London Surrenders! (To Carignan)

by | 7 Aug, 2010

The wines of the emerging Carignan Club made their first international appearance. Our wine editor, Eduardo Brethauer, conducted a seminar during the London International Wine Trade Fair that was attended by influential British critics. This is a summary report of that acclaimed presentation.

Confined to my tiny hotel room in South Kensington, finishing the final edits of my presentation, I debate whether I should include pictures of the February 27 earthquake. Matt Wilson had lent me some pictures he took at Sauzal. They are heart-shattering images, but beautiful. amid the ruins and debris of their adobe houses, these men and women stand in front of the camera with moving dignity and strength.

I finally chose to include the pictures.

Natural disasters are an inextricable part of the history of Carignan and dryland viticulture in the Maule region. All evidence points at the 1939 earthquake as the beginning of this passage. Epicenter: Quirihue, 50 Km from Cauquenes the destruction is staggering. Over 50 thousand feared dead. the administration of that time fosters development policies to spur an economy that is literally on the ground. The National Development Agency (CORFO), the Institute for Agricultural and Livestock Research (INIA), and Cooperativa Lomas de Cauquenes (COVICA) are established.

It is just then that the Ministry of Agriculture imports Carignan stocks to improve the earning potential of wine industry in the zone, as this variety is expected to boost the color and acidity of the exhausted País-based wines.

And the story repeats itself in 2010. Epicenter: Cobquecura, 85 kilometers from Cauquenes. It’s a lost case: inexorably, dryland vintners have lived on the edge. As if depending on rain and the brutal price fluctuations weren’t enough, nature takes it as a personal endeavor to remind them, from time to time, that they need to remain humble and always thank what mother earth gives them.

On the other hand, all the proceeds from this Master Class Seminar organized by the Circle of Wine Writers will go to charities for victims of natural disasters in Chile, Turkey, and Madeira. As expected, the participants wanted to hear about the aftermath of the earthquake and I believe it is important to show the world that regardless of the huge damage, where entire towns collapsed, including schools, hospitals and churches, the locals didn’t lose their faith, pulled themselves together, faced a long and complicated harvest and did their thing: they harvested those noble grapes that for centuries have supported the interior dryland household economy.

The London International Wine Trade Fair takes place at the Excel Exhibition Center, at the refurbished London’s Docklands, at least one hour ride from my hotel. I get lost in the underground. I must confess that the darkness and musty smell of London catacombs appeal to me. it’s like traveling back in time. Leaving behind a busy street like South Kensington, with beautiful, old buildings, restaurants and stores, I find myself on the bank of River Thames, at modern showgrounds opposite to huge jetties that watch a windy and sunny horizon.

The show is just getting started. Exhibitors are just finishing up their booths. Everybody is talking about Concha y Toro, the brand new sponsor of Manchester United. The news spreads as fast as wine spilled from those vats that collapsed in the earthquake. Everybody comments this new partnership. Will Sir Alex Ferguson, Manchester’s perpetual coach, favor Cabernet or why not, Carignan over Scotch? The previous night i mentioned this to the hotel bartender. He looked at me scornfully and said he was a Chelsea fan. Anyways, it doesn’t matter. The guy knew nothing about soccer, or wine, for that matter. He said he had never heard of Concha y Toro.

The show grows in activity slowly but surely. Although there are only around 30 Chilean wineries in the show, they manage to make a lot of noise with their workshops and tastings. It’s evident that the economic crisis took a toll of the relationship between the Chilean industry and the British trade sector. Our 

wineries found themselves literally between the devil and the deep blue sea. Prices plunged and many of them had to accept, grudgingly of course, new terms. It was that or being swept away from Chile’s largest market of destination for our wines.

Concha y Toro, for instance, features a monumental 2-floor stand that acts as the lighthouse in the Chilean pavilion. Still, rather than finding new business partners or strengthening their bonds with the British trade sector, they tell me that this show is the ideal venue for coordination meetings with their European importers. The London Wine Fair is a real party where one celebration follows the other. The large importers honor their guests and customers with rivers of wine. and you’ll agree with me that it’d be impolite to decline such invitations, right? Other Chileans, however, are less fortunate. One more time, they need to dip into their pockets to buy dinner to their more modest business partners at some trendy restaurant.

Yet, we also see wineries that are just getting started in the international trade arena to which this show is a major opportunity to promote their wines. Once such case is Lagar de Bezana. Naked Wines, one of the most innovative online sales company, features Aluvión Gran Reserva among the bottlings of 300 boutique wineries from all over the world. The wine is chosen by 30 site customers referred to as archangels who visit the stand over and over to taste the wines offered while winery representatives watch them totally amazed. The outcome? By the second day of the show, they had sold as many as 250 cases (£ 30,000). A resounding success, no doubt about it.


I’m at the auditorium of the Master Class Seminar well ahead of time. I want to make sure I’ll have no surprises with the PowerPoint presentation I saved in my pendrive and check the service temperature of the eight wines I chose for tasting. However, Wines of Chile UK director Michael Cox has everything under control. Not only had he made sure the samples would be in place in due time, but the bottles were already open and the temperature was optimal.

Following a sweet and brilliant presentation on Madeira wines by Charles Metcalfe, and another on the stunning wines from Turkey by Susan Hulme MW and Daniel O’Donnell, winemaker of Kayra Wines in the Anatolia region, it’s my

turn to speak about the wines of the Carignan Club. We had discussed these wines with Metcalfe the previous day during the Circle of Wine Writers meeting at Moët & Chandon premises. Holding a glass of Champagne, he had asked me then what the origin of these wines was.

– Although everything points at Aragón, where the variety is known as Cariñena, our stocks would have originated in France. This is why local producers, naturally with the exception of Miguel Torres, the Catalonian winery, use the French name Carignan rather than Cariñena on their labels– I replied.

During my presentation, I do my best to address the philosophy supporting these wines. I mention that they are terroir wines in all senses. These are wines originate in 60+ year-old head-trained, rainfed vines grown by modest vintners generation after generation, who address pruning as a sacred and unique ritual. Vineyard management is nearly 100% organic –just a couple of copper applications a year.    I also mention the character of these wines. I praise their aromatic character and their moving natural acidity. Origin, origin, origin, those three words fully explain the personality of the Carignan from the Maule rainfed areas.

– Why are wines from the Club required to have as much as 65% of Carignan? Questions start pouring in.

– Because we want them to be wines with a Carignan-based appellation. Thousands of century-old País vines may still be found in Chile that are nearly abandoned due to their low profitability. By leaving 35% for winemakers to freely choose another variety for the blend, as long as the grapes originate in 30+ year-old vines from Maule rainfed areas, we are fostering grafting of those ancient stocks that represent a wine heritage on their own. Grenache? Touriga Nacional? Why not? We thus offer a road towards making those devaluated lands more profitable and towards giving these vintners a break in their constant struggle against natural disasters and dismal grape prices.

– Eduardo, are you sure this is Carignan?– that the question I hear over and over.

– Absolutely.

Most of our audience –who recalls our historical Merlot-Carmenère and Sauvignon Vert-Sauvignon Blanc confusions, is flabbergasted with the quality and character of Maule’s Carignan. They simply can’t believe it is the very same variety that grows in so many world regions and more often than not produces ordinary, acidic, and bland wines.

This club that we helped establish and that is being enthusiastically fostered by the 2020 Chile Wine Cluster, already got its own set of wings and is starting to change the destiny of the battered producers of the Maule rainfed areas.

“This is a real Damascene conversion. I’ve spent most of my life disliking Carignan   –the work horse grape of the Languedoc–, and now I find myself bewitched by its Chilean incarnation. I’m told the grape is the same, but I can’t believe it…”, posted wine writer Fiona Beckett in her Food and Wine Finds blog after the tasting.

Carignan producers must be happy. Their best-kept treasure is slowly starting to unveil.



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