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 Well, aside from the WSET Level 3 material being slightly outdated at the time (they’ve since revamped the entire course) it seems that consumers across the world are still a bit in the dark with regards to the potential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: Fira del Vi 2017

This year was the first chance I’ve had to attend the Fira del Vi festival in Falset, a small but important town close to the regions of DO Montsant and DOQ Priorat. The festival takes place in the first weekend of May, and producers from both regions offer tastings at the fair as well as organising small events around the Falset at the same time, all in the name of promoting the wines of the regions. With it taking place over an entire weekend and celebrating the wines of two of Catalunyas most famous and popular wine regions, it’s heavily attended with somewhere in the region of 15,000 visitors flocking to the town (population 3000, by comparison) to drink and make merry. It was suggested to me that I sign up for the day of ‘professional’ tasting the Tuesday after the weekend itself, when things would be a little quieter and I wouldn’t stick out so much with my notepad and desire to spit wine rather than drink it (at least until lunch!). With the sense of childish glee that only comes to those who get out as little as I do, I embarked on an early train with my friend Alex, and proceeded to chatter away like an escaped inmate for the entirety of the 2 hour journey.

It turns out, I stuck out anyway but less because of my notepad and more due to my blonde hair and blue eyes. Like many regions, the Catalan wine community is quite insular with most of the wine-makers, salesman, distributors and major figures in the industry well acquainted with one another; this isn’t Bordeaux or Burgundy, where the world of wine descends regularly to taste and score every vintage. However, in true Falset fashion, the reception was warm and welcoming, with only the occasional snigger when I butchered Catalan pronunciation during my inquiries. Fortunately Miquel Hudin, author of the Vinologue guides to the regions and Porerra resident, was on hand to steer us around for the first hour and introduce us to some lovely people, which I’m almost certain was also how we got to try some special wines that weren’t immediately available.

The event itself was set in a sort of car-park in the middle of the town itself, with all the producers making a circle with their stalls with small clusters set up in the centre. There were apparently 65 producers showing their wines over the course of the weekend according to the guide we were given, but there were perhaps only 50 or so for the final day. However, not only were some of the ‘big’ names of Priorat present and pouring but also a whole host of smaller producers that I hadn’t had the chance to try before, so I set about trying to taste the entire range of as many producers as I could, stopping only to make notes on wines of particular interest, of which there were a great many. Lunch was at 3pm and our original plan was to come back afterwards and finish with the producers we hadn’t had a chance to visit. Unfortunately, it turns out that lunch was the signal for the end of the day and so we missed out on the fantastic wines of Val Llach, Clos Figueras and a few more. However, I will definitely be back next year and I will be bringing some wine for lunch to avoid having to very sheepishly ask producers for a full glass of wine just as they’re closing, like some sort of alcoholic, purple-toothed Oliver Twist. (My thanks to Clos Figueras for bailing me out of that one!)

Whilst the quality of the wines was universally very high, these 3 were my highlights of the event for very different reasons.

Most memorable wine – Mas Doix 1999 (Poured from a magnum)

A bit of an unfair one as it wasn’t really part of the normal line-up but if Mas Doix 1999 isn’t your wine of the day, then you and I go to very different tastings. We were poured this wine, secretly stashed away, by Valentí Llagostera, co-owner of Mas Doix and a warm, friendly character. After the 1998 vintage, he along with Ramon Llagostera and their cousin Josep Maria Doix, decided to stop selling their grapes to the local co-operative and set out on their own. They’re now one of the most highly respected producers in all of Catalunya and rightly so; were it not for this wine, the 1902 Carignan would be up for ‘Wine of the Day’ – without a doubt the best Carignan I’ve ever tried.

The 1999 Mas Doix defies the adage that Priorat can’t age and is made from roughly equal parts of Garnacha and Carineña, before around 16 months ageing in French oak. At almost 18 years of age, this still holds a remarkable amount of ripe and dried black fruits, a beetroot character and then plenty of delicious, savoury notes; leather, dried violets, wet leaves and black pepper. Still fresh with soft, integrated tannins and so much flavour – absolutely delicious. The finish just went on and on. A very special wine indeed.

