13-08-2019

Carinyena Blanca: Tasting a grape that’s finding its place in Empordà

Catalunya’s Denomination of Origin Empordà has just announced an institutional plan to “realize the potential” of the grape, Carinyena Blanca (White Carignan.) Going forward this will involve making it a permitted grape as per their Plec de Condicions or regulations and once approved, they will be the first DO in all of Spain to allow the grape in wines as well as the only high-quality level wine region in Europe with monovarietal wines of Carinyena Blanca.

For those who may not have DO Empordà at the tip of the tongue, it sits in the top northeast corner of Spain, bracketed by Mediterranean waves to the east, windy Pyrenées to the west and the French region of Roussillon to the north. While definitely part of the greater Mediterranean area, to dismiss it as “just another Med winemaking region” would be a disservice. While there are only 50 wineries, there’s a dedicated group working to prove both singularity and exceptionalism to their small region which is why this new focus on Carinyena Blanca comes as no surprise despite its taking many years to get there.

Carinyena in context

For a bit of background on the Carinyena grape overall (which can now be listed on labels in Spain), the origin theory is that it’s a vitis vinifera cross that happened somewhere in the south of the Aragón region. This is why it picked up the name of the town Cariñena that became Carinyena in Catalan, Carignan in French, and Carignano in Italian.

The grape can be found as far west as Rioja (thus the previous synonym, Mazuelo which didn’t clash with DO Cariñena), as far east as Provence, and then out to the island of Sardinia. Despite this wide dispersal, it’s important to emphasize the Empordà-Roussillon connection as this seems to be the source of whence all the color mutations of the grape come. It’s something to keep in mind as ampelographers will state that where you find the most mutations, that’s usually the original home of a grape.

At this point it’s nearly impossible to prove exactly where Carinyena originated, especially as it’s a very old grape in terms of the red variant, shown by its many synonyms and the fact its ripens perfectly in the Mediterranean climate.

Carinyena, not Carménère

Given how even passionate wine drinkers I’ve met don’t usually know about the red grape Carinyena, it wouldn’t surprise me that even fewer know about this white mutation of Carinyena Blanca. It’s admittedly not in wide supply what with some 19ha in Empordà, a few more scattered around Catalunya, and then a reported 205ha in France. And while those French totals may seem more significant, it’s important to note that this grape is often inter-planted with other grapes such as Garnatxa Blanca, Garnatxa Roja, and Carinyena Roja so fully accurate totals are hard to come by other than to say, it’s not a grape with large production.

Part of the reason for this is that there isn’t a single French appellation that allows for a varietal wine of the grape which is why any that is produced (and there are a couple) is typically “Vin de France”. This doesn’t speak ill of the grape mind you but more the antiquated French mindset that any ‘correct’ wine should be a blend, especially from the warmer reaches of the country.

In Spain, the problem is even worse in that currently no DO allows the grape whatsoever in finished wines. For those cellars who are producing Carinyena Blanca they’re doing it somewhat under the radar as it’s officially registered as Garnatxa Blanca or some other grape most of the time. And that’s why Empordà’s announcement is quite interesting and forward-thinking in spite of the understandable resistance from those cellars within the DO who don’t have the grape and comprise the majority.

From northern Empordà however, some Carinyena Blanca vineyards have been spreading elsewhere in Catalunya: one in Penedès and three in Priorat (Vall Llach, Mas Alta, and Nin-Ortiz). The latter claims a story about how they found a single vine of Carinyena Blanca in their Cabernet Sauvignon vineyard, which they re-grafted little by little back to Carinyena Blanca, or it was a freak mutation of red Carinyena, or whatever. But it’s been documented that all of these vines originate from plant material derived from Empordà as DOQ Priorat has shown in one of their viticulture studies that Carinyena Blanca has never existed historically in the region. Empordà can definitely claim a good degree more history with the grape–probably as much as Roussillon can.

Maybe next time?

I don’t like dismissing grapes, but I’ve been exceedingly skeptical of Carinyena Blanca in spite of absolutely adoring the red variant. It’s great in blends, lending a plump, succulent, seductive body that makes you use silly, sexually-implicit descriptors as shown by Mas Alta’s amazing 50/50, La Solana Alta of Garnatxa Blanca/Carinyena Blanca. But, as a varietal wine, it has generally stank, quite literally. There is one example not produced in Empordà which, despite having tasted several vintages of it, I can’t but describe it as a desiccated kimchi soaking in lemon juice.

The problem is that Carinyena Blanca, much like its red brethren has the unmistakable tendency to “reduce” which is to say, get starved for oxygen during fermentation. When this happens, cabbage, sulfur, or other general funk aromatic notes appear. Sometimes they’re light and pleasing in the way Burgundy whites can pull it off. Other times, it’s much less than ideal and if you allow Carinyena’s inherent acidity to get out of control, it makes for an exceedingly unbalanced and unpleasant wine. It’s definitely a tough grape to make a fine wine from, or so it was thought…

In tasting DO Empordà wines blind recently (as well as previously for the Grand Carinyena/Carignan Tasting), there were some really excellent examples of Carinyena Blanca that rose to the top and saw me to reevaluating my prejudices and assumptions about the grape. I’ve included these wines below as well as some monovarietal wines from outside Empordà for a 12 wine comparison of this rarity.

Is there a future for this grape? A few brave souls in Empordà appear to think so and that along with some patience and elbow grease is usually all it takes once you can see the proof in the bottles. Convincing me of using the supposed local synonym of “Caranyana” will take a great deal more doing however.

WINES

Vinyes d'Olivardots - Vd’O 6.15 2015
Green pear, bruised green apple, cured lime peel, lime blossom, green, fresh herbs, basil, thyme, crumbly earth note. Rich and full on the palate, orchard fruits get overtaken by cured lemon citric notes and a bit of toasted aspects from the oak, but a great deal of depth and lovely finish. to the wine. Gives aged Rioja a run for the money.
100% Carignan Blanc · 13%
94+ 3 Stars

Celler Cooperatiu d'Espolla - Vins de Postal – Les Dòmines 2016
Crisp, juicy lemon notes, with green apple, marked fresh fennel and white pepper, touch of lavender, light green almond notes. Rich, full-bodied, bountiful citric notes but all held together quite well to make a cohesive, savory wine with a long finish.
100% Carignan Blanc · 13.5%
91 2 Stars

Domaine le Conte des Floris - Lune Blanche 2014
Straw-like in color. Grapefruit, crunchy green pea and crisp young green pear, Tiny bit of brioche and buttery notes. Good width on the palate, lemon pith and citric notes come more into play. Bright and crisp, medium short finish.
100% Carignan Blanc · 13.5%
90 2 Stars

La Vinyeta - Microvins C. Blanca Acàcia 2016
Lemon color. White pear and grated lemon peel, very light almond blossom, resinous. good weight on the palate, manages to stay fresh and alive, with a good chewy texture and citric notes that carry through to the finish.
100% Carignan Blanc · 14%
90 2 Stars

La Vinyeta - Microvins C. Blanca Roure 2016
Light straw. Aged green apple, brioche, toasted notes, wild herb notes with nutty touch of almond. Full and very expressive on the palate. Good, toasted weight of the barrel although it still needs to integrate more. Long finish.
100% Carignan Blanc · 14%
90 2 Stars

La Vinyeta - Microvins C. Blanca Castanyer 2016
Light lemon. Crisp red apple, herbal notes of tarragon, sage, green almond. Wide on the palate, more baking spice and white pepper notes com forward with a medium finish to it.
100% Carignan Blanc · 14%
89 1 Stars

Mas Llunes - Singular Blanc de Vinyes Velles 2016
Yellow peach, light touch of lemon pith and lime peel, gentle orange blossom notes, savory caramel aspect and light toasted notes. Rich, honeyed aspect on the palate with light citric notes and cured fruit peel, medium finish and acidity.
100% Carignan Blanc · 13%
89 1 Stars

Vinyes d'Olivardots - Vd’O 6.13 2013
Light straw in color. Green pear, light apple blossom notes, minty, spring peas, touch of mushroom. Tart lemon notes with a kick of vanilla in the mouth, medium acidity, and a shorter finish.
100% Carignan Blanc · 13%
89 1 Stars

Mas l'Avail - Ballade Blanc 2017
Dried apricot, peach, hint of red apple, woody notes, sweet fruit, watermelon preserves. Citric and simple on the palate with grapefruit dominating, wood more present, medium length finish with medium acidity.
100% Carignan Blanc · 13%
87 1 Stars

Maison Carrel - Carignan Blanc Sous la Montagne 2016
Lemon pith, green apple, elder flower, pinch of mango and pineapple. Very rich and full on the palate with citric lemon notes dominating, medium plus acidity but medium minus in terms of the finish.
100% Carignan Blanc · 11.5% · 10EUR
87 1 Stars

Domaine Paetzold - Mastrio Blanc 2015
Lemon peel, tart green apple, bit of vegetal crispness, green peas. Medium plus acidity in the palate with a great wallop of lemon citrus notes that give a medium minus length finish.
100% Carignan Blanc · 12.5%
86 1 Stars

Jeff Carrel - Carignan Blanc “sur lit en mouvement” 2016
Very light, translucent lemon color. Grapey, muscat nose bit of straw notes and cured lemon, red apple. Crisp and full of orchard fruit on the mouth but still a bit oxidized with a shorty finish.
100% Carignan Blanc · 11.5%
85 1 Stars