“Carinyena”, the original Carignan now free to be itself
Carignan doesn’t see a whole lotta love. It’s most certainly no Pinot Noir nor Chardonnay nor Cabernet Sauvignon in terms of name recognition nor pan-global wine enjoyment. It’s not even at the level of Grenache with which it dares to share the same vineyard space and is often blended with.
Part of the reason it remains in the shadows is that promoting it is a bitch as there is no commonality in grape names across the regions where it’s grown. For the rare soul that knows of “Carignan” from France will they also know Mazuela or Samsó, the only two names you can legally put on a label on Spain? How about Bovale Grande from Italy? I highly doubt it.
Grenache by comparison has been far more fortunate and it’s not by accident as there’s been a unified front in terms of promoting its name as a “brand”. Yes, there’s Cannonau in Sardinia but the other names are more standardized whether Grenache in France or then Garnacha/Garnatxa in Spain where it’s originally from. I’d put forth that the grape has such a solid base of recognition that it pushes people to try the incorrectly-named Garnacha Tintorera which is Alicante Bouschet and not a Grenache at all.
What indeed is in a name?
While I use the French name Carignan when writing about the grape, it’s actually quite a troublesome name. If there’s that spark of recognition by someone who knows it, this will not turn into a glowing memory due to Southern France’s “Wine Lake”of which Carignan was a big part. Large-scale winemakers took advantage of one of Carignan’s key abilities which is: large yields. It can produce some 20,000 l/ha (yeah, that’s a butt tonne) but the trade off is a weak, thin wine that’s very acidic and tannic; hardly a welcoming profile.
Then there’s the issue that when asking knowledgeable enthusiasts of wine if they know of the grape “Carignan”, they’ll often say, “Oh sure, that’s from Bordeaux, right?” Despite the fact that Carménère is actually from moderate-climate Bordeaux and has found new fame in Chile, confusing the sound of the two is an easy mistake to make and I hear it often.
So why on earth have we taken to using this name? Well, while the grape is originally from Northeast Spain, it only has about 6,000ha in total plantings for the entire country. France has nine times this with over 53,000ha which is a large part of the reason why the Carignan name was adopted from French in English. That and we English speakers just find French sexier despite the fact that you can almost have an entire conversation in French only using the word, “putain“.
The Catalan problem
There is something of a “Carignan Belt” (see cross regional tasting) that stretches from Rioja, across Spain, up into Southern France and ends in Provence. At the French end of the belt (clearly, as it’s a belt’s ending that’s the sexy part), you have the grape called “Carignan”. At the far-western end in Rioja you have the grape called “Mazuelo”. In the middle, there’s a disconnect as the grape has always been called, “Carinyena” or “Cariñena” in Catalan and Spanish, respectively. The problem is, it’s been forbidden to put either name on the label.
It may seem a minor quibble, but it’s been a major problem for winemakers in Catalunya where 43% of all of Spain’s Carignan is grown. I chatted with the DOQ Priorat president, Sal·lustià Álvarez and he summed it up as such, “When we buy the vines, they’re called Carinyena. When we plant the vines and authorize vineyards, they’re called Carinyena. When we make the wines, all the paperwork says, Carinyena. But, when we go to label the wines, this name is forbidden.”
So here’s the problem: DO Cariñena in Aragón claim that to allow Carinyena (or the Spanish, Cariñena) on the label would confuse customers and it impinges upon their official region name. The irony here is that DO Cariñena is a majority-Grenache region with very small amounts of Carignan vines. I’ve often wondered if someone producing a DO Cariñena wine can list Cariñena as a grape on the label if it’s part of the blend, but I digress and that’s Garnacha territory so it’s a moot point.
We’ve actually seen this problem before. Hungary’s Tokaji winemakers raised issue with a grape called Tocai (sounds the same) in the Friuli region of Eastern Italy that had no relation to Tokaji’s main grape Furmint. There was a discussion, the Italians came out on the losing side and now their grape is now known as Friulano. Apparently still harboring resentment, when Croatia joined the EU in 2013, they protested that the Croatian’s name for a sweet wine from Dalmatia, Prošek, “clearly” caused confusion with Prosecco, the sparkling wine from Veneto which abuts Friuli–yes the same one as the Tocai kerfuffle. This time, it was the Italians won.
For Carignan winemakers in Catalunya, they essentially arrived at two options. The first was to use “Mazuelo” which is mostly associated with Rioja where it’s an extremely minor grape that most no one outside of Spain has ever heard of by that name. Despite this fact, it was Mazuelo that was chosen as the reference name for Carignan in the groundbreaking book, “Wine Grapes”.
The other option was to come up with something of their own, much the same as how Robert Mondavi in Napa Valley invented the name, “Fumé Blanc” in the mid-20th century to call his dry, oaked Sauvignon Blanc wines as the grape had a reputation of being a rather uninteresting sweet wine. There’s a game that’s certainly changed.
The name that was ultimately arrived at in Catalunya was, Samsó. What the hell is that? It has always been horridly unclear to me. The official stance is that it was an old synonym for Carignan, although it could have easily been a mis-labeled vineyard and a confused farmer. And here’s the problem with this name in that Samsó sounds almost exactly the same as Cinsaut which is a completely different grape in France and more often than not is in the blends of those fine Rosés you sip from Provence
last summer throughout the year.
Finally, all this stupidity over a traditional grape name that should have been able to be used has come to an end on October 29th with the release of the Spanish Official State Bulletin, BOE-A-2018-14803. In it, the use of both Cariñena and Carinyena are now allowed. The reaction from Catalan winemakers has been universal as exclaimed by Josep Serra of La Vinyeta and Anna Espelt of Espelt Viticultors in DO Empordà who simply said, “Oh, what joy, finally!” They, as well as many others have varietal Carignan projects to which they’re finally able to give a universal name that links the grape to its brethren in France (as well as elsewhere) and provides a sane way to promote it.
Despite how undesirable it was, people were trying to push the Samsó angle as best they could. DO Montsant has had a “100% Samsó” campaign that indicates when a wine is a varietal, 100% Carignan. They say that once all the dust has settled, they hope to immediately change to a “100% Carinyena” campaign. Other producers with old vines in the southern DOs of Catalunya such as Vall Llach, Mas Doix, Mas Alta, Scala Dei, Encastell, and Ripoll Sans in DOQ Priorat or Celler Masroig, Vermunver, Vinyes d’en Gabriel, and Orto Vins is DO Montsant are also all excited that they can finally make use of the original name for their grape. In DO Terra Alta I’ve also found there exist burgeoning projects producing varietal Carignan wines as well and they’ll start labeling them correctly as “Carinyena”. Undoubtedly there will be some hiccups and some delays in uptake as people have registered trademarks and labels (especially in the United States) under Samsó.
There are some very loud voices in Spanish wine that have long pointed out that the Catalans were “foolish” for backing Samsó in the first place. I’d agree but then again, they had little choice if they wanted to forge an identity for what I’ve found to be an absolutely lovely grape in the region and anyone I’ve introduced to it has felt completely the same.
All I can say is that while I love all wine, I love Carignan even more and I predict people are going to come and love this grape just as much given its smooth tannins, full aromas, and crisp, driving acidity. I only hope there’s enough to go around!