Onward to Carignan(e)

I’ve been tasting a rather enormous amount of Carignan lately for a forthcoming article. This has confirmed several things for me which are: 1) it’s delicious and this a grape very much capable of making fine wine and 2) there generally appears to be a “right” way to make it. I’ll get into this a great deal more in coming weeks but in tasting all these wines in the spiritual European home of the grape, it piqued my curiosity to try it when in California last month.

Oh, maybe you weren’t aware that there was Carignan in California? There is although not a great deal and the best of it is in old bush vines, similar to what you find along the poor soils of the Mediterranean. For some reason, Contra Costa County seems to hold a number of plots of these old vines or at least, the wines I found were largely from this region. It’s shocking as I can’t believe the vines still exist given how very close to San Francisco this is and land prices are at an all time high. Then again, these vines are in sandy soil (thus on their own roots due to Phylloxera not being able to take hold) and thus it may not be ideal land to plunk down houses. It’s often the case you’ll find Carignan the world over, planted on chunks of land that had little other use and in time, this has been to great benefit.

A first Carignan I tried I don’t really want to call out much other than to say it was made the “wrong” way. For some reason they harvested at the end of August when in Catalunya they’ll harvest at the end of October. Hell, even the early-harvest loving French don’t pick the grapes until the end of September so this was really, really early. The winemaker I spoke to claimed it was due to it getting too hot as the vineyard is at a very low elevation. The result is that it just didn’t work with a thin, aggressive wine lacking integration with unripe tannins and it goes a long way to show why many people, if they’ve encountered Carignan, don’t like it as this is a typical result in less-than-average wines.

A second wine was considerably more promising. While the grapes were also harvested from a vineyard in Contra Costa County, Faith Armstrong of Onward seems to get that with Carignan, there is a path to making Carignan the “right” way. Fully developed in terms of profile, this was one of the best Northern Hemisphere Carignans I’ve had to date.

The vineyard in question was planted in the late 1800s and seems to benefit from being located very close to the waters of the San Francisco and Suisun Bays that cool it in the evenings. Climatic conditions only do so much and I have to take my hat off to Faith in that she’s obviously observed the vineyard well and understands how to pick and manage it to make a top quality wine. I’m sure this wine will get even better in future vintages if Climate Change doesn’t do us all in first…


Onward - Casa Roja 2014
Soft violet aromas, licorice, sage, light orange peel, dark cherry predominates, crispy mint notes. Light, dusty tannins, medium acidity with rich floral notes and a lingering finish.
100% Carignan · 14.3% · 32USD
91 2 Stars