Best value wine – Les Sentius 2012

One of the greatest surprises of the day was just how much excellent wine was being served at lower price points; the world knows what Priorat can offer at 50 euros and above, but it isn’t a region well known for its value-for-money wines. A great deal of the wines I was enjoying were below 20 euros a bottle and quite a few closer to 10! Fighting off some stiff competition from Gran Clos, Cal Batllet and Malondro was this excellent wine from Celler Joan Simo.

The gentleman at the stall was none other than Gerard Batllevell Simo and owner of the estate. Like many grape-growers in the region, Gerard decided to stop selling his grapes off locally and start producing his own wine in 1999. The Les Sentius bottling sits in the middle of the range, with Viatge al Priorat at a lower price point and the excellent Les Eres Vinyes Velles and Les Eres Especial Carners considerably more expensive. Les Sentius is a big, bold Priorat wine with lots of power and spice, ripe dark fruits and herbal characteristics. It’s remarkably fresh for a wine with 15% alcohol and I’d love to try it alongside a hearty stew of some sort, although at a pinch I could be convinced to sit down with a bottle by itself! At around 15 euros a bottle, this is remarkably good value for money and I have already ordered a couple of bottles for future drinking.

Biggest surprise – La Solana Alta 2014

The feeling of discovering a special wine completely by accident is such a fun thing. Ultimately, a lot of wine is going to be within a certain frame-work stylistically, particularly in the Old World regions in Europe where rules and regulations dictate so much in terms of what can be produced. Even excellently made wine can end up tasting quite ordinary when tasted alongside 50 of its peers, and it takes a special wine to jump out of these line-ups and really demand some attention. The first time I experienced this was also in Priorat and involved a slightly older bottle of Clos Mogador (2009), which remains my favourite producer from the region to this day.

On Tuesday that wine was La Solana Alta 2014 from Bodegas Mas Alta. The winery itself is a relatively new project (1999 once again!) and production is overseen by Michel Tardieu and Philippe Cambie from the Rhone Valley; two very important names in France and a hint to the origins of the elegance and style in the resulting wines. A brand new release in its first vintage and a blend of 50% Garnacha Blanc and 50% Carineña Blanc, I found myself returning to this wine over and over again. A really beautiful balance of delicate stone fruit, melon, brioche and subtle oak with lots of intensity and a long, long finish; this wine took me completely by surprise. Effortlessly elegant without losing a shred of concentration and could well be the best Catalan white wine I’ve tried so far. I silently kicked myself for forgetting to ask if I could buy a bottle or 3 at the event, as the price of 40 euros at Vila Viniteca, currently their only distributor in Barcelona, isn’t the friendliest. This will certainly find itself into a future event for one of our weekly wine tastings here in Barcelona, as well as a space in my fridge.

Overall, this was a really lovely day out to a well organised event and I will certainly be back next year. There were so many good wines being served, and not always from the well known names of the region. I’ve already plugged Miquel a little earlier on but if you truthfully want to understand the wines and culture of Montsant and Priorat, his Vinologue Guides are the best way to get started. We finished the day with a delicious bottle of Ribera del Duero from one of my favourite producers, Finca Villacreces, from the 1998 vintage; 25 euros on the restaurant list of the Hostal Sport in central Falset. Needless to say, the train journey home was a sleepy one.

Barcelona Wine Tasting: Can Rafols dels Caus

Every month we’ll be tasting and learning about an iconic producer of Spanish wine in detail. To attend these tastings, please make sure you check the blog on the 1st of every month for the newsletter with the details, or join the Meet-up group to get updates as tastings become available.

Can-Rafols-dels-Caus

It’s often said that DO Penedes attracts some of the most innovative wine-makers and projects in Spain, partly due to the varied climates and soils, and partly due to the relatively relaxed regulations around grape varieties and general wine production. However, there are also many excellent producers who’ve been around for quite some time, and this week we’ve chosen to look at one of my favourites; Can Rafols dels Caus. Details of the wines can be found at the end of the article.

As we’re only presenting a single Spanish producer per month as a dedicated tasting, the selection process is always a bit of a dilemma as there’s simply so many quality producers to choose from. Are they an iconic producer? Not really, as most people outside of Catalunya aren’t aware of who they are. Are they on the cutting-edge of wine innovation? Again, no. Whilst the use of some of their grape varieties are a little unorthodox, they have a refreshingly balanced approach to the creation of their wines. So why did we choose to showcase Can Rafols dels Caus this month? Simply put; they’re focused on slowly but surely improving the quality more than the size of their production, they’ve invested heavily into both the estate and their vineyards, and the results are starting to become very apparent in the glass. This methodical, honest and hard-working approach towards wine strikes a chord with me and I’ve very much enjoyed tasting their wines over the past year.

Carlos Esteva, owner of Can Rafols, has been at the estate since 1979 although the land itself was purchased in 1939 by his grandfather. The estate itself is a sizeable 450 hectares of land, although only 90 hectares are given over to vines and recently the family have acquired another 250 hectares of land, although my understanding is that it was only done to ensure that it wouldn’t be purchased by a stone-quarrying company which would, in their own words, ‘represent a serious threat to the environmental equilibrium of this part of the Garraf.” Where deep pockets meet strong principles, wine does remarkably well! Thanks to the undulating terrain, there are various slopes with different exposures to sunlight on top of the chalky, limestone mass that is the Massis del Garraf; a coastal mountain range in Catalunya which the vineyards of Can Rafols sit neatly on top of. This, along with differing depths of soil and an owner with a desire to experiment have led to the cultivation of more than 28 different grape varieties, with a nice blend of both indigenous Spanish and Catalan grapes, as well as other European varieties.

Vineyards

The vineyards are mostly either organically or biodynamically farmed, something that Carlos and his team don’t make a huge fuss about. To quote their website: Good wines can only come from good grapes and balanced vines where production allows the grapes to ripen properly – there is a great belief that nature should be allowed to take its course…This is the philosophy at Can Ràfols dels Caus and the secret to making the best wines.” Seems fair enough to me! The last 40 years have seen Carlos invest heavily in the vineyards, both practically and in terms of research, as well as planting new varieties. As you’ll see from the single vineyard wines in a moment, this has paid enormous dividends with those varieties now approaching 30 years of age and a good balance between vigour and fruit concentration.

Can Rafols Cellar

The estate itself was originally constructed during the reign of the Romans over 2000 years ago now, and unsurprisingly when Carlos decided to spruce it up a little in 1979, there was a little bit of work to be done. The biggest issue by far was the old cellar, which would have undone a lot of the hard work and investment in the vineyard had they continued to use it to make wine. In 1994 Carlos decided to renovate it completely and whilst I can’t find a cost quoted for it, it was an enormous undertaking, completely changing the 2000m2 space into a modern facility, designed to be both clean, hygienic and optimally functional. It’s completely embedded into the stone of the Massif del Garraf with huge, stone doors designed to make you feel as though you’re walking into a mountain. Only wine is made here, leaving enough space for both the production of wine as well as simultaneous visits to the facility, with gravity harnessed to carry the finished wine into a nearby bottling facility.

It was a pleasure to present the wines of Can Rafols dels Caus last night and below is a list of the wines we drank as well as the reception they got from our 10 tasters as part of our weekly wine tasting here in Barcelona:

Gran Caus Blanco

  1. Gran Caus Blanc 2014 – Xarel.lo, Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay. 

    An interesting point about even the affordable wines of Can Rafols is that the wines are always held back for 2 years or more in the bodega before being commercially released, to allow the wines to settle and evolve slightly. This is an impressive part of their production and that it applies to wines like this fresh, zesty white, Gran Caus Blanc, even more so. At 13 euros a bottle, this would be warmly received at any dinner table.

