Crazy about Carignan

by | 15 Mar, 2010

Despised and even humiliated in France, Carignan has found a second home in Chile, where it can reinvent itself and produce high-end wines. Will it ever become a second spearhead for the Chilean wine industry? Unlikely though not totally impossible.

Until just a couple of years ago, nobody paid the slightest attention to this variety. The few patches of Carignan vines were practically left to their own devices, surrounded by languishing País vineyards. The variety’s acidity and arrogant southern notes were diluted in a wine mixture destined to the popular 5-liter chuicas and demijohns. It did carry out its mission of quenching thirst (and lifting spirits), but it was inevitably looked down upon as a rustic and overly acidic variety with no future whatsoever.

The almost 700 hectares still surviving in the Maule Valley (for the most part in Cauquenes) were spared from the uprooting craze mainly due to sentimental reasons (they constitute a family’s estate), traditional farmer stubbornness, or simply because producers lacked the resources to graft their plants or replace them with more lucrative crops.      

Today, however, Carignan is at the center of a boom (at least in the media). From being a mister nobody it rose to become a real treasure eagerly, even frantically, sought by some of the broad-shouldered wineries. “The French have always stuck up their noses at it, as if it were a second-class variety. They consider it sort of a bastard. That’s the word;” says Marcelo Retamal, winemaker of De Martino, who since 2006 bottles a Carignan named “El León”.

Seen from a distance, these woody head-trained vines look like spooky creatures, but they are literally fought over by winemakers who want to escape standardization or improve their blends by adding some nerve and freshness. Demand has pushed prices up from around CLP 100 per kilogram five years ago to over CLP 500 today.

“I can’t help but laugh,” says Arnaud Hereu, winemaker of Odfjell and one of the first to use Carignan in pricier lines, eventually making it his icon wine: Orzada. “Back when we started everybody asked us what we were doing and what for. This has no future, they said. Now they are all crazy about this variety,” he adds.

The rebirth of Carignan began towards the end of the 1990s, when winemaker Pablo Morandé, then wine manager of Concha y Toro, suggested the winery should do something with this variety, but his words went unheard. Once in his own winery, he pursued his plans and began looking for potentially good vineyards. Only a year passed until he bottled his first Carignan in 1997 under the label Aventura. In 2001 he used it in a superior line (currently Edición Limitada).

So once again Morandé had become a pioneer. But this time on a different front. This was no ordinary adventure, but a farther reaching one: the reunion with the lands of his forebears, the sweet aromas of his childhood, a simpler (and perhaps fuller) life, a past when all dreams could come true.  


The date of introduction of Carignan in Chilean vineyards is still uncertain and mysterious. Some winery labels claim that their vineyards are over 100 years old. But Pablo Morandé seems to know the truth: The variety came from France (and not from Spain as Cariñera) in the 1940s, when the Ministry of Agriculture gave an impulse to and supported the wine industry in the wake of the devastating earthquake of Chillán.

According to him, people like Pablo Joublan, a professor at Universidad de Chile and director of the Agricultural Research Institute INIA, endorsed the plantation of Carignan to improve the color and acidity of País grapes. Another important personality was Armando Dussaillant, the man who propagated the plant in the Curicó Valley for the Hualañé Cooperative, where Morandé did his internship. The variety was also planted in Rauco, near the Las Pitras crossing, but results were not satisfactory. “I dare anyone to prove that their Carignan is 100 years old. Those who like to tell stories can do so elsewhere. Their tales are just hogwash!” he bangs the table.

He also recalls the long talks that his grandfathers Jorge and Arturo used to have by a crackling fire, in which they discussed whether they should plant this miserable bastard or not. “Lowland Carignan will ruin the prestige of the good País from Cauquenes,” his grandfather Jorge used to say. Back then the variety known as French or Bordeaux was produced (a blend of Cot Rouge, Cabernet Sauvignon and País) together with the so-called Terciopelo (80% País and the rest Cot). “Now, where the prestige of those wines came from I don’t know,” says Morandé. “Perhaps my cousin Arturo will remember.”

Arturo Lavín, a researcher at INIA’s Experimental Station in Cauquenes, says his cousin must be losing his marbles. “He is recalling strange things. The old folks did not have those conversations,” he laughs. “If my memory does not fail me, back in the days when the Ministry of Agriculture had a Department of Enology, farmers made a yeast collection that was later exchanged for an ampelographic collection grown in Argentina. Carignan must have come in that lot,” he explains.

In fact not only Carignan, but many other varieties such as Touriga Nacional, Garnacha, Leopoldo III, Petite Syrah, Portugais Bleu, Sangiovese and many others that helped set up a valuable orchard in Cauquenes. Unfortunately, years later a director of INIA whose name we will not reveal here ordered their destruction. “He was an imbecile,” says Morandé bluntly. “It was very unfortunate,” adds Lavín. The truth is that in those days Carignan vines abounded in Maule, but in the 1980s most of them were grafted with Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. In Curicó they were replaced by more profitable fruit species (the agrarian reform and the crisis of the 1980s took their toll on the old Chilean vineyards).

Lavín confirms that Joublan, who even lived in the Experimental Station, was one of the great defenders and propagators of Carignan. “I remember that he convinced my uncle Ramón Acevedo, the owner of the La Estrella ranch, to plant this variety to help mask the lack of acidity of País grapes. And that was towards the early 1950s, not before,” he points out.

This is confirmed by Manuel Rojas in his Treatise on Viticulture and Vinification of 1897. In it, Rojas describes Carignan (or Cariñera as he calls it) as “a late bud breaker that does not suffer with Spring frosts. It is very fertile and produces a deep-colored, spirituous and long-lasting wine… I am not sure we grow it in Chile.”

But for Hereu things are not so clear cut. The parents of the parents of those who prune his vineyards today used to say that Cauquenes Carignans “must be like a hundred years old.” “At least that is what the old folks say. Probably the variety was already in the country without their even knowing it, just like Carmenère. In Chile you find truly unique things and nobody knows they are here. For example, in a garden someone found the only twin-engined Citroen 2CV that ran in the Paris-Dakar rally. How did it get here? No one knows. Here you can find the most incredible things,” he affirms. “So why not a Carignan aged 100 years or more?”


What is so special about this variety that puts it at the center of debate? What is it that makes everybody crazy about it? We will not try to explain it here. Morandé can do that for us: “It has a fantastic color and a wonderful pH of 3.2 after the malolactic fermentation. Endless youth, with aromas of sour or wild cherries and liquor-filled chocolate. As the wine ages we perceive notes of molasses and boldo tree. It is like a mounted knight in an iron armor. With great character. As it enters the mouth, its beautiful concentration of tannins gives it an imposing stature, but in actuality this is a tough country guy, not a nobleman issued from some medieval court.”

In his opinion Carignan is not a wine to be served with sophisticated dishes, but with turkey, wild hare, lamb and other country recipes. “And I simply love that. It takes me back to where I grew up, my memories, my childhood. Maybe I’m more effusive than the rest. Some people just don’t understand it,” he concludes.

Marcelo Retamal understands it. He believes this variety is not meant to deliver complexity or elegance, even if it is harvested early on. It is genetically powerful, so any attempts at making a delicate wine from it will go against its nature. Carignan’s main attribute is that, even though its wines can easily exceed 14º of alcohol (let us not forget that we are in torrid Cauquenes country) with unusually low pH readings, which helps retain the wine’s spark and acidity.

Pablo Morandé explains that in this area ripeness arrive so quickly that there is no time for acid degradation. Another reason is the age of the grapevines and the balance they have achieved after decades growing in the interior dryfarmed lands. “In San Javier, for example, we harvest our old vines towards the middle of March. My new plantations, on the other hand, are harvested in mid April, which is a whole month later,” he affirms.

Unlike the other varieties grown in Chile, whose main problem is precisely their lack of natural acidity, Carignan’s acidity may at some point become a problem. Retamal says that vintners normally wait for acidity to fall a bit before harvesting. “That is the price I have to pay, but only until a certain extent. If the wine has a pH under 3, then it becomes sour as lemon juice.”

According to Arnaud Hereu, Carignan is an incredible companion to boost red blends; not only does it contribute acidity and tannins, but it also helps clean the nose. And it works very well with Carmenère. Even with just 3%, the wine acquires a different aroma and somehow conceals Carmenère’s green edges.

Although these winemakers clearly distinguish between highland and lowland Carignan (the latter should never be allowed to leave the demijohns), it is also possible to get different characters depending on where it is grown. Even though it likes hot weather and is willing to suffer to the extreme in the poor slope soils, it may also feel at ease in areas a bit closer to the coast. Retamal  has vinified grapes grown in Name, and the style obtained is totally different. “I can’t say whether it is good or bad. But it is not very full bodied. Compared to it, El León is like Dolly Parton,” he laughs.


During his visit to Priorato in 2003 when he and some colleagues attended the scorching and unbearable Vinexpo held that year, Retamal realized that Carignan could be worth its weight in gold. Together with viticulturist Renán Cancino, who knows Cauquenes and the surrounding area like the palm of his hand, they found the right vineyards to craft a powerful, fresh and unique wine. He recalls asking a prominent trader to taste it as part of an extended flight of reds.

“Did you like this wine?” Retamal asked him. “Maybe, but I’m not going to buy one single bottle,” the trader replied. The same happened the following year, and the next. Everything changed when he invited him the visit the vineyard. As soon as he caught a glimpse of those old grapevines that survive in this sort of Chilean Far West, he convinced himself that the wine was not only good, but a true jewel.

“Prejudice is a hard habit to break. Just adding the name Carignan to the label is a risky move,” Retamal explains. “Trying to sell this variety to the world is not easy. Most wine merchants have been trained in the French school, and they have always heard that this is a bastard variety. In Priorato, for instance, they do not call it Carignan. They sell it as an old Spanish vineyard blend.”

Morandé does not seem to agree completely. He says that once you deal with the trade expert selling the wine is a breeze. “Everyone applauds it. They say: ‘A different wine at last!’ Surprisingly, they are very open-minded. Whenever they come across something good, they say it. But in Chile things work differently. Going from a pH 4 to a pH 2 is a world of a difference. Let us not forget that the world has been Parkerized for fullbodied, smooth and sweet wines. Ordinary consumers have not been programmed to accept such an acidic wine,” he states.

Larger producers like Concha y Toro have a great specific weight that prevents them from making risky bets or introducing abrupt changes, but now they are looking at Carignan with different eyes. CYT will soon release a line named Canepa that features this variety. For his part, Aurelio Montes has announced he will plant Carignan in Apalta, the birthplace of his finest wines. But we can’t help but wonder if this boom is really justified. When and where will the enthusiastic response end?

Marcelo Retamal believes this variety has a beginning and an end. It is certainly very limited. “Existing Carignan is more than enough. We need to change strategies and start a new appellation with the vines we already have that uses Carignan as its base. We must look for one or more additional components in the same area. This is a variety that requires company, just like Touriga Nacional or Garnacha,” he says.

“What about País?” I ask innocently. “By no means. That is a big no-no. Genetically speaking, País is just %&$#. We need to add varieties that make an actual contribution,” is his blunt and final remark.

Andrés Sánchez, winemaker of Gillmore and a real expert in dryfarmed plantations has a firm opinion. Of the 700 hectares currently planted, just 50 or so are good quality. And that is the whole truth. Some companies are thinking of Carignan, but a good wine needs to be interpreted, living each stage in the vineyard, watching the fruit set and develop its aromas.

“How can you interpret something if you buy your fruit all over the country? How can you interpret that this season you will need to harvest a month ahead of the usual? Surely Carignan will add quality to ordinary wines, but producing a wine brimming with character is a totally different matter,” he explains. “Let us not forget that 97% of wineries follow a model focused on mass-produced wines where there is no room for new stuff like new varieties or new labels every year.”

