February 29th is apparently Carignan Day. I know what you’re thinking – how is it that this has not been on the front page of every newspaper in the world? I’m not sure either. But it’s here, and to jump on the bandwagon, I’ve decided to go with the De Martino El León Maule Valley Single Vineyard Carignan 2006.
So what about Carignan is so inspiring that some people think it deserves a day of its own, albeit only every four years. I think if it had been proposed a few years ago, it would have been seen as ironic. Some, I’m sure, see it that way now, for Carignan is a much maligned grape, described in the OCW as “the bane of the European wine industry”.
First, the facts about the grape. It is black, late budding and late ripening, which makes it suited to the warmer areas of the Mediterranean, including North Africa. It is difficult to train for machine harvesting, and is susceptible to a number of blights, including powdery mildew, downy mildew, rot, and grape worms. (Grape worms? Who knew there was such a thing?) It produces a wine with high levels of colour, acid and tannins. So far, pretty ordinary. What made it popular was its ability to produce very high yields. At rates as high as 200 HL/HA, it’s hard to beat the vast quantity of wine that could be produced from it.
The problem is the wine produced could typically not be described as quality. The colour, acidity, and tannin levels were matched only by its bitterness. The wine produced was not one to be consumed young, but nor was it good enough to age. Nevertheless, the vine was planted widely in the south of France to replace the grape Aramon, which suffered greatly from late frosts, something the late blossoming Carignan could handle. Between the mid-1960s and the late 1990s, Carignan became the most planted vine in France, contributing greatly to the EU wine lake, though vine pull schemes through the 1980s and 1990s put a big dent in the area under vine and Merlot surpassed it around 2000.
For all the Carignan hate, there are actually some very nice wines made from Carignan. Old vines on poor soil with low yields can produce varietals of significant character. Carbonic maceration has also been a technique in the winery that takes the edge off the product at a younger age. It can also serve as an important component in a blend, given its colour, tannins and acidity.
In addition to the south of France, Carignan is also found in Spain (called Mazuelo or Cariñena) as the major component in the wines of Priorat, and as a minor element of the wines of of Rioja, Costers del Segre, Penedès, Tarragona and Terra Alta. It’s also found in the Americas, in minor amounts in California, Mexico, Uruguay, Argentina, and in the case of this bottle, in Chile.
Speaking of Chile, we’re back, having been once before to try some Sauvignon Gris. This time we’re in another valley, the Maule Valley, further south and in from the coast than on our first visit to the San Antonio Valley. The Central Valley is the overriding DO, with Maule Valley being a region which in turn has at least six subregions. Being one of the more southerly regions, it is cooler than most wine areas of Chile, as well as cloudier. The climate is Mediterranean, and the soils are generally clay-loam, and often lack nitrogen and sometimes potassium.
The area is considered the one of Chile’s most traditional areas of wine production, with Pais having been planted by Spanish conquistadors, with that variety making up roughly 25% of the area under vines. Bush vines in dry grown vineyards are the traditional style of viticulture, though newer plantings are trained to wires and irrigated. Cabernet Sauvignon plantings have eclipsed those of Pais, with smaller shares of the remaining 45% going to Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Carmenère, and Chardonnay. While I can’t find any figures for the percentage of Carignan, there are a number of other producers using it in their wines.
Speaking of producers, De Martino is a family-run winery founded in 1934 and currently on its 3rd and 4th generation of contributors. They have vineyards from Elqui in the north of the wine growing range all the way down to Bio Bio, which is the second most southerly Chilean wine region. The were the first producer to release a wine labeled Carmenère after DNA profiling established that much of what had been thought to be Merlot in Chile was not. They produce a wide range of wines, including an impressive collection of single vineyard releases. Their vineyards are farmed organically, though they have not been certified. They are also all planted on original roots instead of being grafted onto phylloxera resistant rootstocks, which fortunately has not been a problem in Chile.
So this wine in particular is from a dry-grown, bush vineyard, planted in the 1950s on granite soil, with a dry growing season but plenty of rain in the winter. The vineyard has small amount of Carmenère and Malbec, in addition to Carignan. I’m slightly disappointed, in that I really want to tick the varietal Carignan box for my century, but alas the tasting notes for the 2007 indicate 5% each of Carmenère and Malbec, and I have no reason to believe they’d have skipped them for this 2006. The wine saw over a year in French oak.
I decanted the wine, and I know the photo isn’t going to do it justice, but the cork is an absolute hero, with maybe 1mm of darkening. It could have been put in the bottle this morning. Not a lot of sediment, but I only bought this bottle over the weekend so while it’s been stood up ever since, it could perhaps have used a few more days.
The colour is a deep ruby, showing very little sign of development. The nose is slightly hot, with dried red fruit and spice in a potpourri style. There’s a hint of wood and even vanilla which I wasn’t expecting given the oak treatment was French. On the palate, the fruit is much fresher, almost juicy, and still red. The spices shift from sweet to green peppercorn, and dried herbs. The acidity for which Carignan is known is certainly there, but in the context of the full flavours and reasonably full body, it works. The tannins are well integrated, to the point that I really have to concentrate to pull them out. There’s some black pepper and liquorice on the finish, and the length is well above average.
This is an very good wine, and I’m not just saying that because it’s Carignan Day. It has a serious intensity, as well as good complexity of flavours on the palate. I really think this is one for the cellar, in that I while it’s not overly young, I expect some very interesting secondary characters to start emerging over the next five to ten years.
As with so many larger producers, the point on the map is their address/cellar door, and sadly is quite a distance from the location of the actual vineyard. However, on their detail page for this wine, their is a cute popup map that shows the vineyard location. I really would love to find a way to display both the winery pin and a polygon detailing the wine region, even if it would increase the amount of work I’d have to do per post by 100% (until I’d made maps for every region).