Friday, 6 April 2012

A Call for Carignan

Last week I was at an excellent event promoting the wines of the Languedoc-Roussillon in Southern France. The zone seems permanently poised to be "the next classic region" to quote their official marketing, and indeed it is an extremely exciting wine region that is slowly but surely leaving behind its infamous past as a source of massively over-cropped gut-rot. These bad-old-days produced seas of wine made by unscrupulous
co-ops from vines planted on the vast plains of the Languedoc - fine if you're after huge quantities of fairly awful table wine, but no good at all for anything of quality. For that you need the drainage, topography and the less fertile soils that come with hillsides, which fortunately the Languedoc is littered with. These days the bad co-ops are very much on the decline (though there are still plenty) and there has been an explosion of good quality private domaines and merchants as well as co-ops that have seen the light and decided to opt for quality rather than quantity. More and more the plains are being grubbed up whilst old barren hillsides are being given a new lease of life by a dedicated vigneron. It's a slow change, but it is happening and is very encouraging.

The figures for the wines of Corbières, the largest appellation in the Languedoc and the fourth largest in France, exemplify the issues being faced and the changing scene across the whole region. Every year a massive 1.3 million hectolitres are produced from the 17,000 hectares of the Corbierès zone, but only a third of that is Corbierès appellation wine, the rest being regional or table wine.  However,  three quarters of the land is planted with vines that are used for the appellation wine, so very frighteningly that leaves just one quarter of the land producing two thirds of the wine (regional or table wine as opposed to appellation wine). A bit of simple maths shows that this non-appellation wine is made at gargantuan yields of about 200 hl/ha. This is a horrendously high number. Quality wine is nearly always made from low to medium yields, hopefully not above 50 hl/ha and often much lower. It's only at these lower yields that concentration and interest can be extracted from the grapes.

These figures highlight a massive split in the wines being produced; simplistically speaking people are either attempting to make quality wine with reasonable yields from the slopes, or they are producing seas of poor table wine with massive yields from the plains. To give an idea of the scale we're talking about here, the Languedoc is the world's largest wine-producing region, being responsible for a third of all the wine produced in France. The volume exceeds the production of all of Australia or if you'd rather, South Africa and Chile combined! Mind boggling. The main reason for the extremely high volume is the huge yields being extracted from the vines on the plains. Fortunately the scene is changing for the better, with vast tracts of vines having been pulled up in the last 15 years, nearly all of it from inappropriate land that shouldn't have had vines on it in the first place. Lots of progress is being made and there are increasing numbers of first rate wines to be found across the region.

Old Vine Carignan at Domaine Spencer La Pujade
Although there are some excellent white, sweet and fortified wines made in the region, the Languedoc is mainly about red wine (Corbières is 95% red wine for example). The five key black grape varieties are CarignanGrenache, Syrah (Rhône imposter), Mourvèdre and Cinsault. Until pretty recently, Carignan was seen as the bad guy of the region and was used as the scape goat for poor quality wine. It was easy to understand why this stance was taken; when planted on the plains the vine can easily yield 200 hl/ha, so it was ruthlessly exploited to make seas of pissy wine. It's also pretty tannic and the resulting wines were just dark, hard, somewhat bitter and without any saving graces. It was by far the most heavily planted variety and was responsible for most of the awful wine made. Not looking good. For this reason it was the victim of most of the vine pulling and why the authorities reduced the amount of Carignan allowed in the blend of various Languedoc appellations, increasing instead the minimum amount of the noble Syrah that should be used. Corbierès for example allows a maximum of 50% Carignan, pushing growers to use more Syrah and Grenache. However, people are now increasingly realising that when Carignan is grown on infertile hillsides and is pruned hard, it produces wines with excellent local character and plenty of black fruit and spice to balance the firm tannins. This is particularly so for old vine bush Carignan, where the yields are also naturally much lower (as is always the case with older vines). For me, noble and wonderful as Syrah is, when a high percentage is used in a Languedoc blend it tends to dominate the wine, resulting in something quite international in style that's more about Syrah than about the location. By contrast wines from quality producers that use plenty of old bush vine Carignan in the blend tend to have a wonderful sense of place, which for me is the key to an interesting wine.

So now we have come full circle, where quite rightly the vines from the plains are still being pulled out, but old bush vine Carignan on the hillsides is increasingly being treasured as the vital ingredient in wines that speak of the local terroir. Although plenty of excellent old vine Carignan has been grubbed up, fortunately there is still plenty around to produce some really interesting wines across the Languedoc.

To demonstrate the range of excellent Languedoc wines being made, we were given a blind tasting of a few examples, white, red and sweet, to show the quality and diversity now available from the region. One of the reds we were given blind really stood out for me; it was big and meaty, with great grip and firm tannins needing a a rich daube to break it down, but it also displayed a tremendous freshness and vitality that you wouldn't necessarily expect. With rich black cherries flavour with a slightly bitter twist to the finish, it was very long, savoury and complex. It had high acidity (including very high VA, volatile acidity, which gives vinegary smells and flavours) and strong tannins - very reminiscent of many Italian reds. Some people found the VA too much, but for many, me included, it just added character and wasn't a problem at all. It was a wine with bags of personality  and was right up my street. So what was it? It turned out to be a 2007 Faugères from Domaine Leon Barral, which was a blend of 50% Carignan, 40% Syrah and 10% Grenache. The wine saw no filtration or fining, was fermented only using natural yeasts and had no added SO2; a natural wine as these types of wines are calling themselves, and in this case an absolute winner.

We also looked at a range of wines from Domaine Spencer La Pujade in Corbières. One of the wines was a 2010 Carignan Vieilles Vignes, pure Carignan from 90 year old bush vines. With no oak influence at all, it was spicy, rich, peppery, with bags of sweet black fruit and firm tannins. Fresh and long it showed what a lovely wine Carignan can make when on its own. As it exceeded the 50% Carignan limit it couldn't be sold under the Corbières appellation but instead is sold as an IGP (Indication Géographique Protégée) wine, which has less stringent rules and covers a wider catchment.

We also tried another 2010 from Spencer La Pujade, their regular Corbières, which is 50% Carignan, backed up by Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre. This had some old oak ageing, just enough to give it complexity, structure and ageing ability but without being obstrusive. It had a lovely nose and a big core of strong black fruit with a decent lick of spice. With good length, complexity and structure it was a lovely wine.

As we've seen, all the wines discussed here either use the maximum 50% Carignan allowed under the appellation rules (be it Faugères or Corbières) or they're 100% Carignan and are sold as IGP instead of appellation wine. This is exactly what local producers should be doing; concentrating on what's unique to their part of France and making wines that can forge an identity for the region. That's what the Languedoc needs and the sooner the authorities realise it and allow for more Carignan in the blends, the better.

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