  2. Gran Caus Rosé 2015 – Merlot 

    I really like this style of rosé wine; bright pink, immensely fruity and very, very old-school. Most Spanish rosé wines you see today imitate the enormously fashionable style of wine from around Provence in the south of France; light, salmon-pink, delicately perfumed and soft on the palate. Traditionally in Spain, macerations were longer (18 hours in this case), making the colour deeper and the wine more intensely flavoured. They don’t look as attractive in a transparent glass bottle but there’s a lot to be said for a glassful of strawberries, cherries and red plums! Simple, honest and delicious.

    Single Vineyard Wines

  3. Pairal Xarel.lo 2012 – Xarel.lo

    Xarel.lo continues to make a case for being the Catalan white grape variety to pay attention to. This was the first of the single vine-yard white wines that we tried, and it ended up blowing the other two away, despite being the most affordable of the three. Made from the oldest vines on the estate, between 60 and 70 years old, and aged in chestnut oak for 4 months and then the mandatory 2 years in bottle, this was the group favourite by a significant margin. Still quite lightly coloured but full of evolving fruit aromas, light oak influences and a lovely nuttiness. I enjoyed learning about the use of chestnut oak (more porous than normal oak, with slightly fewer congeners to impart) and I can’t help but feel that it had some impact on the evolution of the flavours, whilst maintaining the freshness of the wine. The Wine of the Night with a very impressive 7 votes!

  4. El Rocalis 2012 – Incrocio Manzoni

    The second of the single vineyard wines and made from an interesting grape variety that seems to be slowly infiltrating Catalan white wine production; Incrocio Manzoni, named after Professor Luigi Manzoni of Italy’s oldest school of oenology in Veneto. A cross between Riesling and Pinot Blanc, it certainly takes strongly after the former with fresh, green fruit aromas, citrus components and that lovely element of minerality so often found in good quality Riesling. 4 months in oak softens the wine and I can’t help but feel this could age for quite a bit longer, as it was still quite focused on primary aromas and flavours.

  5. La Calma 2012 – Chenin Blanc

    Like El Rocalis, La Calma is a single vineyard wine with grapes planted around 25-30 years ago, with this wine focusing on Chenin Blanc. Whilst it’s uncommon to see 100% Chenin Blanc wines in Catalunya, various wineries are experimenting with it as part of their blends and it’s easy to see why; with it’s ability to grow in a variety of climates whilst maintaining depth of flavour and naturally high levels of acidity, Chenin Blanc is truly an under-rated variety. La Calma is now starting to come into its own as the vines age. Also like El Rocalis, I’d be interested to see this wine in 5-10 years time!

    Gran Caus Sumoll

  6. Can Rafols Sumoll 2013 – Sumoll

    The indigenous red variety that’s capturing the hearts of everyone in Penedes at the moment, Sumoll is slowly gaining momentum in the Catalan wine industry. The vines at Can Rafols are over 50 years old now and this is one of the best expressions of Sumoll I’ve had the pleasure of trying. Lightly coloured and delicately aromatic, with notes of raspberry, cranberry and wild herbs; I always think of Sumoll as being somewhere between Pinot Noir and Mencia. The use of large chestnut barrels is back at work here and the result is a lovely, quaffable wine. This was the second favourite wine of the evening after Pairal.

    Gran Caus Tinto

  7. Gran Caus Tinto 2008 – Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot

    Last but not least, we finished with a Bordeaux blend, the greatest of the “Gran Caus” range and a throw-back to the sort of wines that inspired Carlos Esteva from a young age. A blend of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot and aged for 12 months in barrel, then another 4 years in bottle before release. At 12.5% ABV, this was styled on old-school Bordeaux and had the classic green bell pepper, graphite and muted fruit of a cooler vintage from the region. The beauty of this wine was the powdery tannins and long, savoury finish. Certainly not a wine for everyone and about as far away from typical Spanish wine as it’s possible to be, showcasing the diversity of the Can Rafols estate. A lovely finish to a lovely evening!

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