According to Arnaud Hereu, who is developing a personal project that will combine Syrah, Malbec and Carignan, in Chile the notion of terroir is not well applied, as it does not consider man and the way he interacts with the land. If you plant a Cabernet Sauvignon in the Central Valley and train it with a VSP system, in 10 years time you can produce a super wine. But Carignan is a different story. He has tried with 30 year-old Carignan but it simply does not work. “The man in charge of the vineyard throws in a bag of sulfur twice a year. He never irrigates. And that way of managing the vineyard must be respected. That terroir needs to be respected,” he explains.

For Sánchez, the greatest rewards come from things that are hard to get. “Maybe Cabernet Sauvignon will not make you feel that way because it just grows well anywhere you want to plant it. But in general the wines are very plain. Its identity is not bolstered. It will be a lot of years before markets begin to recognize our Carignan. That is our goal for the next 50 years,” he says.

And then he asks: “What is the common denominator for the great wines of the world?” And he answers: “Four requisites: They are tied to a specific place; they come from at least 60 year-old plants; they are planted in rainfed areas; and they need to be interpreted by man. If they meet these requirements, as I believe our Carignan does, you can make a wine that makes you cry.

– Out of helplessness?

– No, out of joy.





Born from a Cauquenes-based cooperative, the wine dresses in an off-cherry red robe with violet edges that seem to be losing their brilliance. The nose presents notes of peach, blackberries, cherries, violets and moist earth. Very ripe, liquorous fruit. A medium body with rather coarse tannins and generous acidity. A real super welter.


 Produced in Codao, Peumo, this is the northernmost Carignan of this group. Deep and bright ruby red color. The nose is still dominated by the barrel. Notes of coffee beans, dried fruits, coconut and nutmeg against a berry and floral background. In the mouth, the still drying tannins are accompanied by very sweet wood notes. The good acidity helps to balance things out.


Produced in Loncomilla, this wine boasts a deep, almost inextricable black cherry color. Very fruity, young and impetuous. Notes of sour cherries, peaches, wild berries and graphite. Good racy structure, right on the verge of becoming too acidic. Fortunately, the powerful fruit component holds the reins.


A Maule-born Carignan featuring a deep cherry color with garnet edges. The nose is gentle, almost hiding, as if the wine were in a stalking position ready for attack. A sudden breeze loaded with violets and wild berries fills the senses. The mouth displays firm acidity, making the wine slide past the palate in full grace and agility, like a cheetah chasing its prey.


This Carignan has a twin brother that was not organically grown. Despite sharing the same parents, the differences are subtle yet totally obvious. The fruit component of the organic twin is more evident, straightforward and expressive. After the bitter chocolate and coconut notes contributed by the barrel, the wine displays festive black cherries and peaches surrounded by a hint of leather. Very fresh and well restrained acidity. Nicely balanced throughout.


This Loncomilla-born Carignan has a deep dark red color with ruby red edges that clearly set it apart from its cohorts. The nose is fresh with notes of herbs, camphor and native vegetation, against a wild and rustic landscape. Notes of cherries and blackberries. The mouth also conveys this fresh character, combining it with generous acidity and a very concentrated truckload of native fruits.


Dressed in a deep, bright and intense robe, this Loncomilla-born Carignan offers fine and frontal wood aromas. The wine then opens up to a parade of liquorous sour cherries and slight camphor nuances that splash the fruit component with freshness. A well-structured, firm and impetuous wine. The weighty fruit prolongs the mouth sensations, leaving a persistent memory.


Labeled as Central Valley, Cordillera is not 100% Carignan, as it is complemented with Syrah and Merlot. Bright, very fine and concentrated color. It greets the nose with a nice serrano ham hint that later evolves into violets and dark berries. Solid structure, with some restless tannins that still need to hush down.


This Maule-born Carignan presents a dark ruby color, with some dusty notes. A classic blend of Carignan with small quantities of Mourvèdre and Syrah. The nose is very outspoken, sweet and seducing. Raspberries, wild blackberries and fresh, very subtle leather notes. Sweet on the attack, the wine is rich and full, with a nice racy structure.




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