So, recently I attended a seminar on California Zinfandel, which I think is the grape to look at if you want to understand the history of winemaking in California (our heritage wine is not, despite appearances to the contrary, Chardonnay). Zinfandel’s a beast: Long-living, hard to kill, tolerant of difficult situations, “bring it, bitch” attitude. So there are lots of ancient vines hanging around. And in really old Zin plantings you often find a “mixed black” situation, meaning a variety of super-dark grapes are thrown in together because they have historically been blending partners for Zin to give it balance and depth. Some of the partner grapes are really obscure varietals you’ve never heard of and will never see listed on a label. Others are common to semi-common varietals in their own right, like Petite Sirah, and Carignan (Mazeulo in its native Spain).
Carignan is not a grape I generally knock myself out looking for, though it’s the main event in several of my favorite rosés. Widely planted in France (in Spain its territory has largely been usurped by Grenache), it’s never been a star player in California, although its heat tolerance might change that as things warm up. Winemakers here often disdain it-it’s prone to powdery mildew and point mutations, hard to harvest, and has a reputation for making “undistinguished” wines (meaning Le Plonk). But the varietal old vine Carignans being made by some of California’s Zindandel gurus are anything but undistinguished.
Good Carignan wines are intensely perfumed, with a pronounced incense character and palate-waking savoriness. Common notes including sandalwood, violets, rosewood, cinnamon, anise, cumin and dried herbs as well as fairly bright red fruit notes (often raspberry). It’s, rich, not especially tannic, and its umami quality makes it a fabulous food wine. Its unsexy reputation means it is likely to be favorably priced, too. Carignan is a varietal where the term “old vine” is relevant: Much of its perceived mediocrity comes from characteristics related to its super-high yield, and very old vines concentrate their energy into fewer and better grapes. If “spicy” is your thing, or if you just like looking savvy, this is a wine worth looking out for.
5 Bottles to Try
3C Carinena (Carinena, Spain, about $10)
At 45 years old, the vines producing this Carignan are, relatively speaking, juveniles. This wine is deep red and pretty vivacious, it has a youthful feel. Aromatics are on the more fruit-forward end of the spectrum, though spice notes are present. I get plum and violet. Smooth tannins. Super approachable.
Bedrock Wine Company Papera Ranch Heritage Carignan (Russian River Valley, CA, about $50)
The first time I tasted this old-vine Carignan, I wrote down a single word: Voltage. And I stand by that, though if you wanted to say more you might say it has notes of dried fruit, cracked peppercorn, nutmeg, cinnamon and incense. You might use adjectives like “brooding” or “powerful.” You might note beautifully balanced tannins and great depth. And you wouldn’t be wrong. A wine to sit with and contemplate.
Domaine Lafage Tessellae Old Vine Carignan (Rousillon, France, about $15)
Super good value for the price. The vines are about 70 years old, which is definitely old enough. This is a sleek, sexy wine with a fruit-forward nose (cherry, raspberry, maybe pomegranate) and trailing baking spice notes on the finish (cinnamon is prominent for me). Sensuous and easy to deal with.
Ravenswood Angeli Carignan (Lodi, CA, about $40)
Ravenswood wines tend to be smooth and curvy and full-bodied and this is no exception. What stands out about it first is a remarkable density and silkiness. It favors sandalwood, blackberry and dark cherry notes and has prominent cocoa powder and and black plum on the finish, but with this wine you really notice the texture the most. A friend to grilled meat for sure.
Ridge Vineyards Carignan (Alexander Valley, CA, about $31)
One of the pricier Carignans in California, but if you are in love with the varietal, well worth seeking out. If I had to describe it in one word I’d go with “magnetic.” Luckily I am not confined to one word so I’ll mention figs, and cacao, and anisette, and blackberries, and cinnamon and nutmeg. I’ll say there is a trace of black pepper. I’ll say it’s dark and intense, well-rounded and thought-provoking. I’ll say if you eat steak or lamb, you might consider this as a pairing. I’ll say if you pair it with nothing you will also be more than okay.