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 Well, aside from the WSET Level 3 material being slightly outdated at the time (they’ve since revamped the entire course) it seems that consumers across the world are still a bit in the dark with regards to the potential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

Barcelona Wine Tasting: The Wines of Chile

chilean-wine

Perhaps no other country in the world has been expanding into new wine regions as rapidly as Chile over the last decade. Once known as a supplier of cheap, affordable and very reliable wines grown courtesy of their almost perfect climate, Chile is now starting to spread her wings and expand her styles, regions and varieties in practically every direction, or at least as far as the Pacific Ocean and the soaring Andes mountain range will allow her to! It all started back in the 1500’s when the Spanish settlers brought vines across, notably Moscatel, Torontel and ‘the common black grape’ that we now know as Pais. Since then, Chile has expanded rapidly since becoming a major wine producer in its own right, the 4th biggest exporter of wine in the world and an increasingly exciting place in the world of wine for consumers and winemakers alike.

The fact that Chile has been making wine reliably for over 4 centuries stretches the concept of ‘The New World’ a little as far as wine making is concerned, and indeed Spain actually tried to slow down the development of the industry in Chile in the 17th century, concerned as it was a real threat to exports of Spanish wine. Thanks to the enterprising governor at the time, this failed and Chile continued to grow and flourish, not least due to their intelligent decision to set up Quinta Normal, an experimental vineyard that housed many of the vitis vinifera varieties that would soon be decimated by phylloxera in Europe (Chile still remains the only major wine producing country in the world that is phylloxera free!). Today 80% of the countries production is covered by 4 enormous producers, spear-headed by Concha y Toro, but thanks to investments in international varieties, new equipment and an ever growing export market, Chile has now been joined by a wealth of smaller producers, most of whom are producing top quality wine destined for Western markets.

concha-y-toro

Geographically speaking, Chile is a skinny little country which from North to South, undergoes an enormous variation in climate. Not only that but as of 2011 Chilean winemakers have been able to indicate where their wines were grown using the terms ‘Costa’, ‘Entre Cordilleras’ and ‘Andes’ as a lot also depends on whether the vineyards are closer to the sea, the mountains or in between the two. Soil types also vary, from ancient granite and schist to the west, to clay, loam and sand being more common towards the central and coastal ranges. Add to this the perfect Mediterranean climate with cloudless, sunny days and hot, dry summers and there’s an absolute wealth of options available for winemakers and vineyards owners in terms of what they plant, when they pick and what styles of wine they want to make.

This week with Maestrazgo Wine Club, we intend to take a look ourselves through 6 different wines from the country, with 3 whites and 3 reds making up the list. From crisp, cool Chardonnays to crunchy, green Carmenere and the bright, powerful fruit of modern Cabernet Sauvignon, there’s an awful lot to taste and appreciate in this understated country. I have a feeling that the next 10 years could see a big change in the general appreciation of Chilean wines and I can only hope that more become available here in Spain!

vina-chillan

Viña Chillan Sauvignon Blanc Itata Valley 2015 – The Itata Valley is to the south of the country, around the regions of Bio-Bio and Malleco, and was previously known as a producer of the basic Pais variety, as well as some Muscat de Alexandria although the recent investment of this area has seen an emergence of cooler climate international varieties. Viña Chillan is the result of this type of investment, producing a blend of good quality, organically grown vines, mostly with international varieties from Pinot Noir all the way to Zinfandel. Their Sauvignon Blanc is a pretty wine, full of tropical fruit, spice and citrus with a nice full body to it. It’s a good example of modern wine-making and a push forward for organic viticulture in a country that will change its approach to viticulture drastically over the coming years.

tabali-talinay

Tabali Coastal Limestone Vineyard Chardonnay 2015 – The Limari Valley by comparison is right to the north of the country and has become something of a revelation since the 1990’s when this area first started to be truly explored. Here the cooling influence of the Ocean is vital, as well as the strips of soil comprising mainly of limestone, with particular praise being lavished onto the Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs produced here. Tabali are a producer who set up here early in the 2000’s, with an aim to producing European varietals in a distinctive, cooler climate style. The result in this case is a crisp, bright Chardonnay fermented in French oak and subjected to battonage to add body and weight. Fresh, creamy and very youthful this is a great example of the new style of Chardonnay being produced in Chile.

calyptra-chardonnay

Calyptra Chardonnay Gran Reserva 2012 – 650km away from Limari to the south of Santiago lies the Cachapoal Valley, an area best known for producing top quality Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Carmenere. The slightly warmer climate here also lends itself well to full bodied styles of white wines, typically Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. This is definitely more of a stereotypical ‘New World’ style of Chardonnay with more obvious oak, cream and vanilla as well as riper, more tropical flavours. Calyptra have been showered with awards in the last few years, from Decanter to the Wine Spectator, and it will be interesting to see how it holds up against our cooler climate whites!

maturana-wines

Maturana Wines Carménère Marchigüe 2013 – Staying in the Cachapoal Valley, we’re now moving onto our first red wine of the evening, a tiny production of Carmenere blended with Cabernet Sauvignon. Carmenere is Chiles ‘own’ grape in the same way that Malbec is associated with Argentina; both came from Bordeaux over a century ago but they’ve now found their spiritual homes in South America. Carmenere produces a deeply coloured, full bodied style of wine that is distinctly herbaceous, often unpleasantly so if the grapes aren’t fully ripe. As a result, blends of other grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are often added to soften the wine as well as adding. some structure and fruit. Maturana Wines make a miniscule 3500 bottles a year, so I feel particularly lucky to be able to share this!

odjfell-orzana

Odfjell Orzada Syrah 2011 – Further south again, this time to Maule, a hugely important area of production in Chile. Cooler than Cachapoal to the north thanks to the influence of the Pacific, this area focuses mainly on red wines including Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and interestingly, Carignan which has seen a resurgence over the last few years with some spectacular results. This week we’re going to take a look at Chilean Syrah, a varietal that seems to really get around the world quite comfortably, oddly enough through a Norwegian owned winery! Expect to see lots of juicy black fruit, pepper spice and oak influences from 12 months of ageing in mixed French and American oak barrels.

echeverria-limited-edition-cabernet-sauvignon-central-valley-chile-10340217

Echeverria Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 – Curico Valley was put on the map when a certain Miguel Torres arrived there with a plan to expand his wine empire in 1979. There are two distinct climates here, with the area around Molina being much cooler thanks to breezes coming down from the Andes whereas towards the west, everything becomes notably warmer and drier. Not renowned for an affiliation with a single grape variety, this area has instead become known for its ability to produce good quality grapes in a wide variety of styles. Echeverria has been a family business since the 1930s, with around 65 hectares of vineyards producing a wide portfolio of products. We’ll be finishing the tasting with their special selection of Cabernet Sauvignon, aged in French oak for a total of 20 months A full bodied, powerful wine with lots of black fruit and green bell pepper; a perfect sign off for a Chilean wine tasting!

What do you get if you take a group of lovely people, 6 excellent wines and good food to pair it with? A great evening, by my calculations. This will be our penultimate international wine tasting of 2016 and I can’t wait to get it started! The tasting is fully booked but if you’d like to be informed about future wine tastings we’re doing, please make sure to make an account with Meet-up and join Maestrazgo Wine Club, as the Newsletter containing all the dates will be sent out on the 1st December. If you’d like to book a private tasting at any point, check out what we can offer here. I’m really looking forward to seeing everyone on Thursday to explore the wines of Chile; see you soon!

Have the latest posts sent directly to your inbox!

Get the latest posts delivered to your mailbox: