailed anyway. 30X 2.5 = 75 hours

December – 3 hours a day. 3 hours a day over Christmas sounds quite awful and this is why the pass rate for the January exams is so low. Revision, exam questions and more revision. 25X 3 = 75 hours (I know I’m clearly not going to be able to study every day here, so no point including them all)

January – Panic stricken revision – literally anything that can be done in the days before the exam.

So, that’s about the extent of it. 450 hours in total planned and if you reduce 10% of that as a sort of reality check, I’ll have to work hard to get to 400 hours done over the next 6 months. Now that I write it down, it looks quite depressing but also manageable. In the past, I’ve managed the workload by studying as much of it as possible first thing in the morning and that’s what I’ll do again. Needless to say, if you don’t see much of me over the coming months, you’ll know why!

Incidentally, I’m very much looking forward to an exam-free 2018 after January. I’m a big proponent of wine education and I owe a lot of my understanding of wine to the WSET courses I’ve taken. However, I think a full year of slowly absorbing information without any exam pressure will be lovely, useful and well deserved! It’ll also give me a lot more time to focus on other projects as well as more time with my new family. However, there’s a good 400 hours between now and then so let’s get started!

Special moments and special bottles: La Rioja Alta 890 Gran Reserva 2001

It seems odd to post about special bottles in back to back entries, but it just so happened that everything came together at once this month. Two years ago I bought two very special bottles of Rioja from my favourite Bodega in the region, La Rioja Alta. The wines are the 890 Gran Reserva range from 2001, the pinnacle of the winery and benchmark wines for the whole region. The reason behind purchasing them was a bit whimsical; myself and my girlfriend had decided to start a family and I wanted to put something away to celebrate when the time came. The idea was to purchase two wines, one that I could open when my first child was born and the second on their 18th birthday and share with them. This requires a few criteria in order to work properly:

1. A wine that is approachable with a certain level of maturity yet that can continue to age and evolve gracefully for at least 2 decades.

2. Something that should stand out in the memory for its style, quality and, frankly, how delicous it is.

3. Ideally it shouldn’t bankrupt me!

La Rioja Alta have been my favourite produce in DOC Rioja for a long time now and in fact were the first taste of what I consider ‘real’ Rioja to be. I suppose I should explain that. When I first started taking an interest in wine, there was a strong anti-Rioja sentiment in Barcelona and that was a formative part of my first interactions with wine. With context, I can see that it wasn’t a dig at the quality of Rioja wines but more of a push for local Catalan wines to take prominence in the local wine scene, which makes a lot of sense in itself. This was, for myself at least, compounded by the fact the first Rioja wines I tried were…well… terrible. Cheap and flimsy wines bought from supermarkets and corner shops made it easy to write Rioja off, especially considering I was drinking good Catalan wines, wines from Ribera del Duero and Jumilla at the same time. With all the confidence that only comes from knowing absolutely nothing about what you’re talking about, I was able to proclaim ‘Oh yes, I don’t drink a lot of Rioja. Far too thin and oaky for me.” Enter: La Rioja Alta.

Founded in 1890 as a joint effort between 5 wine-making families, La Rioja Alta has gone on to become one of the most famous bodegas in DOC Rioja. Fiercely traditional and unwavering in style over the years, it has remained a relatively moderate size and focuses heavily on quality, opening newer bodegas in Rioja, Rias Baixas and Ribera del Duero to expand rather than risk any change in the original production. All wines produced here are red, aged for extended periods in American oak and the vast majority of grapes are produced on land owned by the winery itself. My first experience was the 904 Gran Reserva range, a single step below the 890, from 2001. The complexity of the nose and palate blew me away, and having been introduced through wines that were pushing 15% alcohol, the cooler profile and smoother tannic texture was a lovely surprise as well. I immediately went out to purchase more of their wines and became a fan by the end of the week. Their 890 Gran Reserva range is only made in certain vintages and sits as their flagship wine, the crème de la crème of traditional Rioja.

La Rioja Alta 890 Gran Reserva, 2001

Beautiful brick-red colour with an orange hue at the rim and an absolutely overwhelming nose; dried, brambly red and black fruits, sandalwood, dill, vanilla, baking spices, tobacco, caramel and some savoury, leafy aromas. Very heady and concentrated if still quite young. Masses of flavour intensity, acidity and a long, long finish with already quite integrated and smooth tannins. Probably the best Rioja I’ve ever tried, beating both the 1995 and 1998 vintages I tried over the last year hands down. Not a cheap wine but worth the money and a real indication of just how remarkable good Rioja can be.

Of course, the entire reason I opened the bottle was to celebrate the birth of my son, Dante. I’m not going to go into any detail about the wonders of becoming a father, as I’ll probably never stop, other than to say my heart has never been quite so full of love. I bought these bottles with the intention of celebrating the birth of my first child, and so I have, but for all the beauty and magic in the glass, nothing quite compares to seeing his lovely little face in the morning. It’s 18 years until we open the second bottle; I can only hope he’s found a taste for good wine by then, as it should be in a glorious place. Here’s to the future, my son, and everything it brings.

