When carignan is not carignan

I read an interesting story earlier in the week by Max Allen in The Australian newspaper.  Max is a strong supporter of carignan and thinks it eminently suited for the hot and dry conditions faced in much of Australia.

In short, Max's story is this: Shadowfax winery in Werribee in western Melbourne (towards Geelong) grafted over some existing vines to what was thought to be carignan, which were sourced from century-old carignan vines in the Barossa Valley.  There had been some earlier doubts as to whether some of the old Barossa vines identified as carignan were in fact carignan, but instead the little known bonvedro.  Shadowfax had sourced its cuttings from the Yalumba Nursery, which had sourced the vines from the Smallfry vineyard in the Barossa Valley and another vineyard.  Recent DNA testing has now revealed that these old "carignan" vines from the Barossa are in fact mourvedre and bonvedro.  Specifically, Max observes that Shadowfax (and Smallfry)'s carignan is in fact mourvedre.  Apparently the vines don't look or behave much like it, which rather adds to the mystique.

One part of me admires that such a diverse mix of grape varieties was brought to Australia in the nineteenth century.  Another part of me wonders whether this was an entirely deliberate state of affairs.  And a third part wonders what else it out there.  That the vines may well be planted on their own roots, unlike most of Europe only adds to the possibilities ...

Bonvedro as a grape variety is Portugeuse in origin and also appears to be called Cuatendra in north eastern Spain.  In a world with many obscure grape varieties, bonvedro would appear truly obscure.  It's not a name I had heard before.  Jancis Robinson's The Oxford Companion to Wine does not even mention it.  Jancis' new tome devoted just to grape varieties, Wine Grapes, I expect will describe it, but as I am yet to fork out for a copy I will need to rely on a reader to add any more colour.  Mourvedre is of course much better known, and is also called mataro in Australia.

Interestingly, although not discussed in Max's article but given Shadowfax's proximity to Geelong, this triggered a memory that I had read somewhere of carignan and mataro being planted in the Geelong region in the nineteenth century.  Sure enough, a quick look through Ebenezer Ward's The Vineyards of Victoria as Visited by Ebenezer Ward in 1864, has various Geelong wineries listed with plantings of mataro, variously called esparte and mataro, and a listing of carignan.  Mourvedre generally buds and ripens even later than carignan, and thus requires a very warm climate or site.  Though whether those grape varieties are in fact as described is unknowable.

Here's an extract of Ebenezer's views on the mataro and carignan from The St. James' Vineyard in the Moorabool Valley outside of Geelong:


With such a long history why has carignan not apparently prospered here?  The Geelong region, and Werribee too, is actually not an amazingly warm part of the world.  I think I remember being told that the giraffes at the nearby Werribee zoo sleep under cover in winter...

Thinking about carignan more generally though, I will respectfully chart a slightly different course to Max.  There's certainly quite a bit of interest in the old vine examples I've tried and it can add character to Languedoc-Roussillon blends, but the following description in Jancis Robinson's The Oxford Companion to Wine is not easily ignored:

"Carignan ... [is] a late-ripening black grape variety which could fairly called the bane of the European wine industry, although old bush vines, as is there wont, are demonstrably capable of producing particularly concentrated wine.  Carignan, distinguished mainly be its disadvantages, has dug its roots into so much of the southern France ignoble that even the most generous of European Union bribes have had their work cut out to eradicate it ... 

Its wine is high in everything - acidity, tannins, colour, bitterness - but finesse and charm.  This gives it the double inconvenience of being unsuitable for early consumption yet unworthy of maturation.  The vine is not even particularly easy to grow.  It is extremely sensitive to powdery mildew, quite sensitive to downy mildew, prone to rot, and prey to infestation by grape warms.  Its diffusion has been extremely beneficial to the agrochemical industry ... 

There must have been some attribute which led to the almost exclusive dissemination of Carignan through the Midi in the 1950s and 1960s, and there was: yield.  The vine can quite easily be persuaded to produce almost 200 hl/ha (11 tons/acre), ideal for a thirsty but not discriminating market ..."

That carignan has seemingly been and gone in the region without much remark makes me think that perhaps it's not so sunbaked down here in southern Victoria.  Some might argue that carignan succeeds with the right custodians, but the same could be said for almost any other grape variety - and there are plenty of those.  Perhaps people historically just haven't liked carignan that much.

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3 comments:

  1. Bonvedro is indeed in Jancis's book Wine Grapes, but it is just a reference to the prime varietal name which is Parraletta. She describes Paraleta thus:

    Distinctive Somontano variety producing dark aromatic wines in several countries and under many different names."

    In Portugal it is known as Tinta Caiada (red whitewashed?)

    For an opposing view of the value of Carignan perhaps you should read http://www.carignans.com/carignanrenaissance.htm

    I vaguely remember that Jancis mellowed somewhat on views about carignan. Also in the New book carignan is listed under Mazuella. DNA profiling is rolling up some of these varieties that we once imagined were distinct.

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  2. Some interesting thoughts Sean. I'd agree that Carignan (and indeed Mourvèdre) seems ill suited to Geelong/Werribee and the planting of it seems to be more of a fad (how you can expect to grow Carignan in the same vineyard as Pinot and anticipate high quality from both is beyond me).

    Carignan in Priorat, however, can be absolutely magical. Though Priorat is definitely the exception...

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  3. Darby - thank you for the very helpful additional information and also the link to the Carignan site. I do admire the passion that the variety is capable of engendering. In the right hands and with heavily controlled yields, it can work. That said, in southern Victoria though I suspect that those hands might have their work cut out for them...

    Andrew - I agree there's a certain air of unlikeliness that goes with having these varieties together or nearby. Magical is most certainly worth a look; Priorat is on my approved list :)

    Cheers
    Sean

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