Special moments and special bottles; Sassicaia 2001


I still remember my first real moment of joy with wine, the feeling of this enormous world opening in front of me, the history, the culture and the sheer complexity and scope of it all. I’ve had this same feeling since, but the first experience I had of it was in a classroom on an uncharacteristically warm Monday morning in London, preparing to start my intensive WSET Level 3 course. As I’d chosen to bypass the first two levels of the WSET, I found myself very much the odd one out; not only had I not brought a spittoon but I hadn’t ever considered spitting wine out before in my life. I didn’t know the basics of wine production, let alone the nuances of different countries, regions and producers, nor had I tasted anything outside of Spain before. It was truly a baptism of fire and yet the only thing I recall was how much fun I had. It was a life-changing week for me and everything since has been inspired by what I learnt there.

I’m still relatively new to the wine industry, as that week was only just over 2 years ago now. Even so, everything has changed as I’ve spent the time between constantly studying, working and trying to improve my understanding of wine. The wines I’ve tasted can now be counted in the thousands rather than the hundreds. I’ve gorged myself on study guides, books, podcasts, blogs and trips to wineries. I’ve worked a harvest and seen some very exciting and very boring sides of the industry. I’m 5/6s of the way through the WSET Diploma and have organised hundreds of tastings in Barcelona. Despite being a newcomer, I can no longer be blown away quite in the same way that I was at the beginning, as it is with all things. However, ‘Ah ha!’ moments still come quite frequently as I have so much still to learn, yet they tend to come as individual pieces of the puzzle, rather than someone drawing back a curtain and showcasing the finished article.

Often these moments come when several disconnected facts find common ground and helps explain a concept you’ve been struggling to get your head around. In tasting, they’re even more common-place as you slowly learn how your palate responds to acidity, tannins, alcohol and the other components of wine. Probably my all time favourite, though, is trying a wine you know all about theoretically, have spoken about and yet have never had the opportunity to taste. A wine that has some sort of historical relevance to a region, a grape or a style. Usually these wines come with pretty hefty price tags and a fair amount of fame, so actually getting hold of them is easier said than done but when it does come along, it’s all the sweeter for it. Last week I had the distinct pleasure of one of these rare ‘Ah ha!’ moments in the shape of the famous ‘Super Tuscan’, Sassicaia.

Tenuta San Guido Sassicaia 2001

A lot has been written about Sassicaia, arguably Italy’s most famous wine, so I won’t add a great deal of detail, other than to say it was a relevatory experience for me. As I was learning about appellation laws in Europe, I also learnt about the concept of ‘Super Tuscans’, a term coined largely by the US and UK wine trade to describe wines that were made within Tuscany, often using a blend of international varieties in spite of local regulations. Sassicaia was one of the very first, a blend of 85% Cabernet Sauvignon and 15% Cabernet Franc, and has gone on to create a legendary reputation largely due to the craft and skill of consultant Giacomo Tachis, as well as the vision and drive of the owner of the estate, Mario Incisa. The resulting success of these wines, originally designated as Italian Table Wine or “Vino da Tavola” forced the Italian authorities to create a separate designation known as ‘IGT’ to accommodate wine-makers who wanted to be more creative with their production, without conforming to DOC and DOCG regulations. Such was the success of Sassicaia in particular, that it now has it’s own DOC within Bolgheri DOCG, making it the only wine in Italy to enjoy this distinction.

For a wine that’s moving onto it’s 16th birthday it was still remarkably youthful in both appearance and profile; a lovely deep ruby colour with only a slight bricking towards the rim. Beautifully aromatic with lots of blackberry, damson and plum fruit, along with the tell-tale roasted green bell-pepper and slightly minty note. This wine is in an excellent place with lots of leather, tobacco and earthy, savoury elements layered behind, but the freshness and life is the most remarkable thing about it. This will happily age for another 10 years although I was delighted to have caught it now, when the finely grained tannins had their last shred of grip and texture before becoming completely integrated. A very moving bottle of wine.

I drank the wine catching up with a friend over a long and very enjoyable lunch at Monvinic wine bar in Barcelona. Did it cost a lot? It certainly did, €137 to be precise, and that was just for the wine. Would I do it again? In a heart-beat. I’ll probably never experience the same mind-blowing revelations that I did when I first started to learn about wine and that’s ok. As long as I find and occasionally splash out on wines that give me these ‘Ah ha!’ moments, that connect the dots between hundreds of hours of studying, I’ll be more than content. The rest of learning about wine is a slow collection of knowledge and practicing continuously, all made worthwhile by these occasional, brilliant bottles. If they can be shared in good company again, well, I’d say that would make me a very happy man indeed!

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